The following is the text of a homily preached by Fr Martin Convey, Parish Priest of Straide Parish, at an Ecumenical Service marking Christian Unity Week. This annual Service of Prayer took place in Attymass Parish Church on Monday, January 18th. In attendance were the Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, Most Rev Patrick Rooke, Bishop Brendan Kelly, Bishop of Achonry, members of Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian clergy and a sizeable congregation from the parishes and religious communities in the area. The choir of the Father Peyton Cluster led the gathered in song and the theme of the evening was “Called To Proclaim the Mighty Acts of the Lord” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
For those of you who may not be aware, the traditional period set aside each year as a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from January 18th to January 25th. It begins with the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter on January 18th and ends with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25th.
Each year, sandwiched between the two feast days of those two giants of the Christian faith, the Christian Churches celebrate this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The tradition of doing so goes back to 1908.
First and foremost, I’d like to thank my colleague Fr. Mulligan for inviting me to preach this evening. I am, indeed, honoured – if not rather overwhelmed.
I am reminded of an event documented by the political commentator and satirist Matthew Parris. He tells the story of Dr. Edward King who, in 1885, was installed as bishop of the diocese of Lincoln. On the day of his installation the newly ordained bishop was overwhelmed when he was advised, by a senior cleric, that the clergy in his new diocese could be divided into three categories: those who were about to go out of their minds; those who had already gone out of their minds; and those who simply had no minds to go out of!
Right now I can fully sympathise with the poor unfortunate clergy of Lincoln who had lost their minds. I can do so because the scripture texts provided for this year’s Christian Unity Week are so deep and so rich in meaning that they are, indeed, rather overwhelming.
- The invitation of Isaiah to drink from the Well of Salvation, to listen and to eat what is good.
- Next we have that beautiful Psalm of Blessing (Psalm 145).
- Then there is the sheer poetry of the First Letter of St. Peter – a text which reminds us that, as Christians, we are God’s very own people
- Our Gospel is taken from Matthew 5 – one of the most famous texts in existence.
The specific theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is Called to Proclaim the Mighty acts of the Lord and is taken from 1 Peter 2:9. That one theme, alone, is sufficient to exhaust the minds of even the most diligent theologians and biblical scholars. It is a theme that is usually linked to Christ’s exhortation to be the Salt of the Earth as well as to be the Light of the World as found in St. Matthew’s Gospel.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the American Comic Strip Peanuts from a few years back. One instalment of it had a conversation taking place between two feisty characters. Peppermint Patty was talking to Charlie Brown. She said “Guess what, Charlie. My very first day at school and I got sent to the principal’s office. And it was all your fault!”
“My fault? How could it have been my fault?” asked a bewildered Charlie Brown. “Why do you always say everything is my fault?” But Patty was very quick to respond “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Charlie? Well, you should have been a better influence on me!”
While, undoubtedly, Patty was trying to pass the buck for her own misdemeanours she was, in a very real sense, quite right. As Christians, we do have a responsibility to be a good influence on our friends and on our fellow citizens. Sometimes, in certain situations, we may need to step back and ask the difficult question – just why our influence is so very weak?
This evening I’d like to confine my thoughts and observations to the theme of Christians being the Salt of the Earth. That description is, of course, taken from the most famous sermon ever preached (The Sermon on the Mount) – preached by the Lord Himself. The theme of that great Sermon of Sermons is how Christ’s followers (or, as St. Matthew calls them, the People of the Kingdom of Heaven) are expected to live their own lives and influence the lives of others.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares emphatically that those who profess to be his disciples should affect the world in a positive way. They are to achieve this by the manner in which they live their lives.
He tells them “You are the salt of the earth” and immediately adds the cautionary remark “If salt loses its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is then good for nothing – but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13-14)
Unlike the Parable of the Sower (in chapter thirteen), where he tells us exactly what he wants us to understand, Jesus gives us no explicit explanation of his description of Christians as being Salt of the Earth. We are simply left to our own devices to come to an understanding of this image, and we must do so on the basis of our own experiences in the world around us.
So, what is it about salt that makes it a wonderful analogy for the true follower of Christ? Salt is, in fact, mentioned many times in both the Old and New Testament.
In the Old Testament
- in the Book of Leviticus – it is a symbol of a binding covenant (Lev. 2:13)
- in the Second Book of Kings it is a healing and cleansing aid (2 Kings 2:20-21)
- in the Book of Job it is a stimulant to the appetite (Job 6:6)
In the New Testament
- in St. Luke’s Gospel it is a preventive of decay (Luke 14:34)
- in St. Mark’s Gospel it is a promoter of peace (Mark 9:50)
- in the Letter to the Colossians it is nothing other than evidence of God’s Grace (Col. 4:6)
Thus, the theme is by no means new, as it is firmly rooted in Scripture. So, what exactly are some of the challenges and implications for a Christian to be Salt of the Earth in today’s twenty first century Ireland?
(1) I think the first implication of Christians being salt of the earth is that we should realise just how highly valued we are by Christ. In ancient times salt was an absolute necessity of life. Great value was attached to it. It was so important that it was sometimes used for money. Roman soldiers, at the time of Jesus, were often paid with salt. In fact, the word “salary” comes from the Latin word salarium – a word which referred to this payment given to the soldiers by way of salt. We even still, to this day, use the word – saying that someone is “worth their salt” or not.
In telling his disciples “You are the salt of the earth” Christ likens his handful of rough and ready uneducated followers to one of the most precious commodities of his day. What great dignity the Lord bestowed on his followers by doing so. What a great compliment that extends down through the ages to ourselves in the present age!
Today, of course, we don’t think too much about salt – because we can get as much of it as we want in pure form. But when you are completely dependent on the substance to preserve your food, and when it is so valuable that it is used in the place of money, you get a completely different understanding of salt. For this reason salt is indispensable. It follows, then, that Christians, like salt, are to be of infinite value to this world.
Throughout the period of the Roman Empire when Christians were persecuted, Christian Apologists pleaded for tolerance – arguing that civilised society continued to exist because of Christians. What they were saying, in essence, was that Christians upheld the good values so cherished by the state – they worked for reconciliation and peace and they prayed for the empire and its well-being.
Perhaps one of our greatest challenges in twenty first century Ireland is to convince the State that Christianity still plays an invaluable role in Irish Society today – in bridge building, in bringing about peace and reconciliation and in contributing to the well-being of society as a whole.
(2) A second implication of Christians being salt of the earth is that Christ expects His followers to have a Purifying and Preserving effect on the world.
Salt is the oldest of all known preservatives. The ancient Greeks went so far as to say that salt could put a new soul into dead things. Without salt everything rotted and went bad. Salt, however, preserves food from decay. As salt of earth, we are called to preserve the faith which we have received and to pass it on intact to others.
This challenge (to preserve and keep safe the faith and values we have received) is, perhaps, just as difficult for our generation today as it was during the early centuries of Roman persecution. Many factors in contemporary Irish society make it difficult for the Christian message to be heard and embraced: affluence, individualism, indifference, materialism, the ever changing and transient nature of society’s values. The list is quite endless.
But the Christian is expected to act as a preserving and purifying force directed against all influences which seek to undermine or dampen Gospel values.
Now that Christmas is all but a distant memory one thought, in particular, comes to mind. As preserving and purifying salt, we could do worse than to look back and ask do we, as Christians, perhaps now need to reclaim the true meaning of that and other Christian Feasts? Do we now need to claim them back from ever-increasing (and often suffocating) secular influences which seek to distort and manipulate the message to the benefit of their own material needs and desires?
This is just one of many examples where Christians, as salt of the earth, may need to do battle with society to preserve their value system.
(3) A third implication of Christians being salt of the earth is that Christians, like salt, are to promote a thirst or a longing for Christ in the world.
We all know what happens when we eat a meal that has too much salt in it. We become thirsty and we crave water to quench the effects of the salt. Christians are expected to create a thirst in people’s lives – one that can only be satisfied by Christ Himself.
In St. John’s Gospel Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” (John 7:37). Christians, then, are to make Christ attractive and desirable. Unbelievers (and lapsed Christians) should see evidence of the difference that Christ makes in our lives. They should be able to look at Christians and say “I don’t know what they have but I certainly want it also!” So, we are expected to make other people thirsty in search of what we have – thirsty for our God and thirsty for the peace, the joy and the blessings we have.
Pope Francis tells us that humanity is deeply wounded but does not seek a cure for its illness. It doesn’t seek a cure, either because it doesn’t believe there is a cure to be had to heal its wounds or it is not aware of being wounded in the first instance. The Pope expects us to reach out and make known to the world what he calls the maternal side of the Church. We are to do so through compassion and mercy (Cf. Pope Francis The Name of God is Mercy).
We know that no tired, sick or wounded individual would ever cast off the loving embrace of a mother. For the Christian, then, his or her true task is to create that thirst for Christ in others.
But, before we can do that, we, too, must thirst.
(4) Another implication of Christians being salt of the earth is that, like salt, we are to clear and make safe all frozen pathways.
Social commentators tell us that one of the greatest difficulties in the modern world is a lack of trust. Individuals and communities have become more and more isolated and cut off from one another. This comes about more usually through fear and ignorance (on the part of the wider community) than from a desire (on the part of the individual or minority) to remain isolated.
Christian witness can have the effect of warming hearts that have hardened to Gospel Values and, over time, the saltiness of the Christian can restore trust, break down barriers and make safe a pathway that can lead people to Christ.
Recent Church scandals (and other issues) have left many pathways to Christ impassable for a very significant number of people in Ireland today. The task of the Christian, who is the salt of the earth, is to reopen frozen and closed pathways in order to lead people back to Christ.
(5) A final (but, perhaps, most important) implication of Christians being salt of the earth is that Christians, like salt, must be constantly engaged with the world in order to be influential and effective.
Salt operates by interacting with the object it sets out to change. Salt cannot improve the taste of food unless it goes into it and changes it from within. Sometimes, the Christian is tempted to think that an appropriate way to engage with the world is to actually keep away from it in order to avoid interacting with a society and a popular culture which is often perceived as being anti-Christian.
However, by shying away from the reality of our society and our world as they are (be that reality good, bad or indifferent) we run the risk of hiding our saltiness and its ability to change that which it comes in contact with. Salt never does any good when it is sitting on a shelf and the meat is somewhere else. To be effective, the salt must be rubbed into the meat.
In a similar way, Christians are to allow God to use them wherever he has placed them. Their task is to engage with the world (and do battle with it when necessary) rather than shy away from it. Whenever the Christian Churches become mere salt warehouses they have missed out on the valuable lesson that salt must make contact in order to have an effect.
(6) And then there is the cautionary implication of Christians being salt of the earth. We are reminded that Christians, like salt, can lose their usefulness. (v. 13b)
Jesus says that if salt loses its flavour “… It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by people” (v. 13b). Technically speaking, of course, salt cannot lose its saltiness. Sodium chloride (to give it its scientific name) is a very stable chemical compound. But, in the part of the world where Jesus lived, salt was collected from around the Dead Sea where the crystals were often contaminated with other minerals. These crystallized formations were full of impurities. And, since the actual salt was more soluble than the impurities, the rain often washed out all the salt.
This resulted in what was left behind being of little worth, since it had lost its saltiness. When this happened, the salt was thrown away as it was now, effectively, useless. When the salt was leached out, what remained still looked like salt but it had lost its taste and all of its unique salty properties.
Something similar can easily happen to the Christian. The salt-like goodness can be leached out of a Christian by the constant ebb and flow of the world’s values through their lives. Maybe it was this concept of leached-out Christians that Mahatma Gandhi had in mind when he was once asked by a group of Christian missionaries “What is the greatest hindrance to Christianity in India?” Ghandi’s response was very short, but very emphatic. “Christians, themselves” he replied.
Conclusion Our task then, as Christians who are the salt of the earth, is to be the salt of society: preserving, reconciling, adding taste, giving meaning where there is no meaning and giving hope where there is no hope.
To be salt, we don’t have to be spectacular. To be salt, we don’t have to be sensational. To be salt, we don’t even have to be successful (at least not by the world’s standards). To be salt, we merely have to influence our own little corner of the world – wherever we find ourselves.