The church and the world
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
2 Corinthians 2:14–17
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
We had some friends over and were talking about cultural decline this week, and what the impact of the church is on this. This is a complicated business. In general American church culture there has been this tug of war between cultural renewal and a reticence to invest in our culture. Herein lies a problem: what is a culture? Is there or has there ever been a monolithic culture? Within the city of Minneapolis? Within America? Certainly in Minneapolis, there have always been factions of cultures trying to get their way like every other place in the world. While currently more Somalis and Hispanics live in south Minneapolis, it once was a predominantly Scandanavian part of town. And our corner of the city is still quite eastern European. We Andersens found our way to Northeast along with Ecuadorians, Tibetans, and other immigrant communities. What is ‘culture’ in such a context? To talk about decline or renewal of a culture, we have to be able to define a monolithic-ish cultural movement. I think there are only shadows of such things, but they are not easily discerned.
What is perhaps easier to define is the government. What is the government through its many agencies and laws accomplishing and are its judgments and actions true and good and beautiful or are its judgments and actions unjust, untrue, bad, and ugly?
Of any one group, however, I would hope that there is a stronger tie across the board with confessing Christians than any other subgroup in our society. Certainly, our individual church culture is different than Grafted’s for example, though we share a common Spirit, a common confession, and a common message that we proclaim. And so the question that comes up is, ‘What does it mean to be salt and light?’ and ‘What are the effects of our being salt and light?’ In the context of the passage in Matthew, it seems to be that others would see our light and taste our saltiness and give glory to God. The work of the church is a work that aims to invite the world to give glory to God.
This brings us to perhaps the next question, ‘Will our invitation be received?’ I think Paul is helpful here in 2 Corinthians. The message of the gospel, that salt, and we ourselves ‘are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’ To some, our witness is the aroma of death. In other words, it is repulsive and rejected. To others it is a fragrance from life to life. There is not a guarantee that half of everyone will be in each category. Instead, these are general categories to understand our experience. And if we were to look back at history, there have been times where God has moved extraordinarily, and other times when it seems like God has been absent. The Persian church of the 300’s and 400’s probably had hoped it would make known the glory of God, but the church was massacred at a level unseen since. In the Roman Empire, however, Tertullian mentioned that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. In fact this is not a truth that can be argued historically across the whole world. It seems to have been true however in North Africa. Sometimes the blood of the martyrs is simply waiting for the vengeance of God, but if they died in faith, they will have received their reward. In both Rome and Persia though, we can say that the church was salt and light, that is, it was faithful to its calling. What did it accomplish? In both cases, we hear mention of people repenting and believing and being added to the church.
The world is not like it is supposed to be. Ami noticed something this week in the book of Jeremiah that she mentioned to me. Although these words are to the exiles from Israel, I think we can consider them for ourselves. Jeremiah was speaking to the Judahites in exile and we also live as exiles awaiting our the return to our homeland. Notice how he phrases it: Jeremiah says, ‘seek the welfare of the city.’ But the call isn’t to change the city, or to transform the city. It is to pray for the city (that you’re going to be forcibly removed to) because in its welfare, you will find welfare. The point isn’t about the people of Israel transforming Babylon, it was about preserving Israel for God’s purposes, and that preservation would happen through the preservation of Babylon (for a time). We too can pray along similar lines. We can pray for the welfare of our city. We have to admit that we don’t know how to solve the problems in our city during this intermediary time. We know things will not be fully made right on this side of the second coming, we pray humbly, but we can and ought to pray for the welfare of our city. And perhaps this coordinates with Peter’s instruction to honor the emperor or Paul’s reminder that the government (however corrupt and wicked) is entrusted with the sword of judgment. Odd as it felt to wear a mask in Minneapolis starting in May because of the order, we can seek to honor the emperor in this small thing as we are able. And we could go on. So long as we do not compromise the essentials of our faith laid out in Scripture, we will seek to honor the emperor, pay our taxes to whom taxes are due, and seek to speak the words of life to the world that is passing away. And in so doing we are seeking the welfare of the city. This gets more difficult to know how best to do when we can also have influence on political regimes and laws in our republic, but the principle stands. Finally, each of us have opportunities in our vocations to seek the welfare of our cities, as we serve our neighbors with our daily work.
At the end of the day, our being salt and light in the world is an issue of God’s glory. With all of the different allegiances pulling us in every direction (maybe private Facebook groups or the protests some have participated in), we must ask how do these, my lesser allegiances, affect my being salt and light and how does it affect my work in pointing others to Christ? Am I using my conviction about medicine or child-rearing or food or politics so that I might save some? May we make ourselves become all things to all people, that by all means we might save some. We must take care to remember that our citizenship is in heaven, and whatever allegiances we have here on earth will grow pale and dim in the light of His glory and our participation in that glory. Although we won’t lose ourselves in heaven, we might nearly forget ourselves as we are caught up in His glory. May we not miss this in our here and now.