Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: The vocation and task of the church

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July 6, 2012 by jmar198013

[5.13-16: The church’s vocation and task] “You are the salt that flavors the world and preserves it. But if the salt is tainted or diluted, what’s it good for? Perhaps you could salt an icy road with it, but then it will be run over and walked on. You are also the light in this dim world, a city that can’t be hidden because it’s been built on a hill. No one lights a lamp and then hides it under a bucket. They set it up so that its light can fill the whole room. Just like that, let your light shine for others so that they can see the good you’re doing and honor your Father in heaven.”

In Matt. 5.1-2, Jesus begins the process of forming the church by gathering his disciples around him to teach them in front of the crowds. This is an image of who the church is: the community gathered around Jesus who will heed his words before the eyes of the world. In Matt. 5.3-12, commonly known as “the Beatitudes,” Jesus greets the people he has gathered to himself with a series of blessings. These blessings name the sorts of people Jesus has called into community. The Beatitudes are not special virtues; rather, they are values. They teach us to value the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for doing good, because God honors them. Only a people capable of honoring such as the Beatitudes name are capable of being the church.

Jesus moves on in Matt. 5.13-16 to describe the vocation and name the task of the church. He looks to these Beatitude people he has gathered to himself and tells them, “You”–that “you” encompasses these poor, mournful, meek, hungry, merciful, simple, peacemaking, mistreated people–“you are the salt of the earth, the light for the world, the city on a hill that can’t be hidden.” This is a profound revaluation of the folks named in the Beatitudes. The people Jesus has pulled from the margins (for to be the world, rather than the church, is to be those who would push such as the Beatitudes name to the margins in the first place) are being told that they are at the center of God’s plans. That though they have been invisible in the world, ignored and neglected, they are to be God’s city on a hill. That God would entrust such a vocation as being his city, his community, to such frail and forgettable people as the Beatitudes name should be a point of celebration for the church, but never of gloating. This is, in fact, precisely why God entrusts a vocation as visible as being the church to such people. Consider the word God spoke to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9). That the vocation of being salt and light for the world, and God’s city, is given to those described in the Beatitudes means that the blessings imparted by the Beatitudes are grace given by God to enable them for their vocation. It is his grace that will make good their defects, that will perfect the work they undertake in the name of their vocation.

The Beatitude people, graciously given a vocation by God as salt and light for the world, and as his visible city, are then charged with a task: “let your light shine for others so that they can see the good you’re doing and honor your Father in heaven.” This teaches God’s people that his grace is never an end but a means. God is electing a people for himself in this community formed around Jesus, but God’s election has never been for the sake of the elect. Recall what God said to Abraham: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12.2,3). Or what he says to Israel in Isa. 49.6: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” It is the same with the church: we are to be a blessing to the world, so that they may see our good works and glorify not us, but God. God’s election has always been been vocational, and his grace has always been a means to enable his people for the task their vocation entails.

The bulk of what follows in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5.21-7.12) is describing what being salt and light and God’s city looks like, and naming the works of the church that bring honor to God. But first, Jesus will pause to remind the church-in-formation that though he is establishing a new order, it is not to be done by tearing down the old. The church is not a lawless people, and we are not a people that disregards history. In Matt. 5.17-20, Jesus will stress the radical continuity between the church and God’s people Israel.

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