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A Visible City (sermon)

February 5, 2011

Matt 5: 13-20, 1 Cor 2: 1-16, Isa 58: 1-12

Why do you think Jesus is said to have chosen 12 disciples? Why 12? What does the number 12 represent … For Jews (like Jesus) it is the number of the people of God…remember the 12 tribes of Israel. As modern people we imagine Jesus going around finding individuals to teach and to convert to his message. But for a Jew God does not just pass on ideas to individuals… but something much more significant. God calls a people together. People exist in community. Faith exists in community. The purposes of God are the calling out of a people for the nations, not just a collection of individuals, a people. Jesus was no different. His signal is clear. The 12 represent the people of God. Where Israel was failing to be the people of God Jesus was gathering and teaching his followers to be the people of God… to be the vanguard of God’s kingdom.

“You,” he said, you disciples, “are the salt of the earth. If salt has lost its saltiness, how can its saltiness be restored?” It may be a rhetorical question, but we can’t forget that Jesus was at that moment training them in saltiness and the restoration of saltiness to Israel. To be the people of God matters. If they don’t they are a waste of space. Salt that loses its saltiness is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You,” he says, you disciples, “are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” I find this message deeply sobering. Deeply disturbing … Inasmuch as we, who are called to be the people of God are hidden and largely invisible, we are waste of space.

We exist in order to address the world. If we are invisible and so do not address the world we might as well give up and go home.

But what do we say to the world? In what way are we meant to be visible? What should we look like? Our other two readings address this issue for us.

Paul says to the Corinthians…vs 6 “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden”. What we make visible is something that is otherwise hidden to the world, it is incomprehensible according to the way the world works… Strange! New!. And it is so, because what happened with Jesus was the overthrowing of the world. It was not just a nice man teaching people to be nicer…. In raising Jesus God was overthrowing the world’s sense of what is powerful, overthrowing the wisdom of the world. The world says that history is run by those who have the biggest armies and are the best organised, with the smartest technologies. That is common sense. The cross of Christ says that history will be determined finally by those who know and share the power of God to give themselves away to others in love. It’s foolishness. And it’s still foolishness – this power of love. Sure in our culture we celebrate romantic love, which often becomes really a celebration of getting what you really really want, above all else… the one you ‘love’. The Jesus revolution says that love, the love of God, the love that finally will determine history, is not getting what you want but giving. And not just giving what is spare, extra, but giving yourself. …

In a political and social sense that’s what we are called to demonstrate. That’s the city set on a hill. God’s politics.

Isaiah 500 years earlier is disturbed about the people of God. They fast, they pray but they are not a light to the world.

Look, [he says], you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers … Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then… says Isaiah… your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.

Isaiah speaks to the whole people of God about their life together as a shining light to the nations. In some ways that’s why it’s so hard for us to understand what it means for us to respond to this challenge. We have been hidden. Hidden in the crevasses of something called Christendom for so long we no longer know what it means to let our common light shine. We have become individuals hidden in another system. We turn up at church and the only thing the world sees is cars parked outside a building one hour a week. Otherwise we are invisible. For the rest of the week we are invisible.

We need a bit of a sense of history to understand this. For the first 300 years of the church it was not so. What was clear to them was that history had been interrupted and was being changed by Jesus. What’s more Jesus was a scandal… public as his life and death was, it was something the world didn’t understand and so it was a kind of secret to be shared. And so the people gathered together in the Spirit by Jesus needed to live out a witness or the world would be lost. Their witness mattered. Their life together mattered… for the sake of the world. Because of the way God was at work in history. In the scandalous weakness of the power of love demonstrated in the death of Jesus, God is at work. The church knew that if the world wanted to see Jesus, they had to look to them, as a city set on a hill.

But at around 300ad something significant changed. Anyone know what? A Roman Emperor adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. And so most Christians started to think… “hurrah, this must be God’s plan”. This must be God’s providing. God is now using the power of the empire, of Caesar, the threat and use of force. Perhaps it’s the beginning of the rule of God? Perhaps the empire is now becoming Christian? Now in actual fact many Christians were not that happy with many things about the empire. And you could see how easy it must have been for them to reach that conclusion. But do you see what’s happening here? Where once the power of love stood as a witness against the power of the sword, now the people are thinking that God has adopted the power of the sword as well.

It wasn’t long before Barbarians were being baptised at the end of a sword. But more importantly the way of the cross has been abandoned. The cross of Christ is no longer defining the work of God in the world and the direction of history. Caesar’s power starts to define it. The great interruption of history, when God raised the crucified Jesus, is quickly becoming invisible. People are starting to act as if the conversion of Constantine was the real victory of God. Now the whole of society is ‘Christian’ in some sense. The church as a distinctive community of those who follow the way of the cross, the church as a witness to the world, a light on a hill, becomes increasingly invisible.

And the irony in this long story is that as time went on and church leaders became concerned about the decay of the church and its faith, and the abuse of power associated with the institutional structures, they ended up inventing the concept of the ‘invisible church’. In the reformation ‘the invisible church’ was the term used for all the true believers going to heaven hidden among the visible church.

As you can imagine, if you think like that it begins not to matter if the city set on a hill gives out no light…

What bothers me is that even now, when Christendom has crumbled, when the church is no longer an integral part of society, when the great synthesis with the state, the deal we did with power and with Constantine, has gone, even now, we still don’t know how to be visible.

So when it comes to doing justice, we look to the justice department – our contemporary version of Caesar’s empire – we look to the state. When it comes to feeding the poor we look to the market… and if that fails we have social welfare. And so on. Notice… the light which the power of the cross brings to the world is no longer shining out in witness. We still see ourselves as individuals within a society which although it may not be explicitly Christian, somehow has the capacity to do God’s will… even though the cross of Christ no longer informs their ethos in any explicit way. We are still in Christendom in our heads and so we remain invisible.

Has the church become a waste of space? Are we Christians without the cross?

These are the questions the make me worry when Jesus says that a city built on a hill cannot be hid.

However, these worries can’t be the end of the story. Listen to Jesus: ‘cannot be hid’. As much as the church might try to hide, finally they will not hide the cross. Because the cross is the power of God. I am reminded of Jesus’ confidence that if the people are silent, then the rocks themselves will cry out in praise of God’s action… When those who call themselves church and Christian become invisible, God will raise up new children for Abraham. The question for us is: Will we be part of it? Will we be part of the visible church in 2011?

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