Last week I said that, although there is so much darkness in the world around us, it’s not a world of complete darkness; a light shines, which the darkness will not overcome. That light is the light of love, I said, and we are its torches. Today in Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say the same thing. “You are the light of the world,” he said, adding that we are to let our light shine before others, so they may see our good works and give glory to God (Matt. 5:14-16).
I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message. “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine!”
Jesus said this to his disciples, which in Matthew’s gospel is a code word for the church late in the first century, followers of Jesus who were trying to organize themselves for the long term in light of what they understood was the indefinite delay of Christ’s return. How do we organize ourselves, they wondered, to be an enduring community of faith in what seems to be a world of enduring darkness? So, building on the story of Moses going up Mount Sinai to give Israel the laws of God’s covenant with them, Matthew pictures Jesus going up a mountain and giving the people a new law, the foundation of a new covenant.
But there’s a critical difference in what Jesus does. He spoke of the new law not as something we must do or not do if we’re to stay in relationship with God. He spoke of the new law as something we are, the fulfillment of the new covenant Jeremiah foresaw, in which the law would be written on our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). No longer would the foundation of our relationship with God be carved in stone: immutable and uncompromising. The new foundation of our relationship with God now is written in flesh and blood: growing as we grow, evolving as we change, unfolding like a great tree emerging from a small seed, expanding like new wine that cannot be contained in old wineskins.
Among certain people where I grew up in the Midwest, I’d sometimes hear the question, “Are you saved?” Almost always it meant something like this: Is your relationship with God like my relationship with God? Do you follow the same rules for living that I follow? Do you represent the same values in life that I represent? Often it meant, do you support the same political party and candidates I support? Do you feel about abortion the way I feel? Do you believe as I believe about divorce or same-sex marriage, or about the role of women in the church, or about the ordination of people with different gender identities?
Jesus doesn’t say any of that. Jesus says to his disciples – which means the risen Christ says to the whole church – the foundation of your relationship with God is not what you do or don’t do, it’s not what you believe or don’t believe, it’s not your theology (how you think and talk about God) or your faith practice (whether you keep kosher or not). The foundation of your relationship with God is in who you are. It’s in how you live authentically as the unique person God has made you – and is making you – to be.
I emphasize how God is making you to be because, just as no one begins life fully developed physically, neither does anyone begin life fully developed spiritually. We continue to develop throughout our lives. Even Jesus grew in wisdom and in divine and human favor as he grew older (Luke 2:52), and so do we. So the question is not, are you saved? According to St. Paul, the good news is we’re all saved, and nothing we can do will invalidate that (2 Cor 5:19). The question is, who are you, and how are you growing spiritually? How is your embodied relationship with God growing, evolving, unfolding, expanding?
Virtually every one of us begins our life of faith modeling ourselves after someone else whose faith we respect and admire. We see or hear of or read about someone who seems to be living the abundant life, and we pattern ourselves after that person – a parent or other relative, a teacher or Scout leader, a Sunday school teacher or designated saint, a politician or other public figure. We may even try to model our life after the life of Jesus. “‘Are ye able,’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me?’ [And] the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee’” (Earl Marlatt, “Are Ye Able”). We can gain that life, we believe, if we’re committed enough and try hard enough to be like the person we admire, even to be like Jesus.
But sooner or later, our attempts to have a faith and a life like someone else will falter and fail, like the first disciples who ran away into the darkness the night Jesus was arrested. We cannot live for long like anyone else, not even like Jesus, and the question “What would Jesus do” becomes irrelevant and meaningless. The question becomes, what will you do? What, in this particular time and situation, as you personally confront life in the world, will you do? Who will you be in this moment? You’ll realize the truth of what Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
When your attempt to be someone else; when your attempt to live the life someone else – your parents, perhaps, or your social circle – has prescribed for you; when your attempt to embody someone else’s faith breaks down and falls apart, that’s the opportunity for you to emerge, the real you, the authentic you, the you that is the image of God that was planted in you at your birth. When it does, you will know your second birth, your spiritual rebirth, and you will begin living intentionally and with awareness the abundant life Jesus offered, in all your genuine, honest-to-God, graceful eccentricity.
If we in the church are about nothing else, we must be about this, at least: we must be spiritual midwives here and in the world around us, bringing to birth, and nurturing toward full maturity the unique expressions of God we all are. Then we will do what St. Paul wanted us to do. Each of us will “take [our] ordinary life – [our] sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life – and place it before God as an offering” (Rom. 12:1 The Message).
Then we will be what St. Peter said we are and what we are becoming fully, “the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference [God] made for [us]” (1 Pet. 2:9). We will truly be who we already are: the light of the world, a light no darkness will overcome.