Taste And See
TASTE AND SEE
MATTHEW 5:13-16; PSALM 34
I remember the day that I decided to start looking actively for a church again. After a round of interviews that hadn’t worked out, I had put aside the ordained ministry for a while and decided to pursue ministry more along the lines of social activism. Last year, I lived in Richmond Hill, a historic retreat center, intentional community, and place for social advocacy. During my time there, I helped advocate for a faster and more effective public transportation system for Metro-Richmond. For a metro area of over a million people, the public transportation had a reputation for being slow and not reaching where the jobs were. I personally knew several low income individuals in my community who simply could not get to work even if they wanted to. I knew that a big problem required a big solution. And today, a movement that a group of people started in a monastery has expanded throughout the city and is making a good deal of progress. I found it to be meaningful work. I saw it as an opportunity to let my good works shine before people so that they may glorify God. So that they may come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and how he loves them, how he wants justice for them.
About halfway through my internship at Richmond Hill, I and my supervisor drove out to a suburban community to make the argument that connecting their community to public transportation would help many of their more elderly people. My supervisor encouraged me to “spread the Gospel of Public Transportation” to the community. And those words just sunk into my stomach as wrong. I replied to him that public transportation may be important but it wasn’t the Gospel.
It was that moment I decided to start applying to churches again. I did a lot of good work during my time in Richmond. I’ve done church outreaches, helped make community meals, advocacy campaigns, volunteer work, but through all of my good works I have found that no one really glorified God, if I am honest with myself. I am sure many people appreciated it, but I have never led someone who didn’t know the Lord Jesus to know him. It has become clear to me that simply letting our light shine through our good works isn’t enough for people to glorify God, and it certainly isn’t enough for people to be convinced to join our church family. I love doing Vacation Bible School, cookouts, getting dunked in the water tank at the Legion’s Margaritaville fundraiser, doing Chapel with the kids during the year, and helping out with school lunch program during the summer, and I look forward to making Chicken Pies this fall. I believe that the basic way you love someone is simply by being present. And I hope I have shown my love for you all and this community by being present as best as I can.
But if people don’t have a church, they generally won’t come to church on Sunday. They may see that the Lord is good, for his grace is clear in all of creation to see, but they haven’t tasted that he is good, as Psalm 34 declares, and thus there is a lack of connection between our community of faith and the community around us.
Perhaps this has always been true for the majority of churches. There are “church people” and then there are “non-church” people. And generally, if you were raised in the church, you either stuck with it or came back to it later in life. Evangelism isn’t a very popular word in Presbyterian circles. We tend to focus more on “Christian Education.” There was a Christian education degree at my seminary, but there was no evangelism degree, and I think that is telling of our tradition’s focus. “Keep the ones you got,” is our philosophy. The problem is, that it is clear, that is not working for many churches anymore. No one’s really to blame for it. And I appreciate all those who plan and help with ministry to children in this church. But we just have to accept that the segment of the American population that actively attends church services is shrinking, and we who are left are fighting over an increasingly small chunk of the pie.
Nor does getting butts in the pews and reaching people who otherwise may not go to church mean that we are creating a church that truly glorifies God in Word and deed. Back in Richmond, VA, where I lived for about eight years, there is a church called the Richmond Outreach Center (or ROC) for short. The ROC was a church that specialized in reaching out to hard-to-reach groups of people: the motorcyclist community, kids who lived in the projects, alcoholics, drug addicts, and suburban families who just had not been raised in the church. Geronimo Aguilar, and yes that is his real name, the church’s founder, was an inspiration to the city. But about two years ago, it came out that he had had at least six affairs with congregation members, sexually abused a 16-year-old girl in his congregation, and was charged in a case in Texas where he was accused of sexually abusing two girls when he was a youth pastor in the 1990s. He was recently convicted in Texas and will be sentenced in October. I saw Aguilar preach personally and was impressed by all the ministry his church did in the community. With a congregation of over 10,000, many of whom had criminal records and had been rejected by society, his church seemed like it was a light on the Hill in Richmond. But perhaps bearing fruit for the Lord, being the light of the world, is more than about numbers and results. Lasting fruit comes from pure hearts, and the Lord has a way of revealing the darkness in our hearts, our rotten fruit, even if we have dressed it up in a fruit basket and preserved it temporarily with artificial chemicals.
What is it that is missing in our outreach to the world today? Why are some churches dying and others found to be rotten at the core? I think it is because we have a good understanding of what Jesus meant by being the light of the world. But we have failed to understand what he meant by being the Salt of the Earth.
The light of the world metaphor is a common one in Scripture, as it was in the Jewish world. Jesus says in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We may believe that Jesus is the light of the world but may have trouble seeing ourselves that way. But the theologian John Stott, in his book Christian CounterCulture, points out, “by derivation we are too, shinning with the light of Christ, shinning in the world like stars in the night sky” (Stott, pg 61). The Jewish people traditionally ascribed this metaphor of being the light of the world to themselves, especially the Jewish Proselytizing movement, which sought to convert Gentiles or non-Jews to Judaism. But we should note that it was Christianity and not Judaism that spread across the Roman world even though Christianity, once it was distinguished as a separate sect from Judaism, did not have the same rights as Judaism, since Roman Law generally offered some protection to ancient religions but not new sects. The question is why? Why did Christianity grow and Judaism did not? They both believed in this metaphor of light. They both did good works and continue to do so today. But one spread throughout the Roman Empire, while the other retained its culture vibrancy but kept to itself.
Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Early Christendom, lays out for his readers the spectacular growth of the early church in the first three centuries after its birth. He points out that by 312 A.D when Constantine legalized Christianity, 10% of the Roman Empire was already Christian. According to a study by the historian Rodney Stark, this would equate to a 40% growth of churches per decade up to that point (Kreider, 10). To give you some perspective on that. That would be like our church retaining the people we have and adding 20 people in ten years. And in three hundred years we would be a six hundred member church. Harvest Community Church, which has been around for ten years has about a 100 in worship now and started out with 45. That is about a 50% growth rate over ten years. Yet, as I have mentioned, up to this point Christians were legally bared from talking about their faith in any public setting. Christian worship was also secretive; only those who had gone through a long catechism, basically an ancient membership class that could last up to two years, would be allowed into worship. Christians were so secretive in the early centuries, mainly for fear of persecution by the government, that people thought they were cannibals, because they talked about eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood.. So despite the fact that discussing their faith in public was illegal, it took a two year membership class to even get in the door, and people thought Christians were cannibals, the church grew 40% a decade. What explains this?
Kreider notes that early Christians behaved in a way that was not just admirable but intriguing to those who knew them. People saw well off pagan women joining the church and worshiping in the homes of the poor. They saw people setting aside time for each other to share in fellowship and love – people who were so different and from so many backgrounds that there should be no reason that they should associate with each other.
Second, Kreider notes that Christians “inculterated” their faith. They took images in the culture which were well understood and gave them new meaning. Like taking the image of the Greek God Orpheus, who is depicted as a Shepherd, and using that as the basis of the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd. Christian worship was distinctive, but it was not so far removed from the common culture that the common man could not understand it. Even many of our classic hymns that some older generations might think of as the right way to worship were at one time used as drinking hymns in bars.
Third, many intellectuals found Christian beliefs to be attractive, especially the Christian belief that Christ had conquered death through the resurrection and thus we no longer need to fear death. Today, you will find some drawn to the faith through Christian apologetics such as the works of C.S Lewis, Tim Keller, and Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ. These authors often take seriously intellectual skepticism but also leave room for mystery, the miraculous, and for sound doctrine.
Finally, and this is a historical fact, the belief that Christians had a connection to a supernatural power was the reason for conversion of many. As Kreider notes, the gift of healing “was an accepted part of many Christian communities” (Kreider, 16). Exorcism was also a basic right of early Christian initiation. To quote Kreider, “Many people felt themselves to be oppressed by predatory spiritual forces from which they longed for liberation. As a result, liberation from demonic power was one of the chief benefits that churches could offer to potential converts” (Kreider, 17).
We just finished up with our Vacation Bible School on Ephesians 6:11 which reads, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the Devil.” Some of us may have different views on the reality of the demonic, but I think we can all agree that many of us are in need of liberation from negative feelings, emotions, and forces that we don’t fully understand. We see the goodness of the Lord, but he is offering to us to come and taste. As N Graham Standish argues in his book, Becoming a Blessed Church, which we will be studying this fall, our God is Trinity, he is relationship, and he is offering us an experience of purpose, with our Father who is wise; of presence, with the Son, who promises to be always with us; and of power, with the Spirit, who gives us power to make the ordinary extraordinary.
You see, the early Church grew not primarily because it was light but because it was salt. The light, their deeds, got people interested, but it was their saltiness that reeled them in. Salt, in the ancient world, was so valuable that today our English word salary is derived from the Latin sal, or salt, because salt was used as a form of currency in the ancient world. Scientifically, the human body needs salt, though because we are a fast food nation, we get too much of it today. Salt acts as a natural conductor for electrical impulses in our body. It quite literally allows our thoughts, out intentions, to become action. Salt is also used to control the fluid balance in our cells through a process called osmosis. Basically, this means that salt allows our cells to take in the nutrients they need and to expel waste they do not need. Salt acts as the regulator or the gate keeper of our body, keeping it in balance, keeping it pure. In the ancient world, before refrigeration, salt was the main way people preserved food and meat; it prevented corruption. Salt was and is also used in cooking to bring out the natural taste of a food. Salt adds flavor to food. It brings out the essential character of a food. On the other hand, too much salt was often used as a weapon of war. Foreign armies would often salt the land of the conquered, so that it could be never be farmed again.
In spiritual terms, light is what gets people’s attention, salt is what keeps their attention. Light is what shows people the way to the Truth, salt is what makes that Truth real to people. Spiritual light shows us the way out of a world full of corruption, spiritual salt keeps our hearts from corruption. Spiritual light shows us who God made us to be, spiritual salt magnifies that true self. Colossians 4:6 advises us to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” But we must ask why are people from outside the church asking the church at Colossae questions? It’s not because they are preaching on the street corners. Nor is it because they are simply working at food banks. It is because what they do and how they speak is so different that the world recognizes that they are not of this world, so they must ask what world do they come from?
At the beginning of May, I was flying back from the prayer conference in California I attended. One of the big focuses of the conferences was simply being in the presence of God, of filling ourselves so much with the Holy Spirit, with his presence, that we just “leak” and overflow to others. As Jesus says in John 7:38, out of the hearts of believers shall flow rivers of living water. I was really energized by the conference and wanted to take the message to heart. But after getting up at 4:00am to catch an 8:00am flight, let’s just say that my heart wasn’t exactly overflowing with joy. I had gotten to the airport, gotten my ticket, and was in line to check my bag. When a man who was perhaps Indian or Middle Eastern asked if he could get in front of me because the airline had lost his bag and he needed to find it because his flight was about to leave, I have to admit I was a little annoyed, but I forced myself to say, “Go ahead and God bless you.” The man was obviously surprised that a random stranger would give him a blessing at six in the morning. But he thanked me and went to check on his bag. Later I saw him in the security line and I really didn’t give him a second thought. But he pointed me out and said, “Your blessing worked. I found my bag!!!!” And I said something along the lines of, “Praise the Lord!!!!” Maybe it was just a coincidence, maybe it was the power of God. But I’ve got to say, it sure tasted good. And it wasn’t that hard. Taste and see my friends. Taste and see. That He is good.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.