The blessing of salt

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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 in heaven.
Matthew 5:1-16
 
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Recently I led a pilgrimage to Kerala in south India. Thirty people from St John’s Cathedral and its daughter churches travelled for nine days throughout Kerala in the footsteps of St Thomas. Thomas was one of the twelve disciples and according to Indian tradition arrived in Kerala in AD52 and founded the church in India. Unfortunately, unlike St Paul, we have no letters from Thomas from that period. There is no historical proof that he founded the church in India. The first documentation of the Indian church is from the third century. But there is a very strong tradition.

We visited the eight churches who trace their origins to Thomas in the first century.

One of them is the church above.

It is called the ‘Thiruvithamcode Arappally’. It is known locally as ‘Thomayar kovil’ –The Thomas Temple,  ‘Kovil’ is Tamil for Temple.

It claims to be the oldest church in the world as it still contains the original pillars and walls. Interestingly the pillars are the same style as one would have found in a first century Hindu temple.

It is certainly one of the smallest churches in the world! Standing, our group of thirty filled the space.

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The tiny Thomas Temple with sanctuary curtain drawn closed as in the orthodox tradition.
For our visit the priest had opened the curtain.

The priest was in the church when we arrived. He was very old, dressed in long black robes, with a long grey/white beard. He did not speak any English so a lay member of the congregation welcomed us on his behalf and told us the history of the church. He invited us to enter the modest sanctuary with a beautifully decorated altar was to pray, which we all did, one by one.

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The altar in the small  sanctuary.
 
As we left the sanctuary we passed the priest. He had a crucifix in his hand and he gently touched the crucifix on our foreheads. When I came to him he blessed me with the crucifix and then reached into the pocket of his robes. He pulled out some prayer beads and looking me straight in the eye he placed them in the palm of my right hand. Then he nodded to me and released his hand. It was a very moving moment for me. I felt humbled and grateful to receive not just the gift of the prayer beads but more importantly, his blessing. In all the time we were in the church, he did not say a word. Yet, he had blessed us all.

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In the gospel story above, Jesus tells the crowd that they are blessed. He declares blessed are the poor, the mourning, those who hunger for justice, the pure in heart, the merciful, and the peacemakers. Then he extends this blessing to everyone saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” and, “You are the light of the world.”

Salt was very valuable in Jesus’ time. In fact for most of human history it has been a very rare and expensive commodity. Wars were fought over salt routes. It was essential for city populations to preserve meat, especially in northern climates during long winters.

When Jesus declares to the great crowd that had come to listen to him, “You are the salt of the earth” he is saying that they (we!) are all extremely valuable. It is a tremendous affirmation of God’s unconditional and universal love for every single person.

Jesus adds a warning about losing one’s saltiness. Actually salt is very stable and can only break down in water. But Jesus is taking the metaphor one step further. Salt is useless unless added to something else; it can only preserve when added to meat, only help heal when put on a wound and only give flavour when mixed with food. Likewise, we can only be ‘salt’ when we use the blessings that God has given us, in sustaining others, healing and giving ‘flavour’ to our world in positive and life-enriching ways.

So I have two questions:
  1. Can you hear and accept Jesus’ affirmation that you are the salt of the earth?
  2. Having accepted this blessing can you extend the blessing to others? Can you be salt in the world, bringing healing, preservation, flavour? Can you be light in the world, giving direction, hope, inspiration?
In short, can you not let a single person pass you by without in some way affirming them as salt and light of the world? It may not need many words, or indeed any words. It might just be by our eye-contact, or how attentive we are to the other through listening carefullyand by being fully present to the other. Or it might be through a genuine word or a simple deed. After all, in the 'Thomas Temple' the priest blessed us without saying anything, but he did not let any of us pass by without affirming God’s unconditional love for every one of us.

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Mark Rogers, 10/02/2014

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