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May Our Words Be Salt and Light6 months ago
This week Revd Rob Saner-Haigh, Director of Mission and Ministry in Newcastle Diocese, reflects on allowing the Spirit to change us from within so that we can show the world Jesus and season the world with more of His grace.
Hello, my name is Rob Saner-Haigh and I’m Director of Mission and Ministry in Newcastle Diocese. Having spent the rest of my ordained ministry in Cumbria, you’ll realise that I’m a dedicated northerner and it’s a joy to serve in this most northern diocese, the home of Cuthbert, to which Aidan brought the fire of the gospel some 1400 years ago. We need that fire just as much today as we did all those centuries ago.
I’m thinking about this blog in the days following the tragic murder of Sir David Amess MP. The news is full of calls for a kinder, gentler, less aggressive public conversation. Name calling, focusing on the perceived character flaws of the opponent, and a general dismissal of those with whom we disagree can feel like it’s taken over. Social media doesn’t help, with so many chipping in with their comment or critique of the perceived stupidity of their opponents. Of course, social media didn’t create bad conversation, but it doesn’t really help it either. The natural trait we have to dismiss and demonise others is just given an even easier and more public outlet than ever before.
Disagreement is vital in pursuit of truth, and there’s nothing wrong in speaking out when we see injustices or when things are done which hurt the poor and the powerless. But we can do so without rubbishing those we disagree with, but rather by lifting their eyes to something better and winning them by our thoughtful words and respectful engagement. Martin Luther King was brilliant at this. Whilst condemning racism and oppression, he used scripture to appeal to the best in others, sought friendship and partnership with others for the common good. Throughout history, however, our natural inclination has been to cancel those with whom we disagree and write them off as without hope. Words may not break bones, but bad words can, and do, dehumanise people and lead to untold violence.
Thankfully, the church is immune to such things…. Of course, it isn’t! Indeed, sometimes it feels like the church is just as bad, if not worse. Too often our internal debates and arguments, or so called Christian Twitter, can feel pretty poisonous. The worst possible motives are attributed to others, and those with whom we disagree are rubbished.
Surely we are called to do better? From every background and nation, God calls us to be a people who live differently, who learn to disagree well, who sow peace. How can we be salt and light?
I’ve been reflecting on that part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus not only affirms the old law but somehow seems to tighten it. Avoiding actual murder isn’t enough if your heart has already killed someone and your mouth has joined in.
In Matthew, chapter 5, Jesus teaches:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a](AB) and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry(AC) with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment.(AD) Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court.(AE) And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.(AF)
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
First of all, these verses remind me how much I am in need of God’s grace. The bar seems so high! I’ve never murdered anyone, but there are plenty of times, I’m ashamed to say, when I’ve muttered ‘fool’ about someone else, or thought of them as ‘raca’ – ‘worthless’. These standards remind us just how far all of us fall short and how much we are in need of God’s grace. Thankfully, we are forgiven and redeemed despite our shortcomings and failures. The one who knows us best, who knows all the contours and realities of our inner life, sees it all, loves us still and wants to restore us.
But we don’t just leave it there. A response is needed. There is a way to be walked. And we need to allow the Spirit to work in us daily to challenge and change us. We need God, by His Spirit, to help change our attitude to other people, to give us words of peace not only to speak but to think, to remind us that reconciliation is a necessary part of worship. We need God to help us see others as He sees them. Within the church, we need more and more to recognise that even those who we find most difficult or troublesome are still our Beloved’s beloved.
Recognising how much we have been forgiven, and longing to do those things which delight Jesus, let us be quick to forgive others. Strengthened by the Spirit, let us be careful and generous in the words, opinions and judgements that we put out there, be it in meetings, private conversations or on social media. Let our words season the world with the good things of God, rather than poisoning our common life. We must disagree, passionately sometimes, and we will be sometimes be angry. Let’s just be better at it. The prophets rarely held back! However, when we think of someone as worthless, or call them a ‘fool’, we embark on a dangerous journey. We sow violence.
Allowing the Spirit to change us from within, let us practice the discipline of seeing others as God sees them, and speaking of them well. In so doing, we will show the world Jesus and season the world with more of His grace.