“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” Matthew 5:14-16
A City on a Hill
All the way back in March, 1630, Puritan John Winthrop preached a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” to his fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists as they embarked to settle Boston. Borrowing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he warned them of the serious nature of the task they undertook: “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” His words were not an encouragement, they were a warning. Don’t mess this up…everyone is watching!
Since that time, his words have been borrowed by many a politician, including John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, always referring to American exceptionalism on the world stage. Indeed, it became a running theme in several of President Reagan’s speeches, from his election eve address in November 1980 all the way to his farewell address in January, 1989. But, with all due respect to each and all of these politicians, Jesus’ words about a “city on a hilltop” were not about any particular nation-state, but about his followers. More specifically, they were about his followers’ identity…about their place in this world. They were to be the light of the world.
The Church’s Place in this World
From the very beginning of his teaching ministry, Jesus challenged his followers to usher in the Kingdom of God, i.e., to live out the upside-down ways of God’s kingdom as a contrast to the kingdom of this world. Our role (the church’s role) in this regard is to connect people with the ways of God. “In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” We are to be the light of the world.
As I read this word, letting our light shine seems to be much less about the books we write, the videos we make, and the social media posts we create and much more about how we live our lives. It is less about our apologetics and more about the choices we make in our personal lives…less about winning the culture wars and more about being peacemakers in our day to day living. The point is, this word is not just about what we say or what we do. It is about who we are…our very identity as the Church of Jesus Christ. It is more than mission or objective. This is a word about our very place in this world. It is about our very identity as the light of the world.
Light is Indiscriminate
There are plenty of qualities and characteristics of light. Surely, Jesus intended all of them to apply to us with this metaphor. But the one that stands out in our current culture, the one that should contrast the church with the ways of this world, is the indiscriminate nature of light. You see, when you put a lamp on a table in the middle of a room, that lamp does not pick and choose who to help with its light. It does not weigh who is “worthy” of its light and who is not. It simply shines, for anyone and everyone in the room.
The light does not make marketing strategies about whom it will serve and whom it will not serve. It does not have criteria that make some people more deserving of its light than others. There are no prerequisites which would-be recipients of its benefits must first meet in order to then receive light to their path. Like an utterly impartial lighthouse shining for each and every vessel on the nearby sea, shouldn’t the church be indiscriminate as well? We are the light of the world. And that is a high calling.