Bishop Fleming’s Homily for Christian Unity Week 2016
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Week 2016
The churches of Latvia were given the task of choosing the theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. They have chosen ‘Salt of the Earth’. ‘You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world’ Jesus tells us. Salt and light; the very things that as human beings we cannot live without.
All through history the availability of salt has been pivotal. With the spread of civilization, salt became one of the world’s main trading commodities. It was of high value to the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and other peoples of antiquity. In the Middle East, salt was used to ceremonially seal an agreement, and the ancient Hebrews made a “covenant of salt” with God and sprinkled salt on their offerings to show their trust in Him. Salt was also included among funeral offerings found in ancient Egyptian tombs from the third millennium BC, as were salted birds, and salt fish. In Africa, salt was used as currency south of the Sahara, and slabs of rock salt were used as coins in Abyssinia. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt. The word “salad” literally means “salted”, and comes from the ancient Roman practice of seasoning various vegetables and herbs with oil and salt. In other words, salt is important.
When Jesus says to us ‘you are the salt of the earth’ what does he mean? Salt had two articular purposes in the Middle East in his time. Because of the lack of refrigeration, salt was used to preserve food, especially meat which would go off quickly in the desert heat. Secondly, salt was used then, as now, as a flavour enhancer. The question we must ask ourselves in response to the statement of Christ ‘you are salt of the earth’ is; how do believers in Christ act as a preservative in today’s world and secondly; how do we influence the world for good in the same way as salt, which has a positive influence on the flavour of the food it seasons?
Recently, as you know, Pope Francis published his encyclical, Laudato Si. His words have been praised by people of all faiths and those with none. In this encyclical Pope Francis looks at creation through the eyes of God. On Earth Day 2015 he said: “Today we celebrate Earth Day. I exhort everyone to see the world through the eyes of God the Creator: the earth is an environment to be safeguarded, a garden to be cultivated. The relationship of mankind with nature must not be conducted with greed, manipulation and exploitation, but it must conserve the divine harmony that exists between creatures and Creation within the logic of respect and care, so it can be put to the service of our brothers and also of future generations.”
When addressing country people like ourselves recently, Italy’s National Federation of Farmers, Pope Francis reminded the farmers that it was important to remember that we are called not only to cultivate the land, but also to preserve it. In a time of climate change the Pope noted, this is difficult; that is why, he said, it is so vital that nations are able to work together to protect creation. And he also invited the farmers, in the spirit of St Francis, to love the land as Mother earth, and proposed that they make an alliance with it, so that it can continue to be the source of life for the entire human family.
In the Pope’s eyes; “All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.” (89) Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (92)
I suggest that if we as individuals, and together as churches, were to make our own his vision for our earth, ‘our common home’ as he so rightly calls our world, and look at creation through the eyes of God, that could be our answer to the question; how do believers in Christ act as a preservative in today’s world and be, in that sense, ‘salt of the earth’.
The second part of the question raises how we, in an ecumenical setting, can be ‘salt of the earth’; how we can add flavour to life today in what is an increasingly secular and agnostic, if not atheistic society?
Fifty years ago the average man or woman on the street would understand the distinction between Catholic and Protestant. They knew that each church lived and worked within its own separate box or world. They do not do so today. The only distinction they really understand today is between Christian and non-believer; all the more reason why our churches should be united not only in prayer and for worship but in working together to support the poor, integrate the marginalised and protect the vulnerable.
Eight or nine years ago the leaders of the four Christian churches here in this area got together to try to see how we could have a single, united social outreach in our community; how we could step down from our pulpits and go out to the poor, the marginalised and those at risk. Since then we have been attempting to do this. We have had our ups and downs but the vision is still very much alive. The four of us are working on it and we are confident that our vision for social outreach by the churches in this area will come to fruition.
Our vision is very much in line with the vision of Pope Francis who said recently: “Christians must seek unity together, they must pray for one another and they must work together to assist the poor and vulnerable.” He went on to say: “With due respect to theologians, while the Catholic and mainline churches have been engaged in high-level ecumenical dialogues for 50 years, I am convinced it won’t be theologians who bring about unity among us. The work of theologians is essential for understanding but if we hope that theologians will agree with one another, we will reach unity the day after Judgment Day.”
And he went on to say: “The Holy Spirit brings about unity and Christians must open their hearts to the Spirit’s gifts with prayer, friendship, closeness and reflection.” If we can open our hearts in this way, if we can allow the Spirit to take the lead in our lives, then I think we will capture something of the great vision Francis has for our Christian witness today; where, as I quoted earlier, we will be seen as “human beings (who) are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (92)
Occasionally, when someone today wants to pay a real compliment to someone else you may hear them remark; ‘he’s the salt of the earth’. I am convinced that if we as churches work together, pray together, pray for each other and reach out to the marginalized, the poor, those suffering from addiction of any kind; then we, in our day, will merit that compliment and in fact fulfill the command of Christ to be the ‘salt of the earth’.