The Characteristics of a Disciple, Matthew 5:13-20

A sermon preached by Patrick H. Wrisley on February 5, 2023.

Matthew 5.1 says that Jesus went up onto the mountain and Matthew 8.1 says Jesus came down the mountain. Sandwiched between these two verses are three chapters that comprise what we call The Sermon on the Mount. It’s here Matthew has poured the majority of Jesus’ teaching into his particular gospel. Who is Jesus speaking with and teaching? Well, first and foremost he’s teaching his growing circle of disciples and yet we are told vast crowds follow him up the hillside as well.

All so subtly in chapter 5, the writer Matthew changes the voice moves to use the second person plural; with this change in voice, Matthew invites you and me into the Story as participants and now we are invited to join the others in ascending the hillside just north of Capernaum experiencing all Jesus was saying and doing. Matthew 5.1 declares, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him and taught them saying…” As such, as you and I go up that hillside, we have a choice of where we sit. On the one hand, we can go sit with the disciples who are scrunched up close to Jesus in order to hear him loud and clear. On the other hand, we can sit and mill around with the anonymous crowds waiting to see something happen; in other words, we are looky-loos.  One group is comprised of earnest listeners and followers. The second group is comprised of observers, also known as a run-of-the-mill Peanut Gallery.

Members of the church, where do you choose to sit on that hillside? You have a choice, you know. Are you sitting with the disciples or are you with the multitude milling about and watching what Jesus does? Frankly, where you sit determines how you will hear our text today. We are picking up immediately after the Beatitudes, or as Dale Bruner refers to them, “The blessed ares.” Today, we move on from the blessed ares and dive right into the “Your ares.”[1] Hear the Word of the Lord.

Matthew 5:13-20

13“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 underfoot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In 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.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.[2]

This morning’s text is written for those of us who have chosen to sit at Jesus’ feet as disciples, as Christ-followers. That is not to say those who are sitting apart just watching and wondering cannot change their seats and move into the disciple’s circle, but his words are directed emphatically to those who claim to be his followers. Jesus provides us three characteristics of what it means to be a Christ-follower.

First, followers of Jesus are commissioned into service. We are familiar with the Great Commission in Matthew 28.16 where Jesus tells his disciples to go and make other disciples, baptize, and teach them about Jesus but the disciples’ first commissioning takes place in our Story today. The force of the way the text in its original language is emphatic and direct: You are the very salt of the earth! You are the very light of the world! It doesn’t say, “you ought to be,” “should be,” or “could be” the salt and light of the world. It tells the disciples you are the very salt and the light in the world. Jesus isn’t asking us to be those things; Jesus is emphatically declaring we are to be salt and light.[3] This is what you and I signed up for when we called ourselves, “Christian.”

Beloved, the first characteristic of a Christ-follower is that we live into the commissioning we have been ordained with by Christ. Jesus doesn’t ask us to stay on the mountaintop eating bon-bons and listening to great speakers at a Chautauqua; Jesus is commissioning, sending his disciples to go and do something.

The second characteristic of a Christ-follower is that we fully live into who we are as followers of Jesus. In other words, disciples are called to be salty lighthouses! In antiquity, salt was used as a preservative, for fertilizing the soil, in cultic sacrifices, in covenant-making, in cleansing, and in signifying loyalty.[4] I have to believe that aside from all these ancient uses of salt Jesus most likely meant its most basic purpose: Salt adds flavor to the food we eat. “Salt brightens and sharpens other flavors already present” in the other foods.[5]

This past week I was invited to have dinner at John and Melissa Rubino’s; for those of you who don’t know, John is a chef. They provided gracious hospitality and a wonderful dinner and for dessert, John made some homemade chocolate chip cookies. Because of my diet, I have not had sweets in months, but as a guest, what was supposed to do? Say, “no?” So, I took one of the huge cookies, and my goodness, I swear I was lifted like Paul to the third heaven! As we talked, I nonchalantly reached over and had a second one. After dinner, they prepared a little take-home bag and put four more cookies in there. I had not driven 300 yards when I pulled out my third one! What was it about those cookies? After my third one, I realized why I couldn’t stop: John added just the right amount of salt to them that hit the palate once you took a bite. Salt makes you crave more salt!

Yet, too much salt can be a problem, too. You add too much salt to your food and it will cause it to taste horrible. The purpose of salt is to enhance not to make foul.

Christ-followers are told to be the salt of the earth. A disciple’s flavor in the world should enhance the lives of others and give glory to God. A characteristic of a disciple is that as salt, we brighten and sharpen the flavors of other people, places, or organizations in the world that are already present.  The quality of our lives should, like the taste of Rubino’s cookies, cause people to yearn for more of the flavor you and I as disciples add to their life.

Sadly, though, too many Christian disciples follow the tenant that if a bit of salt is good, then a lot of salt is better. Some Christians smother others by overdoing it with salt when judging and condemning people different from themselves spiritually, politically, socially, ethnically, and sexually. Over-salting is evident in gross displays of false piety or wrapping up Christianity in our flag. If people are leaving the Church, it is oftentimes because there is not enough saltyå flavor to make our faith appealing and desirable to others or there is too much salt and that makes Jesus distasteful and inedible.

But we are also to be lights to the world. Again, Jesus doesn’t say “ought, should, or could” be the light of the world; disciples are commissioned to be the light of the world. Notice I didn’t say “lights of the world” of the world but the very light of the world. Collectively, discipleship means all of us are to shine a singular lamp of the love and grace of God expressed in Jesus who is the Light of the World. Once a light is lit, it’s not covered up but is placed in a prominent spot to show people how to navigate a room. The right amount of light unveils the shadows. But like salt, too much light can be blinding. Light has to be directed and either muted or intensified depending on the conditions. If people encounter us and shield their eyes it’s because our light is too bright, it’s because we are shining our own light and not the light of Jesus.

Finally, a characteristic of a disciple is that we live a righteous life. Too often we equate being righteous with being morally perfect or overly religious. That’s not it at all. Being righteous simply means we live into our salty-lighthousedness, we live lives that are distinctly different from the culture around us. A righteous life is one where the flavor we add to others is the winsome flavor of a graceful Jesus. A righteous life is one where we shine the light of Jesus and help people find their way, their hope, or their security. Righteousness is anything that helps others see Jesus in you or me.

Church, today Jesus is commissioning us to be who we are as disciples and followers to give brightness to the flavor of the world and to be a warm inviting light so others can experience what we already have: The life-giving Love of God in Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So be it.

© 2023 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew 1-12. A Commentary. The Christbook (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 151.

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Bruner, 186-189.

[4] See Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 1 (p. 239). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. “Jesus’ followers are defined as salt. Salt was widely used for various purposes in the ancient world, such as preserving, seasoning for food (Job 6:6), fertilizing soil (Luke 14:34–35), sacrificing (Lev. 2:13; Ezra 6:9; Ezek. 43:24), covenanting (Num. 18:19; 2 Chr. 13:5), purifying (Exod. 30:35; 2 Kgs. 2:19–21), cleansing (Ezek. 16:4), and signifying loyalty (Ezra 4:14).” 

[5] Matthew M. Boulton, Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 1 (p. 237). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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