Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) | Streaming Licensing # 20105663Worship Guide
The Marks of a Disciple: Nonconformity
Matthew 5:11 - 5:16
May 22, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
Jesus assumes that there will be tension between his followers and the world around them, which only begs the question of how we should handle the cultural pressure we face. In response, Jesus provides us with a model. We are called neither to conform to, nor withdraw from the world around us, but rather influence the world for good.
View Sermon Transcript
I've been using the old adage, “Don't ask a fish to describe water,” in order to illustrate the power of culture. The more powerful a culture is, the more you simply take it for granted. This means that the forces that exert the greatest influence on your patterns of thinking, and behaving, and relating are invisible to you. If that is the case, then the only way to resist that influence is through conscious retraining. That is why the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.”
This is one of the reasons why we have begun a new series focused on the distinguishing marks of an authentic follower of Jesus. We're exploring how to undergo that conscious retraining as a disciple, meaning an apprentice or a student of Jesus and his way of life, rather than allowing the world around us to squeeze us into its mold. In this sermon, what I'd like us to do is consider nonconformity as a mark of a disciple. Rather than being conformed to the world around us, we're called to be nonconformists. But that's actually harder to do than you might think.
The sociologist James Hunter provides this little example. Picture in your mind's eye someone who is an ardent, self-proclaimed individualist, who delights in bucking social conventions. You might think of bikers, or English literature professors, punk rockers, artists, cowboys, maybe tech CEOs. Do you have an image in your mind? Now ask yourself the question: Why is it that these so-called nonconformists are so utterly predictable in their dress, their manner of speaking, their political views, and their aesthetics, along with their condescension towards those who do not conform to their own standards. They're utterly predictable in their conformities.
Professor Hunter offers that example not because he wants to knock any of those groups, but simply to illustrate the power of culture. We have no idea how the culture around us shapes our thinking, behaving, and relating—and that includes alternative cultures or subcultures. We human beings are incredibly social creatures, and we are all the product of our culture far more than we realize. But if that's true, then the question is: How are we supposed to handle the cultural pressure all around us? In answer to that question, I'd like us to turn to a well known passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Here we'll see that Jesus calls us to be nonconformists. He calls us to engage the world around us without compromise, and therefore, he provides us with a model for cultural engagement. As we look at this passage, we'll see that Jesus has three things to teach us: 1) do not conform to the world 2) do not withdraw from the world but 3) seek to influence the world for good. If you'd like, let me encourage you to open up a Bible to Matthew 5. I'll be reading v.11-16.
11“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
13“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
14“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, 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 who is in heaven.
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
At the outset, Jesus assumes that there is going to be tension between his followers and the world around us. That's why he says in v.11-12, “Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Notice a number of things here at the very beginning. Number one, Jesus is not telling us what to do in order to win God's approval, but rather he's showing us who we become when we place ourselves under his loving and gracious rule. That is what the Beatitudes, the statements of blessing at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, are all about. He's not telling us what we need to do in order to win God's love, but rather, he's showing us who we become when we place ourselves under his loving rule. What we become in a word is different—we become different. That's what it means to be blessed. To be one of those blessed ones means that you live differently from the world. You become people who embody the standards and the values of the kingdom of God as spelled out in those Beatitudes. We become people who recognize our spiritual poverty, who mourn over our own personal sin as well as the social injustice out there in the world. We become people who humble ourselves before the Lord, who hunger and thirst for right relationships with God and with others. We become people who are merciful, pure in heart, people who seek God's peace, meaning God's shalom, God's vision of flourishing for all of humanity. Number one, Jesus is not telling us what we need to do in order to win God's approval, but rather who we become when we place ourselves under his rule. We become different.
Secondly, Jesus assumes that when people identify themselves with him, it will arouse the hostility of others. He's not telling us to deliberately try to be offensive. No, the gospel is inherently offensive. It doesn't need any extra help from us. But when we embrace the gospel for ourselves, when we live out the values and the standards of the kingdom of God, it may arouse the hostility of others. It may lead others to mistreat you, or even slander you falsely for no other reason than because of your association with Jesus.
Thirdly, Jesus tells us not only to expect misunderstanding and mistreatment, but rather we should rejoice in it. Jesus, are you serious? You want us to rejoice in our mistreatment? He's not telling us to rejoice for our suffering, but rather, he's telling us that we should rejoice in our suffering because if we're suffering for Jesus' sake, then it means that we really do belong to him. It confirms that truth, and therefore, we can take comfort from the fact that the good that he promises us in the future far outweighs the bad that we might experience here and now.
What he's trying to show is that in the meantime, we should anticipate that we will experience friction with the world around us. And that's not a comfortable place to be. If your beliefs and your practices are perceived as being out of step with the people around you, then that can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. No one wants to stay in that kind of position, so what do we do? Rather than remaining in this uncomfortable spot of tension, we usually try to reduce the tension, to escape it. There are primarily two ways in which we can try to do that if our beliefs and practices are putting us at odds with the people around us. You can either try to blend in or run away. On the one hand, if you're experiencing that uncomfortable tension, you can capitulate. You can abandon those distinctive beliefs and practices in order to blend in like a chameleon. Then the tension is gone. Or by contrast, if you're experiencing that friction, you can hold on to your distinctive beliefs and practices, but you hide them. You run away. And once again, the tension is gone.
Jesus is saying No! Neither one of those options are available to the authentic follower of Jesus. On the one hand, he says, there is the earth, but on the other hand, there's you, and you are the earth’s salt. On the one hand, there's the world, but on the other hand, there is you, and you are the world's light. The two must relate to one another, but the relationship between the two depends upon your distinctiveness. You and the world are supposed to be different, and therefore you must not conform to the earth nor withdraw from the world, but rather seek to influence the world for good. And the only way you can do that is if you live as a nonconformist. You have to engage the world without compromise.
Do Not Conform To The World
The first thing Jesus tells us is, “Do not conform to the world” by using the image of salt. Let's think about what this image tells us about both the world and you. More often than not, when we think of salt, we primarily use salt to season our food, to bring out its flavor. That's how ancient people thought of salt too, but there was an added element, which was much more important. In the days before refrigeration, salt was primarily used as a preservative. The salt would be rubbed into the meat or the fish, and that's what stopped the bacteria from growing and kept the food from going bad. Here's the idea with Jesus’ image. He's not saying that the world is tasteless, and Christians can help make the world become a little bit less insipid. No, rather, Jesus is saying that the world is putrefying, and Christians have a responsibility to keep it from going bad. What he's suggesting is that the world possesses this constant tendency to deteriorate. "Things fall apart; The center cannot hold."
Christians have a responsibility to help hinder the decay, but the only way you can do that is by maintaining the essential difference between you and your surrounding culture. That's why Jesus says, “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.” In other words, he's saying that a Christian who is no different from his or her surrounding culture is as worthless as salt that has lost its taste.
If salt is real, and if it's going to have any positive impact, it's going to bite. There's going to be a tang to that salt. So the question that you have to ask yourself is: Are you a tangy Christian or have you lost your bite? I'm no chemist—some of you may be—but I've been told that, technically, salt (sodium chloride) is a stable compound, which means that salt cannot lose its saltiness. It's either salt or it's not. But in the ancient world, there were no refineries, and therefore, people did not have access to pure salt, pure sodium chloride. Whatever they had access to was salt mixed with other materials. It's possible that you could have a white powder that, no doubt, looked like salt and was called salt, but it was diluted with so many impurities that it neither tasted like salt nor acted like salt. It was just road dust. It was nothing more than chalk. And chalk rubbed into meat or fish is not going to do a thing.
In a similar way, we might be tempted to compromise our distinctive beliefs and practices in order to blend in with the world around us. But when we do that, we dilute our influence. Christians, like salt, can only be one or the other. You're either a Christian or you're not. It is possible that you might look like a Christian, you might call yourself a Christian, but your faith is so diluted with impurities that there is nothing distinctively Christian about you. That's why Jesus is saying that we must not conform to the world around us. We must retain those distinctive beliefs and practices in order to have a positive impact on the world around us.
That only raises the question: What are these distinctive beliefs and practices that we're supposed to hold up? The Sermon on the Mount provides us with a good place to go. If you even glance at the mere headings of the topics that Jesus addresses on the Sermon on the Mount, you'll see that he is calling Christians to cultivate a distinctive character and to live out a radically different kind of life when it comes to how we handle anger, lust, anxiety, and our judgment of others. He's calling us to something altogether different in terms of how we approach marriage and sexuality, our views of truth and spirituality, as well as the way in which we relate to our opponents, our enemies, and care for the poor. He's calling us to model an altogether different kind of lifestyle, in our business relationships and in race relationships, in the way in which we approach money, and sex, and power, the way in which we define success, or how we respect the human person. The point is that if you lose your distinctive identity as a Christian then you have nothing to offer the world that it doesn't already have. That's why the British Pastor David Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that, “When the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it.”
I've found that in light of our recent polarization, I have to be even more clear on this issue than perhaps I did in the past. When I say that Christians are called to be different, that doesn't mean that we're supposed to become right-wing conspiracy theorists, left-wing social justice warriors, or mushy middle-of-the-roaders because that would simply be another form of cultural captivity. We would still just be conforming to the patterns around us. But rather, if we're going to be true to Jesus then that means that we are going to adopt a constellation of beliefs and practices that do not fit, that do not square, with any of our existing political maps. It will not fit on our political spectrum. It will not fit within our political categories—left, right, or center. If you look more like a typical republican or a typical democrat or a typical independent more than you look like Jesus, then you have become a hostage to our political system.
What we’re called to is nonconformity. We will not conform to the political world. And if we are true nonconformists, then that means that we need to strike this balance of continual affirmation and critique. Whenever we encounter a cultural idea, or practice, or trend, or institution in God's common grace, there's always going to be something that we can affirm as positive and good, but there's always going to be something that also needs to be critiqued, adjusted, or corrected. Faithful Christians who live a life of nonconformity will always be engaged in this practice of affirmation and critique.
Do Not Withdraw From The World
The first thing that Jesus tells us is, “Do not be conformed to the world” by using the image of salt. The second thing he tells us is, “Do not withdraw from the world” by using the image of light. Let's think again about what this image tells us about the world and about you. If Christians are the light of the world then that suggests that the world is a dark place. Despite the fact that many within our world are constantly boasting about the enlightenment that we have achieved as we have left the dark ages of religion, and faith, and superstition. But the fact is that much of what is proclaimed to be light in our world today is in reality darkness. In many ways, our world has got everything flipped upside down. Christians are called to illuminate the darkness, and the only way to do that is if you let your light shine. That's why Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” A Christian who is no different from one's surrounding culture is as worthless as salt that has lost its taste. Likewise, a Christian who withdraws from the surrounding culture is as useless as light that has been hidden. Salt is no good for anything if it loses its saltiness, and light is no good if it is concealed. That's why Jesus says you can't withdraw from the world around you, but you have to let your light shine before others so that they might see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Later in this very same sermon, Jesus warns us against practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them, so how do we hold these things in tension? Jesus is telling us that we shouldn't try to show off our spirituality in order to draw attention to ourselves, but we should let our good works show, not to give glory to ourselves, but to give glory to God.
What exactly does Jesus have in mind here? Certainly I think he means that we should speak up. We should let it be known that we are Christians rather than hiding our commitment to Jesus in public. I'll give you an example of this. Many of you know Nate Hackmann, a Broadway actor who often sings in our choir when he's here in New York, as opposed to when he might be touring around the country somewhere. A number of years ago he was performing in Les Misérables, and my wife, Ashley, and I went to see one of his shows. He was very kind, and he invited us to go backstage afterwards to show us around. As we passed various members of the cast and crew, he made a deliberate point of introducing us, and he introduced us in a very specific way. He said, “I'd like you to meet my pastor, Jason, and his wife, Ashley.” This is my pastor, Jason and his wife, Ashley. He did it every time we met someone. That was seemingly small and insignificant, but that was profound in its effects because what did that indicate? It meant that Nate was publicly identifying himself with Jesus, and indicating to all these people within the arts world that he had a personal relationship with his pastor. He was letting his light shine in a place where it's not altogether easy to do that. But that's part of what Jesus is talking about. We should speak up and let it be known that we're committed to Jesus.
People often like to quote the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel constantly, and if necessary, use words.” There are just two little problems with that saying. The first is that Francis of Assisi never said it. The second is that the gospel is a verbal proclamation. If the message of the gospel were simply telling you what you need to do in order to save yourself, then you could communicate that message through your actions, which other people could imitate. You could just show people the kind of life you're supposed to live in order to save yourself and they can follow your actions. But that's not what the gospel is. The gospel is not a message about what you must do in order to save yourself, but rather, it's news! It's a proclamation of what Jesus has done by his grace in order to rescue you. And you need to receive that message for yourself by faith. The gospel has to be expressed in words. It has to be communicated verbally in order for other people to embrace it. That means that at some point you have to open up your mouth and talk. You cannot remain silent if you're going to share the message of Jesus with others.
On the one hand, Jesus is telling us that we have to open up and talk in order for others to see the good work of the gospel, but our good works are not limited to verbal proclamation. Our good works include works of love, as well as faith. Our practical, visible deeds of compassion give tangible expression to our faith. It is true that you are the message, and the most effective way to communicate the message of the gospel to others is to embody it yourself. You need to look like what you're talking about, or else no one is ever going to take you seriously. You have to open up your mouth and talk but then you have to embody that same message in your actions.
Thirdly, what does Jesus want us to see happen? He wants people to see a difference in you that is so strong and so stark that at first people might misunderstand and mistreat you, but with time those very same people may come to believe and give glory to God as their Father in heaven because they eventually realize that what makes you different really is the salt that the earth needs. It really is the light that the world is hungry for.
Influence The World For Good
An authentic follower of Jesus will neither conform to the world like tasteless salt, nor withdraw from the world like invisible light, but rather, an authentic follower of Jesus will seek to positively influence the world for good. Notice what these two images of salt and light have in common.
Number one, both salt and light give and expend of themselves. What Jesus is describing here is the very opposite of any and every kind of self-centered religiosity. We don't exist merely for ourselves. As Christians we exist for the good of others. We are called to give and expend of ourselves like salt and light, and like both, we will have complementary effects in the world around us. The function of salt is primarily negative. It hinders decay. The purpose of light is primarily positive. It dispels the darkness. Likewise, Jesus calls his disciples to exert this similar kind of double influence on the world around us.
Secondly, both salt and light are meant to be penetrating. Neither one does any good from a safe distance. Salt doesn't do any good if it's left sitting on a shelf. It has to be rubbed into the meat. It has to be rubbed into the fish. It would be ridiculous to light a lamp and then to hide it under a basket, to conceal its light, and to make it invisible. Jesus calls his disciples to penetrate the world. We've got to be rubbed into the world. We've got to let our light shine. That's the only way that we can exert a positive influence on our surrounding society. We've got to be engaged in the world, rather than hiding from it.
John Stott once said, “It's good that you come to church, so long as you don't do it too often.” It's important for us to gather together on Sundays in worship because we are gathered together in worship in order to be scattered out in the world in mission. It is not the church gathered here in this sanctuary, but it is the church, the people of God, scattered in our various vocations throughout the week that will influence the world for the better. If you look around the world and you wonder why society is going bad, like rotting meat, there's no point in blaming the meat. The more important question is: Where is the salt? And if you look around the world, and it seems as if the world is shrouded in darkness, there's no point in cursing the darkness. No, the real question is: Where is the light? You are the earth's salt. You are the world's light. You have to engage without compromise.
The encouragement we find is that, number three, both salt and light will have an effect. It's guaranteed to have an effect. You can count on it. If salt is present, something happens. It hinders the decay. If light is present, something happens. It dispels the darkness. We can take comfort from this, that if we are present, we will help hinder the world's decay. We will help dispel its darkness. Notice Jesus doesn't say this is what you need to do in order to become salt and light. No, he tells us that if you are an authentic follower of Jesus, this is who you are. You are the earth salt. You are the world's light. And notice, the “you” is emphatic. It's not only emphatic in Greek, it's plural. This is not merely who we are as individuals, but this is who we are collectively as a church.
Don't get me wrong, the tension is real. The tension is real between the authentic followers of Jesus and our surrounding culture. But the tension is there for a reason. It's supposed to be that way because we're supposed to have some kind of transformative impact on our society. We're called to preserve that which is good, and beautiful, and true from corruption and decay. We're supposed to illumine those places of darkness and despair. We're called to be the salt and the light of the world. If we withdraw from the world around us out of pride, then we're not present. We can't influence the world for good. If we conform to the world around us out of fear, then we're no different, and we can't influence the world for good. It's only as we engage without compromise. It's only as we are radically present and yet radically different that we can impact the world for good with humility, courage, and love.
Still you might say: How is it even possible? How is it possible that Christians, people who are supposed to be marked by these values and standards of the kingdom of God could have an impact on our wider world? If we are the meek and the mournful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, won’t we just get squashed? Aren't we too weak, vulnerable, and marginalized to make a difference? We need to remember that the power to make a difference does not come from ourselves, but it comes from Jesus.
Jesus is the perfect embodiment of everything he spoke of in those Beatitudes. Jesus is the one who is described as being meek and lowly. He is the one who mourns over the city of Jerusalem. He is the one who shows mercy consistently, time and time again, the one who seeks peace, God’s shalom. Jesus is the one who was rejected as a false prophet. Yet, despite all of that Jesus is the true salt of the earth. When people met Jesus, they marveled at him. They'd never seen anything like him before. He was completely pure—no admixture of impurities within him. Nevertheless, people threw them out. They treated him like nothing. They trampled him under foot. Jesus is the true light of the world. He said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.” He is pure light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Even still, people tried to douse the light, but it didn't work. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. They put him to death, on top of a hill called Calvary, but from that hill, the light of his love and life continues to shine. Our responsibility is simply to reflect his light and truth to the world around us. We’re called to engage without compromise. We're called to be nonconformists. We are simply made to be different in order to make a difference by pointing people to Jesus, the world's true salt and the world's true light.
Let me pray for us.
Lord, we acknowledge that we live in this place of tension, and that's not a comfortable place to be. We try to reduce the tension by either blending in with our surroundings or by running away, but help us to see that that option is not available to your authentic followers, that we are meant to be salt and light. We must engage the world without compromise, we must be radically distinct and yet radically present at one at the same time. Show us how to do that by pointing people to the reality of who you are and what you've accomplished for us by your grace. It's in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.