I was on duty for the 7am chapel service at my church this morning and wasn’t quite sure what to say, especially since the Gospel reading contained Jesus’ famously opaque words about “salt of the earth” (Mt 5.13). I had a copy of Robert Farrar Capon’s Kingdom, Grace, Judgment on my desk, and looked to see what wisdom he might offer. As usual, RFC was enormously helpful, both for those of us who are feeling like “winners” and “losers” today, who feel “dead” and “alive.”

Consider the imagery. Salt seasons and salt preserves, but in any significant quantity, it is not of itself edible, nourishing, or pleasant. On the basis of Jesus’ comparison, therefore, we are presumably meant to understand that neither his paradoxical messiahship nor his disciples’ witness to it (assuming they don’t betray it with sugary substitutes) will be all that appetizing to the world. People simply do not come in droves to anyone who insist that the only way to win is to lose. Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching is exactly that salty: “The disciple is not above his teacher,” he told his followers (e.g., Matt. 10:24-25); “ it is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher.” And he went on to spell out the meaning of that assertion in his very first prediction of his death (e.g., Matt. 16:24-25): “If anyone wants to come with me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For if anyone wants to save his life, he will lose [apolései] it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

fc550x550heather_grey-2But if the salt of the earth becomes insipid – if a disciple of Jesus forgets that lonely losing wins, and a fortiori, if the apostolic church forgets it – where in the wide world of winners drowning in the syrup of their own success will either the disciple of the church be able to recapture the saltiness of victory out of loss? The answer is nowhere. And the sad fact is that the church, both now and at far too many times in its history, has found it easier to act as if it were selling the sugar of moral and spiritual achievement rather than the salt of Jesus’ passion and death. It will preach salvation for the successfully well-behaved, redemption for the triumphantly correct in doctrine, and pie in the sky for all the winners who think they can walk into the final judgment and flash their passing report cards at Jesus. But every last bit of that is now and ever shall be pure baloney because: (a) nobody will ever have that kind of sugar to sweeten the last deal with, and (b) Jesus is going to present us all to the Father in the power of his resurrection and not at all in the power of our own totally inadequate records, either good or bad.

But does the church preach that salty message? Not as I hear it, it doesn’t. It preaches the nutra-sweet religion of test-passing, which is the only thing the world is ready to buy and which isn’t even real sugar let alone salt. In spite of all our fakery, though, Jesus’ program remains firm. He saves losers and only losers. He raises the dead and only the dead. And he rejoices more over the last, the least, and the little than over all the winners in the world. The alone is what this losing race of ours needs to hear, even though it can’t stand the thought of it. That alone is the salt that can take our perishing insipidity and give it live and flavor forever. That alone….