Who are the pillars of the church? If others look to you as a “pillar of the church,” what kind of pillar are you?
Jesus answers that question in our gospel reading for this morning, but to get to his answer we’ve got to exercise the discipline of historical context. We’ve got to put his words and images in the context of the culture of his day. So here we go . . .
Anyone who has ever had a class on Greek and Roman culture has had to recall and recognize the three distinctive types of architectural columns used to support the stately monuments, temples, and public buildings that adorned their world. Let’s see how well you remember your columns…anyone?
I’ll give a hint: Doric is one.
There you go. The three are the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian. These three styles of supportive pillars framed the graceful entrances of some of the most imposing, majestic architectural wonders the world has ever known.
Yet today they stand in ruins. Time, decay, wars, earthquakes, floods have left us little to look at except a few of those stately pillars. The glory of the Parthenon, the grandeur of the Coliseum, are merely hinted at by the few remaining columns that still stand upright and intact, like the bones of some long extinct dinosaur. The pillars remain. But the people and powers that put them up long ago crumbled into the dust of history.
In the ancient world pillars could be either a sign of welcome or a sign of warning: a portal into new possibilities, or a symbol of a last outpost, a sign of the end.
The so-called “Pillars of Hercules” — the mountain peaks that flank either side of the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar — have shared both of those titles. The Pillars supposedly marked the farthest reaches of Hercules’ journeys during his “twelve labors.” They were symbols of the end of the world and were believed to be inscribed with the warning “nec plus ultra” — “nothing further beyond.” The original understanding of the Pillars of Hercules was as a huge “do not enter” sign before the waters of the unknown and the worlds that lay beyond the Mediterranean. Too many “pillars of the church” are like these “Pillars of Hercules” beyond whom no one might sail.
But by the time of Charles V, aka “the Holy Roman Emperor,” the symbol of the Pillars of Hercules offered a different message. As Spanish explorers sails across the Atlantic to the Americas these “Pillars” were re-christened to proclaim “Plus Ultra” — “Further Beyond.” In other words, the Pillars had gone from being a protective gate closing in the Mediterranean to being the entrance gate opening into a whole new world of possibilities. These are the kinds of “Pillars of the Church” that Jesus summons forth.
In biblical texts, pillars also have a mixed message. When Abraham and his family fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, they didn’t all make it out alive. Lot’s wife disobeyed the angelic instructions to “not look back” at the cities they had left behind and the result was her immediate transformation into a “pillar of salt.” This is definitely not a good pillar. Lot’s wife does not go forward, instead she turns back to her past. Biblical tradition suggests that it was the outpouring of her tears that created her “saltiness.” She so mourned for a life that was now past, and her lament over her losses so immobilized her, that she cried herself to death, unable to move forward into the new future that God was offering them.
Other biblical pillars are more positive. When the Hebrew slaves fled Egypt they were guided through the wilderness by two distinctly divine “pillars” — a pillar of smoke or cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. God’s “pillars” are always on the move. They pointed the way forward. They kept the people of God in forward motion. They did not block progress, they encouraged egress. To reach the Promised Land the Israelites had to keep up with God, the God of Smoke and Fire who stood by them and never abandoned them, but the God who forever led them onward.
When Jesus addressed his audience in what Matthew’s gospel calls the “Sermon on the Mount” his audience was almost entirely Jewish. Jesus’ opening statements, the “beatitudes,” extolled behaviors and attitudes that were well recognized in Jewish wisdom literature. But with a difference.
Jesus did not promise that these actions and attitudes would serve those who practiced them well in the world. In Jewish wisdom teachings doing good generally resulted in getting you a tangible reward. Good deeds yielded good rewards. Jesus’ “beatitudes” did not promise this ethical equation. In fact, Jesus’ “beatitudes” warned that this world would not always recognize the rightness of righteousness. Jesus looked ahead to the “kingdom of God,” to a time of divine fulfillment, when the actions and attitudes of those who were mournful, meek, and merciful, those who were pure, righteous, persecuted, and peacemaking, would find their reward in God’s kingdom.
Immediately, then, Jesus calls on his people to be “salt.” Two of the most important chemicals our bodies consume are water and salt, H20 and NaCl. Jesus loved to explore both these images of water and salt. Today it salt’s turn.
Jesus wants us to become salt. Why? Salt flavors and preserves. But becoming “salt” is not always good. Wasn’t becoming salt the curse that petrified Lot’s wife? What kind of “saltiness” did Jesus envision for the people whom he was challenging to walk towards the kingdom of God?
The key to understanding Jesus’ image of salt as positive is combining saltiness with mobility — a “moveable” pillar of salt. What might have been a new image for Jesus’ Galilean audience is something that is now found on every dining table. A “moveable” pillar of salt is a simply a salt shaker, an accessible, at hand, delivery system for the salt of the earth.
That is what Jesus called the people to be. Salt shakers. Accessible. Available. Always at hand when reached for. Able to move to where the salty tang of God’s kingdom was most needed. Jesus always spoke about the kingdom of God as something that was both “fulfilled” by his presence, yet was also a reality that was still to come. To live in God’s kingdom that is both “now” and “not yet” requires disciples to always be in forward motion, a Carpe Manana moving towards a future that is forever being unveiled.
Jesus’ disciples are called to flavor that future with the good news of the gospel, acting as salt to a planet that is yearning for a taste of God’s power and presence. The pillars of God’s kingdom are not found in immoveable fortresses of stone, the “Pillars of Hercules” beyond which no one might sail. The pillars of God’s kingdom are not found in unchanging Sunday morning practices of “meet and greet” or “park and pray.” The pillars Jesus called us to be are salt shakers — going out into the world, moving forward into the future, offering a taste of God’s kingdom everywhere we go and to all we encounter.
After an Elvis Presley concert, exhausted, excited, frenzied fans would continue to crowd the stage area, not wanting to leave in case the singer might reappear. Finally concert organizers learned that he only way to get the people moving was to make the announcement — “Elvis has left the building!”
Jesus isn’t found in our pillars of stone or in a fossilized faith that can no longer move into the future. Jesus is calling us forward into the kingdom he fulfilled and into the kingdom that is forever unfolding.
“Jesus has left the building.” But he beckons us to join him on a journey into the world, and to bring the salty goodness of the gospel with us for everyone to sample.
Leonard Sweet Commentary, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2011, 0-000-1415