A Reflection for World Quaker Day
Picture the scene. There are people all around, voices low. The famed social critic and prophetic speaker John the Baptist has been taken away to a place where he will be assassinated in a graphically gruesome manner. Word has spread. People are shaken and unsettled. Is it safe to go out to a public meeting?
But still they come—you come—taking the risk in order to hear from the person John had spoken about, whose very name, Yeshua (Jesus to Greek speakers), is steeped in the country’s story. He was brought up by a father who was an ancestor of the legendary king David, and he is so important that the great John the Baptist said he was not worthy to carry even this man’s sandals.
And then he speaks. But he doesn’t talk much about himself at all. Instead he welcomes and affirms those with no or low pay (the poor), people who are sad (those who mourn), people committed to nonviolence (the meek), activists (those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), pacifists (the peacemakers), powerful people who try to act kindly (the merciful), and people who try to live lives uncontaminated by the military occupation of their lands (the pure in heart).
Then, after some words of encouragement to sustain perseverance, he declares “You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14 NIV). And so begins the great Sermon on the Mount, passed down to us through the Gospel of Matthew, a multi-chapter vision of how the world would be very different if people who call themselves Christians actually did what Jesus said.
I’d like to pause, though, on those words: “You are the light of the world.” Earlier this year, Quaker pastors and leaders in Kenya prayerfully discerned Matthew 5:14 as the unifying Bible verse for World Quaker Day (October 2), a day when Quaker groups will send and receive visitors to and from one another, in order to strengthen our connections.
Usually my preferred approach to Bible reading is total immersion: I imagine myself in the scene, get caught up in the story, and let the story, in turn, get caught up in me. Satisfying as that is, it’s also good to slow down and zoom in: to really examine the riches that reside in short sentences. So it is with those words “You are the light of the world.”
The crowd that was gathered to hear Jesus speak might reasonably have expected him to begin by declaring “I am the light of the world.” Indeed the modern reader might, too; John 8:12 is where he says exactly that, and it remains the better-known quote. But instead Jesus begins by saying it isn’t all about him; it’s about all of us, together.
But what would they have understood by the word “light”? From “Let there be light” (Gen.1:3) onwards, the early use of the word light in the Bible means (on the face of it) what you’d probably expect it to: the thing that allows us to see more clearly. In the Psalms, it takes a broader meaning: the way that God allows us to clarify things. It’s in those great ancient voices for justice and change, the prophets, however, that the light is used most as a synonym for divine goodness.
Debate may well have broken out among early Christians as to the meaning of these words, and it seems likely that the opening of John’s Gospel was written to address that discussion. His opening passage is clear: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all” (Jn.1:4). This is emphasized in John’s letter: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light” (1 Jn.1:5). We are each of us in Christ; in God; and so, in turn, divine light is in each of us. Hence comes the Quaker saying “that of God in everyone,” and the Inner Light/Light of Christ in all.
Friends in Baraka, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo celebrate World Quaker Day 2021. Photos courtesy of FWCC World Office.
But let’s pause again. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Who is the “you” he is talking to here?
From the gospel stories taken together, we know that Jesus’s followers consisted principally of the marginalized and oppressed, in particular colonized peoples; a good many disabled people; many people from what we’d now call working-class backgrounds; and many more women in leadership roles than would have been typical in the deeply patriarchal structures of that society. There were more privileged sympathizers, even some Roman soldiers after a while, but principally, it was a movement of the dispossessed.
And here is Jesus addressing them, saying that you (plural)—the oppressed—are the light of the world. Then and now this is a starkly radical message. Quakers, of course, have been persecuted and in some places still are, but in other places are not. Can we square this with the belief that there is that of God in everyone? In short, yes. At Pentecost (Acts 2), God pours His Spirit on all people, even, as is discussed in the letters, on some who might surprise us. In Jesus’s physical life, though, he spoke first and foremost for and with those on the fringes of society.
But then there’s another word. He says you are the light of the “world”—not the “earth.” When the Bible talks about the earth, it usually refers to the ground, the land, the soil, or what we’d call the planet. In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth. In Matthew, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. In the preceding passage, he calls his listeners the “salt of the earth” (Mt.5:13).
The word “world” more often refers to the age, the times, the system, the ways things are ordered, which is typically out of sync with God’s love. At his trial Jesus says, “my Kingdom is not of this world,” which I take to mean that the Kingdom of Heaven is not compatible with the system of empire.
Yet in this great opening speech, Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth” but then says “the light of the world.” This world, the world system of his time, was dominated by violence and inequality, and there are so many echoes of that time in our own. I take this phrase to mean—to borrow again from John—that then as now, there is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn.1:5). Both then and now, there is still hope in love and in following Christ: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn.8:12).
Northside Friends Meeting in Chicago on World Quaker Day 2019.
And so we have our unifying theme for October 2, when we’re each encouraged to visit a Quaker group from another country or tradition, in person or online, which includes a global, online invitation to Lang’ata Friends Church in Nairobi, where there will be representatives of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). “Being Salt and Light” was the theme of our 2012 World Conference in Kenya, which discerned the Kabarak Call for Peace and Ecojustice, which has shaped much of our work since then. It’s fitting to reflect on that passage again, this year in October, as global Quaker attention returns to East Africa.
Quakers at the 2012 World Conference of Friends in Kenya.
Then let’s remember how these verses finish: “A city on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket” (Mt. 5:14-15). Every one of us has something to share with a visitor from elsewhere or to bring to others we spend time with, even if it is as simple as a ministry of presence. Our connections strengthen us and can lead us to new ways of letting our light shine, so that others might see the good work going on and be inspired to do likewise.
This year’s theme for World Quaker Day is “becoming the Quakers the world needs,” in recognition that we are not there yet. In community, though, we can equip ourselves to be not only the Quakers the world needs but the Friends that the earth needs, too.
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