“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I shared some thoughts on these words some time ago; they come to mind again as members of St Luke discuss Miroslav Volf’s book “Public Faith.”
Jesus uses the words “your light,” not simply God’s light, in you: there is something particular about each community and each person (handed a candle with these light-words at baptism) that needs to be seen and known. The light catches our eye; we turn and see good works (Jesus will go on to talk about such topics as prayer and reconciliation). That light – those works – aren’t the kind that lead us to praise the “good people” doing such nice things (in Matthew 6 Jesus is quick to make the distinction). Our light and works draw attention to and praise for the Father of Jesus.“Let your light shine.”
Let your faith be public! We bristle when we hear that. Creationism is taught in public schools, religious leaders manipulate voters, a mosque is proposed near Ground Zero. (More issues here– could one even say that “Occupy Wall Street” is opposition to the influence of Mammon-ism on politics?) Religion seems to be in each week’s headlines, faith is already public. The topic has been raised – so what’s our response?Volf’s chapter on “Coercive faith” addresses what many people believe: that faith made public simply makes things worse. Doesn’t it? Shouldn’t churches be relatively silent enclaves, private places you go to? You look for some experience: divine presence, fellowship, opportunities to serve – or maybe for a place to hide from a rapidly changing world!
If there is talk about “shining your light,” the idea isn’t so much glorifying God as attracting others to join in, bolster the fortress: you want people to see what kind of great experiences they can have in your church. All are welcome! But however inclusive it may be, it’s still a private party. Whereas Jesus’ words about light recall Isaiah’s words about a public vision: “Arise, shine, for your light has come … nations shall come to your light … and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60) The nations don’t move in to the city, become Judeans, or stop being who they are. But the light opens their eyes to God and inspires them to praise in their own voices.
Faith made public may attract members. It might also mean joining “secular” causes or taking sides, while giving an “account of that hope that is in us”- “I support human rights because I believe all people are loved by God.” I’m also drawn to Volf’s idea that Christians’ primary distinct, public witness is our “vision for human flourishing.” Can we show (not just talk about) what human fulfillment looks like? Think of some of the best “public” displays of faith; the Amish forgive a murderer, a Jesuit priest in LA helps to provide jobs for former gang members. Do people just understand that these are good or peculiar people? Or don’t their actions point to God – who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good?”(Mat 5:45a) Doesn’t even our participation in worship or help for the poor raise questions to the people around us about life and God?
“You will know them by their fruits,” says Jesus in Matthew 7: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” Paul says to the Galatians (5:22): “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” People are drawn to the image of St Luke as a garden, where people grow and flourish. But this garden isn’t fenced in. The citrus tree in your neighbor’s yard, with branches stretching over the sidewalk. Faith is public so that passerby can pluck and enjoy what God is doing in and through us.