13th Sunday after Trinity

31 August 2017

Ezekiel 33.7-11; Psalm 119.33-40; Romans 13.8-end; Matthew 18.15-20

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Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

EXPLORATION of the prophet’s unique position as guardian, critic, regulator, and, in a certain sense, leader of God’s people continues this week as God instructs Ezekiel.

The picture is an austere one, which envisages the destruction that is inevitable when God’s warning is ignored (Ezekiel 33.7-11). What is at issue is the responsibility for the destruction of the disobedient. If they have heard the “sentinel” announcing an advancing army, and failed to address their way of life, what follows will be their own fault. If, on the other hand, the prophet has heard God’s warning, and not relayed it to the people, then their fate will be the result of his negligence.

There ought to be an obvious link between God’s pronouncement and the fall of Jerusalem. The link is there, but it is a retrospective one. Ezekiel is prophesying to those already in exile (J. Galambush, “Ezekiel” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. John Barton and John Muddiman, Oxford University Press, 2001).

The instructions that come with the word of the Lord (Ezekiel 33.1) call prophet and people alike to reflect and to adopt a pattern of behaviour that will guarantee the preservation of life in the future, since it is not God’s wish to bring destruction.

The compilers of the Book of Common Prayer found enough practical significance in this passage to refer to it on two occasions. Both entail the responsibility of the Church’s ministers. In the absolution pronounced at Morning and Evening Prayer, the officiant promises that God “desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live” (Ezekiel 33.11).

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Candidates for the priesthood are reminded at their ordination “how weighty” is “the office and charge [to which] you are called: That is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord”.

Matthew 18.15-20, in translations using inclusive language, gives the impression that the writer has something like a church community in mind. But here, “member of the church” (NRSV) replaces the Greek “brother”.

The advice given would be good practice for any self-regulating community. It chooses the course of reasonableness and discretion rather than public example and humiliation as the first approach in dealing with an internal disciplinary problem: first the personal approach; then the more formal discussion confirmed by witnesses (the pattern of Deuteronomy 19.15).

Only if these measures fail should the offender be denounced in public and excluded — probably temporarily — from the community (Matthew 18.17).

Jesus now extends the authority for teaching and discipline particularly promised to Peter to the other disciples (Matthew 16.19, 18.18). This is immediately followed by instructions on prayer in the name of Jesus. This might include taking problems of community behaviour into a prayerful forum, but the promise is wider. Whenever even a very small group gathers under the name and in the authority given by Jesus, they can be assured that their resurrected Lord is with them.

Peter is clearly struck by the careful process for the investigation of offences within the company of believers. He seeks a limit that would reflect the care and generosity that Jesus has outlined. Jesus reminds him that limits do not play a part in this discussion: just as God is infinitely generous, so God’s people are to forgive wholeheartedly. The parable that illustrates this (Matthew 18.21-35) follows next week.

The list of principles for Christian living which Paul offers to the Romans might, in one way, provide a gloss on the Gospel reading, with its advice about love of neighbour as the “fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13.10).

That is excellent advice on any terms, but it is more than an ethical guideline. Paul is addressing people who, through their baptism, have entered a new time. It is a time to “wake from sleep” and grasp the promise of salvation, which is now very near (Romans 13.11). The imagery of light and darkness which enters into baptismal language very early makes a strong contrast here.

Christians who have chosen a new way of life are putting their former lives behind them, and being clothed in the garments of a new life (see Galatians 3.27, Colossians 3.12). “Armour” is a reminder that being reclothed points both to innocence and to an ongoing struggle against evil (see Ephesians 6.13-17).

But this goes beyond clothing. Those who have professed their faith in Christ put on a new identity: they take on the nature, the death, and the resurrection, of Christ. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17).

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