Readings: Ezek. 33. 7-11; Rom. 13. 8-end; Matt. 18. 15-20
One of the formative experiences of having grown up playing sport is that you get used to the notion of being warned about things. In the case of football, a sport dear to my own heart, this is exemplified by the two-tier system of yellow and red cards. If you commit an offence and the referee catches you, you receive a yellow card. That is to say, any more like that and you are off. Being issued a red card, signals that you are to leave the field and for you the game is over. It is a simple system and it is one which is adopted by a variety of sports as a way of giving players a warning that actions have consequences.
The Bible is full of these yellow and red cards. Warnings are issued by God to humanity to indicate that if we carry on the way we are bad things will happen. The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel, shows Ezekiel in this referee mode of warning the Israelites. He is called to warn the people of Israel that only through faithfulness to God will the Temple be restored to Jerusalem, following the final years of the collapse of the kingdom of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem due to idolatry and lawlessness.
He is speaking these words from his exile in Babylon following these cataclysmic events and his purpose is to tell those exiles, whom he is with in Babylon, that the hope of Israel rests with them, because those who remain in Israel have not heeded the various ‘yellow cards’ that they have been issued by the prophets: ‘But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity’. Israel has been warned! The red card will be issued in the form of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, the end of the monarchy and the deportation of all in Israel, under the so-called ‘Babylonian captivity’.
When we come to our Gospel reading for today, the focus of the warning is also on what happens to communities when they sin. In this case, however, it is very much focused on what we might call ‘eye witness testimony’. As the early Christian communities began to form, following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the struggles to live a communal life in the power of the Holy Spirit became real-life, day-to-day issues. The passage we have in Matthew probably indicates procedures that had been adopted in these early Christian communities when disputes broke out amongst its members. We are given a set of procedures for how to deal with these struggles and they represent a mounting set of warnings that ultimately result in the exclusion of the offender member from the community. This takes four steps in the case of the Gospel, rather than the two, as in Football, but the result is the same: failure to head warnings results in exclusion from the field of play. In the case of the Christian community, this exclusion means being treated as a ‘Gentile and a tax-collector’, being placed outside of the inner life of the community.
This early Jewish and Christian system of warnings, issued to the community through the mediation of the prophets and the leaders of the early church, is one which is set within the context of hope and not simply of punishment. The reason that people are warned is that it is a way of helping them realize that so much more is on offer than the smaller vision with which they are evidently operating. For the Israelites, Ezekiel is reminding the Jewish community back in Israel, that their hope lies in the coming of the new Jerusalem which will fulfil all their expectations and hopes and some.
In the case of the early Christian communities, they are reminded that though the Lord Jesus has departed from them, he will return in glory to restore the fullness of his kingdom and bring about the triumphant community of heaven on earth. This expectation is the bigger picture of what can seem like rather minor disciplinary measures with various systems of red and yellow cards operating in their biblical formats.
So, warnings are God’s ways of telling us that actions have consequences and that our actions should be orientated not to the short-term often selfish goals, of sin and purely personal gain, as was probably the case of the incident being recounted in our Gospel, but that they should be oriented to the long term: to the final whistle, so to speak.
But what is the long term, what does the final whistle signal as occurring? It signifies the renewal of the earth by heaven, or more accurately, the transformation of the earth into heaven. The warnings that we receive are meant to indicate that our patterns of behaviour are in some way in contradiction to the patterns of this transformation.
We might take, as a current example, the issue of climate change. There have been issued, especially in recent times, a series of yellow cards regarding the consequences of our actions for the planet and for all those who live on it, not forgetting the consequences for future generations. And I know that many people are deeply concerned about this, because whilst it may not so much affect older generations, it will be devastating for our children and grandchildren. The warnings issued by scientists and watchers of the environment, such as farmers and fisher men and women around the word, is that if we do not change our ways, life on earth, as we currently know it, will be jeopardized.
The Christian understanding of this warning should be placed into the context of a bigger biblical picture. The whole cosmos is called to be transformed, in the fullness of time, into the heavenly kingdom. You, me, animals and plants, the whole set of galaxies and stars will become the New Jerusalem that the prophet Ezekiel had warned the ancient Israelites would be coming.
Such a bigger picture is also meant to illustrate that divisions in churches and communities, between families and nations, are ultimately going against the grain of God’s plan, which is to unite all with God.
So, let’s keep awake to this bigger picture. There are plenty of warnings to it, if we are able to keep our eyes and ears open. More than simply fear of the negative consequences that result from failing to heed these warnings, we Christians, should rather be inspired by what God has in store for us, the transformation of earth into heaven and the welcoming of us all into God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.