Not Without Warning

The individual Christian may be a plaintiff or witness, but never a judge. — a sermon for Proper 18a

SJF • Proper 18a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.

Today’s reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel was a favorite of Saint Gregory the Great, for two reasons. First of all, the name Gregory means watchman or sentinel; secondly Gregory was the pope — although the sixth century was a time when the powers of the pope were far less far-reaching than later popes would claim. But Gregory was particularly sensitive to his role and responsibility of caregiver and watchman over the church, for he was, first and last, a pastor. Such a wise pastor was he that the book he wrote on the subject of pastoral care was so highly regarded that for centuries after when bishops were consecrated they were given a copy of Gregory’s guidebook for pastors instead of a Bible. It is not for nothing that he gained the epithet, “Gregory the Great.”

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One of the major aspects of the watchman’s work — great or small — is the task of giving a warning. In Ezekiel’s case he is given the responsibility, when he hears a word from God’s mouth, to pass it along to the people as a warning, so that they may turn from their wickedness. Note that it is not Ezekiel’s own judgment that is at issue — he is given no authority to judge others. He has not authority to condemn or even to warn them if they are merely doing something that displeases him. He is only to pass along the warning he receives from the mouth of God himself; he is not a judge but a messenger.

And the purpose of the message is not condemnation but rescue: it is a warning to save those whom God perceives doing wrong, to be headed down the wrong path. For even God does not seek to punish the wicked but rather that they would turn from their evil ways, turning back from the path of crime and folly.

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Of course this fits in well with the teaching of Jesus, who commands us not to judge others. As you know he was particularly critical of the Pharisees and other busybodies who spent their time trying to take specks out of other people’s eyes when their own eyes were blinded by a beam or a log. Jesus gives us no right to judge another.

This does not mean, however, that people have to put up with bad behavior when it is directed towards themselves. As Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you...” you have every right to go to that person and make a complaint to them. Only if and when they refuse to hear what you say are you then authorized to take other members of the church with you to confirm the evidence of a crime committed against you. Then and only then, with continued refusal to listen, is the matter to be made public to the church at large. And it is the church that is finally given the authority to determine if the person is in the wrong. In short, the individual Christian may be a plaintiff or a witness, but never, on his or her own, a judge. Only the gathered assembly of the church has the right to pronounce the verdict of judgment — and what they decide on earth is also decided in heaven. In these matters the voice of the church is understood as speaking the verdict of God.

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This is why it is so important to understand that the authority of the church is not personal but corporate. Pope Gregory understood this — though some of his successors in the papacy began to accumulate powers as if they belonged personally to the pope rather than to the pope as the senior watchman among many sentinels.

The individualistic model, in which one persons sets him or herself up as the judge over others, inevitably leads to trouble — even when the individual is wise and prudent. We have all seen what happens, especially in recent months, in the political arena when a leader ceases to listen to his people, and becomes a dictator over them rather than a good leader concerned for their care and their well-being.

This form of tyranny and judgment is particularly problematical when it happens in the church. And I say that not only because it goes against the teaching of Jesus, but because it inevitably leads to quarreling. Notice how seriously Saint Paul considered the gravity of quarreling — just how bad he considered it: listing quarreling along with jealousy, debauchery, licentiousness, reveling and drunkenness as utterly inappropriate behavior for the church.

And the solution he offers is the opposite of judgment, which is love: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Just as Jesus himself summarized all of the other commandments under the law of love of God and neighbor, Paul repeats this message in his Letter to the Romans, summing up the whole law of Moses in that one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is love, not judgment, that brings peace and harmony.

That is a solemn warning from the mouth of God himself in Christ Jesus our Lord: love and do not judge. If another member of the church does you personal harm, and wrongs you in some way, you have every right — perhaps even a responsibility — privately to let that person know they have done something to harm you. But gently, charitably, and in a spirit of forgiveness — not a spirit of judgment and restitution; for remember that Jesus also said that we are to forgive those who sin against us not on the basis of their repentance but in the knowledge that we will only be forgiven as we have forgiven them. This, ultimately, is the spirit of love, which, as Paul told the Corinthians, “bears all things.”

If the harm done to you is grave, seek out the one who has injured you and in all charity seek to fulfill the law of love in gaining that one back. If need be — if the person denies the injury or refuses to acknowledge the harm they have done to you — then and only then bring it to other witnesses or finally even to the church: but not in a spirit of quarreling or jealousy — for these are just as bad as all of the other sins that disrupt the good order of the church.

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We pass through life not without warning — warnings from God speaking in our own hearts, warnings from sisters and brothers alerting us when we have done them harm, and warnings from the church that calls us back to the fulfillment of the law of love that Christ himself ordained for us.

Beloved, let us love one another as Christ loved us and gave himself an offering and sacrifice of God, and in whose name we pray.