For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned
unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
(1 St. Peter ii. 25)
We ended last week’s sermon with the vocation and calling to become members of Jesus Christ’s Resurrected Body by embracing the forgiveness of sins in our lives. In so doing, we learned that the forgiveness of sins is really a two-edged sword meant to divide us from both sin and wickedness in our own lives, and also in the lives of others. With regard to the first, we were bidden to receive the forgiveness of our own sins. With regard to the second, we were urged to translate the forgiveness of sins received into expressions of kindness, compassion, pity, and mercy for all others. All this was given to us that we might advance in our understanding of what it means to live in and through the Resurrected Christ.
But what is so helpful about the Church’s selection of readings for our season of Resurrection is that she does not pretend that this new life we seek is easy. This morning’s Lections bear this out, though this might strike some with surprise, since this is Good Shepherd Sunday. Good Shepherd Sunday is supposed to be all about Jesus the Good Shepherd, the kindly, caring, and loving herdsman and guardian of His flock or herd. I am sure that all of this is true enough, but it doesn’t really reveal to us the deeper truth about our incorporation into the Resurrected Body that Jesus is beginning in the forty days of Easter tide.
For what we really need to discover today is what it means to become the sheep of Christ. And we can do this only when we have come to understand the nature and character of Jesus the Good Shepherd. But in order to get there we must struggle first with a problem that confronted the Apostolic Church long ago and threatens to destroy Christ’s Resurrection potential in all ages. It is brought to our attention this morning in St. Peter’s First Epistle. And the difficulty involves unjust or unmerited suffering. St. Peter addresses his letter to the newly formed churches in Asia Minor, many of whose members are servants or slaves. We don’t know the specifics of individual cases, but the general impression is that Christian slaves are having a hard time with the forgiveness of sins. Their particular struggle involves the mechanics of dealing with Masters who are punishing them irrationally, unfairly, and unjustly. And St. Peter is keen to identify with their pain and suffering.
So with specific reference to their perplexing dilemma, he says, Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. (1 St. Peter ii. 18) If he were writing as an earthly-minded pagan man, whose notions of justice and equity were circumscribed by the temporal good, we should judge his advice to be hard-hearted and cruel cold comfort. But St. Peter is not writing as a pagan and so his chief interest in not with social and political justice but with Divine freedom and eternal liberty. He writes as a member of the Body of Christ, and so he continues, For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps. (1 St. Peter ii. 21) St. Peter does not pretend in any way that such a spiritual response to earthly wickedness is easy. For, as Monsignor Knox reminds us, St. Peter remembers, too, how he followed in his Master’s footsteps, when Christ was led away to be crucified. (R.K.: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 125) He is only too conscious of the radical injustice done to his Master, Jesus Christ, and of his own response to it, when sitting by the fire in the cellar of the High Priest’s palace with the slaves. For, he had followed in the steps of the Master only to disclaim and deny Him. He remembers how easy it was for him to fall prey to the slavery of his own fear, cowardice, and the powers of this world. He responded to evil by retreating into his own sin. And these slaves know that while their slavery is unmerited, undeserved, and involuntary, Peter’s slavery was self-imposed and voluntary, the just reward and punishment for his own arrogance and pride. St. Peter, it turned out, had known a worse form of slavery –one which shackles and chains a man to his own sinful refusal to acknowledge that he is following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. He remembers that that guile was… found in his mouth, that when reviled, he reviled…again, and that when he suffered the accusation that he was one of Jesus’ friends, he nearly threatened his accusers. (Ibid)
But St. Peter now speaks from the standpoint of the forgiveness of sins. If Christ has forgiven him and called him into the new life of the Resurrection, so too should the slaves who suffer unjustly forgive their oppressors and masters. Christ suffered for our sakes…who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who when reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously…. (Ibid, 22- 24) St. Peter became a sinful slave to the evil of this world voluntarily. The slaves he addresses are the hapless victims of other men’s sins, but are in danger of being ruled and governed spiritually by the evil that enslaves them. In either case, both were slaves, but they are now invited into true spiritual emancipation and liberation through the forgiveness of sins and resurrection into new life. The slaves are given a great opportunity not only to follow Christ themselves, but also to prick the consciences of their masters, Christian or pagan, to whom they have been sent and placed as evangelists of Christ’s forgiveness of sins. And what they can reveal is that they are not slaves to their Master’s earthly sin and injustice at all, but the free sons and daughters of the living God –whose Love in them can conquer sin and evil.
For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. (Ibid, 19, 20) St. Peter is inviting the slaves and all other Christians to participate in Christ’s unjust suffering at the hands of sin. He makes it clear that if Christians do not suffer unmerited and unwarranted sin patiently and prayerfully, they might very well become enslaved to it. What I mean is that if the sin moves them to respond in kind, with evil for evil, then Christ is not alive in them. Inwardly and spiritually they will then be moved and defined by evil, or the slaves of its presence and power in their lives. For Jesus did say, If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you…if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you…. (St. John xv. 18, 20) For Christ bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness. (Ibid, 24) And, again with Monsignor Knox, Christ’s wounds are healing stripes, and His death produces, of its own efficacy, a new death and the beginning of new life in us. (Idem) So the slaves and all other believers are invited into the new life of the Resurrection, which is the life of Christ, whose wounds must always be embraced as the healing stripes, the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of new life. For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 25)
So St. Peter shows both slave and free Christians are being welcomed into the Resurrected Life of the One who has become a Slave for us all. And this Slave is the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls. He calls Himself the Good Shepherd in this morning’s Gospel, and He voluntarily becomes a Good Slave because, as He says, He giveth His life for the sheep. (St. John x. 11) So the Good Shepherd can be identified with the Slave who is employed solely and completely in the service of His appointed end, i.e. His sheep. He lays down His life for His sheep because it is the only way that His Love can become the Slave to their condition, bear its burden, and then break its chains as the forgiveness of their sins. But even beyond this, He continues to lay down His life for them in His Resurrection, Ascension, and Session at the Father’s Right Hand. The Good Shepherd does not cease to love and care for His sheep, for He continuously gives Himself to them as He opens up the sheepfold of His Body to include them in that Life which will return and reconcile them with His Heavenly Father. So Christ the Good Shepherd is always the Good Slave who waits upon His sheep. As the Eternal expression of God the Father’s Word made flesh, He has always been bound, enslaved, chained, yoked, and hobbled to the redemption and salvation of His sheep. There has never been a moment in the history of the world when God’s Word has not been wholly consumed, possessed, and moved by the burden, hardship, pain, suffering, confusion, even erring and straying of His beloved sheep.
The key for us this morning is to intend to become the sheep of Jesus Christ. This means that we had better be ready to allow the Good Shepherd to become the Good Slave and Servant of our souls and bodies. This will of course demand no small amount of humility on our part. We must be humbled if we would allow the God of the Universe to become our Slave. I do not mean a Slave whom we rule, but the Slave who rules us, because as the One who alone is chained, shackled, tethered, tied, and bound to bear the burden of Man’s slavery to sin, He only can become its Master and conqueror. He masters and conquers it because He is the perfect Slave to God’s rule of Love. We must then invite Christ into our hearts that He may break the chains of our slavery to sin. This same Jesus Christ invites us then to become the slaves of His forgiveness of sins, and then the slaves of His Resurrected Love. And in that wonderful irony that God alone can arrange Masters become slaves, slaves become Masters, sin is conquered and righteousness reigns, as the chains of Love liberate and free all men to become the faithful sheep of Jesus Christ, God’s Good Shepherd. Amen.