This is thankworthy, that if a man for conscience endure grief, Suffering wrongfully.
(1 St. Peter ii. 19)
You might think it strange that our Epistle reading for The Second Sunday after Easter taken from St. Peter’s First Letter should speak of suffering. After all we are in Eastertide. We meditated upon suffering at length on Good Friday. Surely now we are meant to focus more on the positive joy, the surging and rising happiness that comes to us when we meditate upon Christ’s victory over suffering, sin, and death. Is this not what Eastertide is all about? Yes, but the Church Fathers who gathered our Easter tide lections wanted us to remember that our Resurrected life in Christ is no automatic showering of Grace. As joyously focused on Christ’s Resurrection as we should be, the Church Fathers knew only too well that the prudent and cautious pilgrim life that leads to God’s Kingdom involves an ongoing battle between dying to oneself in Christ before we can rise in Him.
So what we are being taught is that suffering is a necessary component in the process of our sanctification and redemption. Last week we spoke of how Christ’s Peace comes to us in order to generate the forgiveness of sins and new life in us. Today we learn that the assurance of its rule in our lives demands a kind of spiritual suffering that tends to be threatened by the devices and desires of our own hearts. St. Peter presents us with the rule: 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. (1 St. Peter ii. 19,20) He knows that Christ has offered to us that communion Peace with God the Father that overcomes all evil with goodness. He knows, too, that in this Peace the Lord extends to us the forgiveness of sins, which gift, if received in a grateful heart, should inspire us to suffer patiently as His goodness is established in our souls. This is the Peace and Forgiveness of Christ that overcame the Apostles long ago. What they neither anticipated nor imagined began to grow in their hearts as the power of God and the love of God. For I have given you an example, that ye should do [to one another] as I have done to you. (St. John xiii. 15)
For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. (Ibid, 15) The message is clear. By embracing the forgiveness of sins, Christians are now situated to impart the same forgiveness to all others. The forgiveness of sins is given that it might be shared with others as the goodness of God alive in the heart. This is the well doing with which Christians overcome evil with good. God’s goodness overcomes evil, His mercy vanquishes judgment, His generosity destroys selfishness, and His forgiveness breathes love and hope into new lives. That the reception of this reality will be difficult, St. Peter acknowledges. He writes his Epistle to a community which is struggling to allow Christ’s Resurrected goodness to overcome all and every form of evil that stubbornly resists it in the human heart. St. Peter knows only too well that Christians are engaged in spiritual warfare. But what he wants to emphasize is the battle going on in men’s souls with their own demons. The visitation of evil upon men from the outside is of secondary importance to him. For it is only when men begin to suffer the truth of their own vices that the forgiveness of sins can begin to be found and embraced as what enables them to be Risen with Christ.
St. Peter reminds his flock and us today that Christ Jesus was the only Person in history who endured and overcame evil through goodness because the loving forgiveness of God was perfectly alive in His heart. St. Peter tells us that Jesus Himself, our Lord and Brother, in Himself, endured man’s sinful desire to torture and kill God. Yet in response to it, He did not sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered he threatened not; but committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously. (1 St. Peter ii. 22,23) Christ was killed because man could not bear that God’s living love possessed and defined the whole of His being. Yet He responded to it only with forgiveness of His enemies and desire for their salvation. Because sin was dead to Him, He forgave. Because God’s goodness saturated His heart, He longed to love His enemies into friendship with God. In His suffering death, Christ rendered Fallen Man’s sin powerless and meaningless. Who in His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed; For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 24,25)
What the Apostles realized long ago was that the Crucified Jesus who rose up from death on Easter Day was God’s Good Shepherd. But what became clearer and clearer was that the Good Shepherd, in laying down His life, had actually already begun the process of seeking out His lost sheep from the hard and rough terrain of the Cross. What moved out from the Cross of His love was the forgiveness of sins that loves the sinner much more than his sin. In this morning’s Gospel parable, Jesus likens himself to both to the Good Shepherd and the door through which He will carry us back to the Father’s eternal presence. We can become His sheep, He suggests, if we begin to perceive and accept His intention and need to find and to save us. Dr. Farrer explains Jesus’ words in this way:
What does Jesus say? A man cares naturally for his own things. He does not have to make himself care. The shepherd who has bought the ground and fenced the fold and tended the lambs, whose own the sheep are to keep or to sell, cares for them. He would run some risk, rather than see them mauled; if he had only a heavy stick in his hand, he would beat off the wolf…He says that he cares for us as no one else can, because we are his. We do not belong to any other man; we belong to him. His dying for us in this world is the natural effect of his unique care. It is the act of our Creator. (Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament: Easter II)
We do not belong to any other man. We belong to God through His only-begotten Son. This belonging comes through the desire and care of Jesus Christ. It is only through God’s Peace and Forgiveness made flesh in the saving life of Jesus that we can belong to our Heavenly Father again.
But we protest: All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every man to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah liii. 6) We do not deserve the desire and care of God’s Good Shepherd for us. But though we are lost in sin and death, His forgiveness and love are greater. I am the Good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known by them. (St. John x. 11, 14) Jesus tells us not only that He loves us but that He knows us. He knows who we are, where we have landed, and what kind of sin has enveloped us. He knows our deepest fears and the enduring pain of their persistent attacks. Because His knowledge penetrates into the secrets of our hearts, His desire to find, help, heal, and save us has extended into human life, has moved through death, and has risen up into new life. His life and death were but the beginning moments of an uninterrupted passion that would carry us back from earth to heaven. His death already began to reveal the new life that He intended to make in us. From His Cross Jesus the Good Shepherd came to find us and to carry us on His shoulders into death. Jesus the Good Shepherd now desires to lift us onto His shoulders and into the new life where sin, death, and Satan can harm us no more.
Because we belong to Jesus, we can reciprocate His desire for us. We can begin to know Him as the Good Shepherd, who prepares a table before us in the presence of [our] enemies; [who will] anoint [our] head with oil; [so that our] cup runneth over. (Ps. xxiii. 5) His forgiveness of our sins can become our forgiveness of other men’s sins. Our enemies can become those whom we can touch with His Peace and Forgiveness. Suffering the assaults of malevolent men or desperate demons can become occasions for overcoming evil with good and hatred with love.
So today, my friends, as we continue to wend our way through Easter tide, let us always remember that, God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…[and that] if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans v. 8, 10) Let us remember too that we have erred and strayed from [Christ’s ways]like lost sheep. Yet still He insists that we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. (Ps. c. 3) We belong to Him and He longs to have us forever. And so, as Cardinal Newman says, Let us not be content with ourselves; let us not make our own hearts our home, or this world our home, or our friends our home; let us look out for a better country, that is, a heavenly. Let us look out for Him who alone can guide us to that better country; let us call heaven our home, and this life a pilgrimage; let us view ourselves, as sheep in the trackless desert, who, unless they follow the Shepherd, will be sure to lose themselves, sure to fall in with the wolf. We are safe while we keep close to Him, and under His eye; but if we suffer Satan to gain an advantage over us, woe to us!… Blessed are we who resolve—come good, come evil, come sunshine, come tempest, come honour, come dishonour—that He shall be our Lord and Master, their King and God!… and with David, that in “the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil, for He is with us, and that His rod and His staff comfort us…(The Shepherd of Our Souls) Amen.