This is thankworthy, that if a man for conscience endure grief, suffering wrongfully. (1 St. Peter ii. 19)
Our Epistle reading for The Second Sunday after Easter, taken from St. Peter’s First Letter, continues our Easter tide theme of suffering. Last week we meditated upon how suffering and death are necessary components of Resurrection and new life. So today we continue to see how the ancient Church Fathers, who chose the readings for our liturgical season, had some deeper truth in mind when they chose our readings for Easter-tide. I believe that they wanted to be honest with us about what Resurrection entails. They wanted us to remember that human life, as joyously focused on Christ’s Resurrection as it should be, is more honestly experienced as a life in tension between dying on the one hand and rising on the other. What I mean is that the Church Fathers knew only too well that for the prudent and cautious pilgrim life involves spiritual warfare – a real battle between dying to sin and rising into righteousness.
So, this Sunday the Church Fathers ask us to understand again that suffering is a good and virtuous part of a greater whole. Last week we spoke of how Christ’s Peace comes to us in order to convey and express the forgiveness of sins, and an invitation into new life. Today we learn that the process of its possession involves something which we are inclined to ignore, neglect, or fall away from when left to our own natural desires. St. Peter tells us this morning, 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) St. Peter knows that Christ has offered to us that Peace that conquers and overcomes our spiritual resistance and obduracy to it. He knows, too, that the Lord extends to us what amounts to the forgiveness of sins, whose reception must be so gratefully received and then offered to others. Christ’s Peace and Forgiveness overwhelmed and overcame the Apostles. What they neither anticipated, imagined, nor deserved began to grow in their hearts and their souls. Christ has risen from the dead; Resurrection means not only God’s forgiveness of man but man’s forgiveness of man. 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 well doing, by forgiving, by praying, by blessing, by hoping -by suffering these virtues to come alive in his soul, the Christian is to stand out in the pagan world as one whose life reveals how good overcomes evil, mercy vanquishes cruelty, benevolence banishes malevolence, hope crushes despair, and light dispells darkness. Yet, St. Peter acknowledges that this will be difficult. He writes his Epistle to a community which is struggling to overcome evil with good, or, more specifically, to suffer Christ’s Resurrected goodness to overcome all and every form of evil that stubbornly and resentfully resists the Gospel. St. Peter does not pretend that Christians are not engaged in spiritual warfare; but he does seem intent upon directing their attention to the spiritual battle against evil in their own souls, and away from the evil that others might visit upon them. The failure to love and forgive on the outside is always a deflective measure designed to protect the self from the needful confrontation of one’s own demons!
St. Peter reminds his flock and us today that Christ Jesus was the one Person in history who understood and underwent this struggle completely and perfectly, and unlike any other. St. Peter tells us that Jesus himself, our God and our Brother, took upon and into Himself the effect of sin in suffering and death, despite the fact that 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) In a radical and real way the wrongful presence and seeming power of evil in our world tortured and killed Jesus Christ. And yet He suffers its effects with the love that penetrates the heart of darkness. He did not render evil for evil, because He died to sin –both to its meaninglessness and to its malice. For in suffering and enduring sin’s assault, He carried it into its proper end, i.e. death. Within Himself, the goodness, the love, the compassion, the pity, and the forgiveness of sins remained and prevailed: 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; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 24,25)
What the Apostles realized long ago was that Jesus Christ, the Crucified One, rose up on Easter Day as the Wounded Healer. What they began to realize slowly but surely was that this same Jesus who had forgiven men from the Cross, was now standing before them as the Good Shepherd, whose Peace and Forgiveness would shepherd them and others into the Father’s everlasting care and embrace. In the parable that He uses in this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus likens himself to both the door and the Good Shepherd who longs to carry us through it to the Father’s eternal presence. We can become His sheep if we begin to know His love and submit to his care. Austin Farrer explains Jesus’ words in this way:
What does he 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, Dr. Farrer insists. He might have added that we do not belong, truly, to this world, to the flesh, and certainly not to the devil. He is saying that we belong to God. And to belong to God we must come to know him through His Son and Word. We cannot come to know our Heavenly Father again without the Peace and Forgiveness enfleshed in the saving life of Jesus. If we begin to open our hearts to His gifts of Peace and Forgiveness, we shall begin to know that we belong to Christ. 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) True enough. And if we leave it at that, we will be worshipping Jesus a dead and tragic hero. But He responds to our sin. He rises up and calls us forward. I am the Good Shepherd, and I give my life for my sheep…I am the Good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known by them. (St. John x. 11, 14) Jesus tells us that He knows us. He knows who we are and what we need. He gives His life for us, not only in His dying but also in His rising. He has killed sin, death, and Satan so that in and through His loving care we might rise up out of it all. His desire for us is constant and promises salvation if we come to know and embrace Him. Death did not destroy His desire, nay rather it is a necessary component of new life that Christ the New Man offers to us. The Father desired that death should be made good in the demise of His Son. Jesus the Good Shepherd was carrying us on His shoulders into our death. Jesus the Good Shepherd now carries all men on His shoulders up and into a life as suffering becomes something new. To love is to suffer. Jesus’ suffering for us is that virtous Personal loving energy that enables us to die and to rise. We can begin to know Him, Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, and that though [we] walk through the valley and shadow of death, [we] shall fear no evil, for [he] is with us, [his] rod and staff comfort [us]…, and that [He even] prepares a table before us in the presence of [our] enemies; [He] anoints [our] head with oil; [our] cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Ps. xiii. 4-end)
Today, my friends, as we continue to wend our way through Easter tide, let us always remember that, indeed, we have erred and strayed from [Christ’s ways]like lost sheep. And yet He knows this, for we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. (Ps. c. 3) We belong to Him and He suffers now to find and rescue us that He might restore us to our Heavenly Father. 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)