May 1, 2022
by the Revd Fr. William Martin
This is thankworthy, that if a man for conscience endure grief,
(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 Epistle 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 joy, the surging relief and rising happiness that come to us when we meditate upon Christ’s victory over suffering, sin, and death. Is not this what Eastertide is all about? Yes. But dear old Pope Gregory the Great, who is mostly responsible for our Church Lectionary, wanted us to remember that our Resurrected life in Christ is a treasured gift to be received and perfected in willing hearts through constant battle. As joyously focused on Christ’s Resurrection as we should be, the Church Fathers knew only too well that the prudent and cautious pilgrim who seeks to enter God’s Kingdom must fight a daily battle of dying and rising.
So what we are being taught is that suffering is a necessary component in the process of our sanctification and redemption. Last week’s readings taught us that Christ’s Peace comes to us to infuse the forgiveness of sins and the New Life. 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. And what better Apostle have we than St. Peter himself, to teach us about the taming of premature zeal as we embrace the reality of the Risen Christ. He writes: 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) Peter believes and knows what Christ has done for us already. But Peter too knows that his own character had to suffer the consequences of a faith that had not been tried by fire. Peter had to die to his own sin, his own betrayal of Christ, and himself before Christ could rise in him. Peter knew too that for as long as he lived, he would be called to suffer for his newfound faith as a follower of Jesus. The union of Christ’s Suffering, Death, and Resurrection had to become for him the pattern of Jesus’ New Life. The Peace and Forgiveness of Sins, which Christ had established would become his own prized possession only by way of dying and rising. 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 called to suffer and die as the forgiveness of sins would become the Risen Truth implanted in their hearts. Christ is the forgiveness of sins that rises in man’s heart only by way of suffering for the Truth. This is the well doing of Jesus Christ that rises up only in hearts that are dying to the old man and becoming the new. God’s goodness overcomes evil, His mercy tempers 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 is quick to confess. He writes his Epistle to a community which is struggling to allow Christ’s Resurrected goodness to overcome all 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 is the temptation not to forgive. The visitation of evil upon men from the outside is of secondary importance to him. For it is only when men begin to suffer and struggle as the forgiveness of sins is born in them that they can be said, truly, 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 sins 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 neither Peter nor any other man could endure the forgiveness of sins. Yet He responded to it only with forgiveness of His enemies’ sins and the desire for their salvation. Because sin is dead to Him, He is the forgiveness of sins. 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 for them, 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. We can become His sheep, He suggests, if we begin to perceive and accept that we were lost sheep needing to be found by Christ the Good Shepherd. 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)
Christ would run some risk to reveal to us that we were His lost sheep. Belonging to Christ comes only when we realize that we were lost sheep now found by the Lord who is our Shepherd and whose rod and staff comfort us. (Psalm xxiii. 4)
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 care of God’s Good Shepherd for us. But though we are lost in sin and death, His forgiveness is 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 and what kind of sin has enveloped us. He knows that, with St. Peter, we struggle to know Him as the Good Shepherd. His knowledge penetrates the secrets of our hearts. Thus, we believe that He desires to find, heal, and save us with the rod and the staff that comfort us. The Rod that comforts us is His Cross. The Staff that comforts us is His Resurrected love. The Rod of the Cross awakens us to our betrayal and Jesus’ care despite it all. The Staff of the Resurrection herds us into the comfort of His risen forgiveness. From His Cross Jesus the Good Shepherd finds us and comforts us with His Good Death. Jesus the Good Shepherd now desires to lift us onto His shoulders and comfort us with the Risen 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 lead us into death. His Resurrection demands that the forgiveness of sins overflows from our hearts to all others. Suffering the assaults of malicious men can become the occasion for overcoming evil with good.
So today, my friends, as we continue to wend our way through Easter tide, let us remember always, with St. Peter, that we have erred and strayed from [Christ’s ways]like lost sheep. Jesus insists 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)