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 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.
These things have I spoken unto you, that in my ye might
have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation
but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.
(St. John xvi. 33)
Today we find ourselves on the Fifth and final Sunday of the Easter Season. Today is called Rogation Sunday because our English word is derived from the Latin word rogare, and it means to petiton, ask, or supplicate. The tradition of Rogation Sunday hails from the 4th century and was standardized in the Latin Church by Pope Gregory in the 6th century. It was originally a Roman festival called Robigalia, which comes from robigo – meaning wheat rust, a grain disease, against which pious pagans petitioned the gods by sacrificing a dog to protect their fields. To this day, in England, on Rogation Sunday clergymen and their flocks process around the parish boundaries to bless the crops and pray for fruitful harvest.
But the original purpose of Rogation Sunday goes back to Jesus’ opening words in today’s Gospel: Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you. (St. John xvi.) Jesus’ words follow the prophesy of His eventual Ascension back to the Father, where He says, In that day, ye shall ask me nothing. (Ibid, 23) Jesus was preparing His Disciples for that new risen life that He would win for them. But its possession, as we learned last week, would depend upon the coming of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus teaches us today then is that we must ask the Father in or through His Name for the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Word made flesh through whom we pray and supplicate the Father. This is why we end every prayer with through Jesus Christ our Lord. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (Ibid, 24)
Notice how Jesus concludes His exhortation about asking the Father with an intended effect – that your joy may be full. (Idem) Eastertide is all about learning to ask for what shall fulfill our heart’s deepest desire – the fullness of joy. For what else is Eastertide about than the resurrection from sin, death, and Satan and the pursuit of the joy that God has in store for us? But to become living members of Christ’s Risen Body, we must set our sights on those things which are above and not things of the earth. (Col. iii. 2) We do so with the firmest faith in the perfectly salvific and redeeming life of Jesus Christ. The custom of asking God’s blessing upon the agricultural harvest is a recognition that God’s blessing alone ensures that our bodies are fed. But at the end of the day, our Rogation prayers really ought to have more to do with asking the Father’s blessing on the plantation, fertilization, and cultivation of spiritual seeds in our souls. We must pray that His Holy Spirit will grow these spiritual embryonic beginnings into roots that anchor us in the life of the Risen Christ.
But if we are to ask God for those things that will ensure our salvation, first we must be prepared to have a personal relationship with Him. God our Heavenly Father is the origin and source of eternal joy, and so we should not expect to find His joy in the end if we have not become accustomed to His presence habitually beginning here and now. So what we must endeavor to establish is a regular routine of solitary and contemplative prayer that brings us into constant communication with our Father. Bishop K.E. Kirk has this to say about it:
Contemplation, or the Prayer of Simplicity or Quiet, is the highest interior activity of the spiritual life - indeed, it aims not at being an activity at all, but at reducing the soul to a purely passive condition in which it may listen, unimpeded by thoughts of self or the cares of the world, to the voice of God alone. 'As rest is the end of motion so contemplation is
the end of all other…internal and external exercises; for to this end, by long discourse and much practice of affection, the soul inquires and tends to a worthy object that she may quietly contemplate it and...repose with contentment in it.' (Some Principles of Moral Theology, p. 163)
Thus, stillness and quiet are necessary preconditions for the relationship that Jesus desires for us to have with our Heavenly Father. For, if in stillness and quiet we become passively open to God’s presence alone, His will and way will become evident to us. Jesus says today, The time is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in parables, but I will tell you plainly of the Father. (Ibid, 25) In stillness and quiet God will show us plainly the reason for which His Word was made flesh in Jesus Christ. I came forth from the Father, Jesus says. St. Thomas tells us that this was for three reasons: (1) That He might manifest the Father in the world: ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the Only Begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.’ (St. John i. 18) (2) To declare His Father's will to us: ‘All things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you.’ (St. John xv. 15) (3) That He might show the Father's love towards us: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him….’ (St. John iii. 16) [Easter Homilies: XII] Jesus is the manifestation to men of God the Father’s will to save all men through His love. In stillness and quiet, if we ask, God will show us also that His love was at work not only in Christ’s coming but also in His necessary departure. Christ must leave us, according to St. Thomas, because by His leaving He gives us an example. ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.’ (1 St. John ii. 15) ‘Ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.’ (St. John xv. 19) He must leave us and ascend to the Father so (1) That he might intercede with Him for us: ‘I will pray the Father.’ (St. John xiv. 16) (2) That He might give to us the Holy Spirit: ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.’ (St. John xvi. 7) (3) That He might prepare for us a place with the Father: ‘I go to prepare a place for you.’ (St. John xiv. 2) To which place may He lead us. (Idem) We can be sanctified and saved only when we seek those things which are above, through Jesus’ unending intercession for us, through the coming of His Spirit into our souls, as His desire and power congeal to carry us to the place He is preparing for us. Then, in the midst of any or all tribulation, we can be of good cheer, because we live in and through His victory – His overcoming of the world. (Ibid, 33)
Of course, we must also ask the Father to enable us to see to what extent we reflect Jesus Christ, His Word made flesh, in every step of our spiritual journey. God’s Word has been spoken through Jesus Christ in order that we might not only hear it, but obey it and live by it (St. James i. 22), as St. James says this morning. In the Word of God we should see ourselves. We must come to see what we are not by reason of sin. We must come to see what we can become if God’s Word is spoken into our lives and we are obedient to Him. St. James says that we must be willing to spend enough time – a lifetime in fact, with God’s Word, Jesus Christ, so that the teaching that He embodies leaves a stamp on our souls. Monsignor Knox tells us that St. James’ example about a being a hearer of God’s Word and not a doer – the man who looks in the mirror and forgets what manner of man he is, is much like someone who listens carefully to a reading of Thomas a Kempis’ ‘Imitation of Christ’. He understands it and thinks that the book is really about Christians like himself – he finds a reflection of himself in it. [But] it is only if he will give a good long look at our Lord’s teaching that this self-satisfied person will see the real picture which it conveys, very different indeed from the ‘self-portrait’ that he first found in it! (Epistles and Gospels: Know, p. 138) If God’s Word is heard but not obeyed, then the Christian deludes himself into thinking that he can be faithful to Christ the Word without the transformative and redemptive operations of the Holy Spirit within his soul. The man who looks conscientiously into the Word is called to find in it the perfect law of liberty, and [to continue] therein, he not being a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work that the Word commands, [so that] he [might] be blessed. (Ibid, 25)
In this morning’s Collect we acknowledge that all good things come from God. So we pray, Grant to us thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same, and again, through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Collect Rogation Sunday) First, we ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us to think about God’s goodness. Second, we pray for His Grace to perfect the same in our lives, being not only hearers of the Word but also doers of the [His] work. So real religion calls us to be still and silent, hearing and receiving the Word of God that longs to change our lives through His Holy Spirit. In humility we remember that If any man among [us] seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. The Holy Spirit helps us to remember that, Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep [ourselves] unspotted from the world. (Ibid, 26, 27)
In closing, on this Rogation Sunday, our Asking and Praying Sunday, let us listen to the wisdom of Mother Teresa, whose silent waiting upon Christ the Word moved her to overcome the world through His Risen love:
In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself (–with His Holy Spirit.) Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.
(Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: