For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned
unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
(1 St. Peter ii. 25)
In Eastertide, we are called to become members of Jesus Christ’s Resurrected Body by embracing the forgiveness of sins in our lives. In so doing, we must acknowledge 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 from sin 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 forgiveness of all others, hope for their salvation, intercession from them, and then, of course, the usual acts of kindness, compassion, pity, and mercy that are second nature to the Christians who are grafted into the life of the Crucified One. Did I say the Crucified One? Of course. Our Resurrected, Ascended, Glorified Lord Jesus is nothing if the Father doesn’t see us through the Whole Glorified Christ, through His Wounded Hands, Feet, and Side.
So, I begin our sermon, with a dire warning that our return to God will be through Jesus Christ, the Crucified Wounded Healer. It will not be easy. This might strike many people with surprise since this is Good Shepherd Sunday. Most people think that Good Shepherd Sunday ought to be about Jesus the kindly caring, gentle herdsman of tender lambs. And while this might be true for Hallmark and the Mormons, in another way it reveals a superficial, half-baked, and even diabolical version of Jesus Christ.
Christ, the Crucified One is indeed the Good Shepherd but His goodness is offered to His sheep with conditions. As we become His sheep, the censorious and demanding character of Jesus the Good Shepherd will become clearer to us. What the sheep of Christ look like and what the Good Shepherd expects are illustrated in this morning’s First Epistle of St. Peter. St. Peter is describing unjust or unmerited suffering. He writes 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 unfairly and tyrannically. St. Peter is keen to identify with their pain and suffering since he thinks that if they consecrate it more faithfully to Jesus the Good Shepherd, they will abide in Christ more securely as they make their way to the Kingdom.
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 are always measured but an earthly standard, we should judge his advice to be hard-hearted and full of cruel cold comfort. But St. Peter is not writing as an heathen and so his chief interest in not with social and political justice but with Divine and lasting spiritual 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 injustice and tyranny 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 fear-driven cowardice and powerlessness in the fact of it. When he had been sitting by the fire in the cellar of the High Priest’s palace, he was surrounded by slaves. Here were those who were chained to other men. Here was he who was shackled and enslaved to his own terror, pusillanimity, and impotence. He responded to evil by retreating into his own sin. The slaves who surrounded him were in chains because of other men’s evil. Peter was afraid of the same evil that bound the slaves. Yet, his slavery was self-imposed and voluntary, the just reward and punishment of his own betrayal. Peter had become a slave to a far more cruel master than any earthly slaveholder. He feared imminent death by reason of association with Jesus. And because he was guilty of denying Jesus before the cock had crowed, he feared judgment. He remembered 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 threatened his accusers. (Ibid)
But now in today’s Epistle, St. Peter speaks as one who has received the forgiveness of sins made flesh in His Master, Jesus Christ. Christ has forgiven him who once was the slave of sin and now He calls him into the new life of the Resurrection. Now, Peter exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to 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: who 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 ye were healed. (Ibid, 22- 25) 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 wickedness, and yet they are in danger of being possessed spiritually by the evil that oppresses them. Both Peter and earthly slaves are now invited into true spiritual liberation through Christ who is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection and 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, because they can become evangelists for the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. What they can reveal is that they are the free sons and daughters of the living God –whose Love in them can conquer all manner of wickedness because the evil of other men must never be an excuse for unfaithfulness and cowardice. True freedom lies in obedience to God and not to men.
This obedience to God requires that they forgive the sins of others, endure grief, suffering wrongfully…take it patiently…[because] this is acceptable with God. (Ibid, 19, 20) St. Peter is inviting the slaves to see that the Saviour has suffered unjustly and has borne the burden of all men’s slavery to sin on the Cross of His Love. Like Christ, they must forgive those who are the cause of their suffering.For Christ is interested in all sinners –both slaves and free men! Where His indwelling presence is put to the test is when men suffer wrongfully and innocently. If He – the perfect model and example of the unjustly tortured, punished, and crucified Slave, can forgive, then so too must all they who would become members of His Resurrected Body. In fact, Jesus said, 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) 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 the slaveholders are invited into the new life of the Resurrection, which demands that all sin should be overcome with love as forgiveness, faith, and hope. For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 25 The deepest impression of the Good Shepherd’s transformative love must be embraced by all kinds of sinners.
St. Peter shows us that all men are sinners who need to be incorporated 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, for He is the Shepherd of Souls who voluntarily becomes God’s Slave because, as He says, He giveth His life for the sheep. (St. John x. 11) So the Good Shepherd is the Slave who is employed wholly for the good of two Masters –His Father and His sheep! He even lays down His life for His sheep because it is the only way that His Father’s Spirit can become a true Slave to their condition, [in making] Him to become sin for us to break its chains through the perfect power of the the forgiveness of their sins.
Jesus Christ is forever the Father’s willing Servant who longs to become our Slave even now through the Holy Spirit. He who is wholly subservient, obedient, and docile to the Father’s will knows that He must find and save us. He will become menially malleable to our spiritual welfare and good. He longs to be the Slave who alone shares the Spirit of His suffering death with all of us so that we might overcome the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Jesus goes where He is sent. Will we allow this Slave find us lost sheep? Most earthly slaves try to run away. This Slave searches us out. We must first allow this Slave to find us. Of course, we had better realize that this Slave finds us because He does what we cannot do for ourselves. We are, after all, lost sheep. Unless and until we know ourselves as lost sheep, Jesus Christ is of no use to us. This is the hardest part of Christianity for post-modern man. Supposedly free, post-modern man is the slave to his own overly confident and superficial understanding of Jesus Christ. He laid down His life for us in order to conquer sin, death, and Satan, supposed orthodox Christians proclaim ad nauseum. But will we allow this Slave must become our Master? If He is to become our Slave and Master, we shall see that He also is the Good Shepherd who can help us to endure grief, suffer wrongfully…and patiently be buffeted for the good. (Idem) We become His sheep, following the blessed steps of His most holy life,becoming Slaves to others, loving our neighbors as ourselves, with St. Peter and all the Saints, only when His Spirit of Death has conquered sin, death, and Satan in us.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: