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 this Joyful 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 both from sin and wickedness in ourselves and also from sin in the lives of others. Regarding the first, we are called to receive the forgiveness of our own sins. About the second, we are urged to translate the forgiveness of sins received into acts of compassion, pity, and mercy for all others. All this is given to us from the Risen Jesus Christ so that we might become habituated to the character and nature of Our Heavenly Father.
The Church’s selection of readings for this Joyful Eastertide does not pretend that this new Risen Life we seek is easy. Thus, for example, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, most people think that we ought to be reading about Jesus the soft, all-embracing, and gentle shepherd who forever seeks out His lost sheep. And while this might be true in one way, in another way it tends to ignore the tough love that characterizes the nature of every good shepherd. Christ the Good Shepherd is no exception.
Jesus Christ has demands and conditions for the sheep of His fold and the members of His Body, the Church. As we become His sheep, Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd’s expectations of us become clearer. What the sheep of Christ look like and what the Good Shepherd expects of them are illustrated in this morning’s First Epistle of St. Peter. St. Peter is addressing a group of slaves who are Christians. His letter is to one of his flocks in Asia Minor, many of whose members are servants or slaves. He uses them as a parable or illustration of the kind of life we should expect to live and how that life is fully taken on by Jesus Christ. He writes to slaves who suffer unjustly and undeservedly. We don’t know the specifics of individual cases, but we surmise that Christian slaves are having a hard time with the forgiveness of sins. That they are slaves is disturbing enough. Yet, St. Peter is not interested in the abolition of earthly slavery but with its spiritual counterpart. These slaves are being punishing unfairly and tyrannically and their spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ is in danger of being lost. Peter wants them to pray about becoming slaves in the spirit to Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. He wants them to see that there is a good kind of slavery that no earthly creature can threaten or destroy.
St. Peter 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) St. Peter believes that every man, even slaves, can allow the Imitation of Christ to rule their hearts. He is not writing about earthly liberation but of that Divine and lasting spiritual liberty that Jesus alone, the Good Shepherd, brings to every man, no matter what his state in life. He reminds them that Christ too became a slave to earthly injustice, bondage, and malice. 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 wickedness 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 slavery and bondage to cowardice, fear, and shame. 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 shackled forcibly by other men. Yet Peter was chained and enslaved to his own voluntary faithlessness, dread, and pride. Peter abandoned Jesus Christ as a free man. The slaves knew no such liberty. Peter was afraid of losing his freedom. Yet all the while he was a real slave to his own shallow faith and faint heart. Peter had become a slave to a master far worse than the slaveholders who held his companions in bondage. He feared imminent death by reason of association with Jesus. Then, because he denied Jesus before the cock had crowed twice, he feared God’s 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) Jesus’ tough love alone would reveal his slavery to sin.
But now in today’s Epistle, St. Peter speaks as one who has been liberated by Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins. St. Peter has repented, and Christ has forgiven his abandonment and betrayal. Christ now calls Peter into the new life of Resurrection. So, St. Peter exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to forgive their oppressors and masters as Christ has forgiven His executioners and even His cowardly friends. 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)
The slaves St. Peter addresses may be the hapless victims of other men’s wickedness, but this is no excuse for not forgiving all men their trespasses against us. Both Peter and his hearers are potential slaves to sin. Now, they are invited into true spiritual liberation through Christ who is the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection, and the Life. The slaves are given a great opportunity not only to follow Christ themselves but also to shower their masters, Christian or pagan, with love and forgiveness because they can become emissaries and ambassadors in bonds for the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. They can reveal that they have been made free by the Blood of Jesus Christ and are now the true sons of the living God –whose Love in them can conquer all wickedness because the evil of other men need never provoke vengeance. True freedom is found in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy…(St. James iv. 12)
This obedience to God calls them to forgive the sins of others, endure grief, suffering wrongfully…take it patiently…[because] this is acceptable with God. (Ibid, 19, 20) If Jesus Christ endured grief, suffered wrongfully on the Cross of His Redemption and made good out of it, so too can all men! Like Christ, we all should forgive those who are the cause of all of our suffering. For Christ is interested in all sinners –both slaves and free men! Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, desires to come alive in every human heart and to help us to forgive whenever we suffer wrongfully. If Jesus –the pattern of the unjustly tortured, punished, and crucified Slave, forgives us our betrayals and abandonments of Him, we should forgive also. 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, all slaves, all of us, are invited into the new death…and new life through the forgiveness of sins. For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 25) We all are slaves -the slaves of others, slaves of ourselves, slaves of our sins, and the slaves of Satan. Christ has forgiven us, and we should forgive all others.
St. Peter shows us that all men are the slaves of sin and should want to become the slaves of Jesus Christ, incorporated into the Resurrected Life of the One who has become a Slave for us all. This Slave is the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls. This Good Shepherd voluntarily became God’s Slave because He giveth His life for the sheep. (St. John x. 11) The Good Shepherd is the Slave who is works tirelessly and incessantly to bring His Sheep back to God our Heavenly Father. He even lays down His life for His sheep because it is the only way that He can bear the sheep’s burden fully, destroy their sin, and open to them the gate of everlasting life. But even beyond this, He longs to become our Slave even today. He is forever the Father’s willing and happy Slave. He, who is only and ever the obedient revealer of His Father’s Wisdom, Power, and Love, longs to infuse all men with the Spirit’s liberating power. He desires to feed us with God’s Goodness to free us from our slavery to sin. He alone is the Slave who knows our need and meets it. He is the Slave whose service alone can conquer and overcome our sinful condition. He alone is the Slave who selflessly, innocently, and freely becomes our Master from the Cross of His Love and beyond.
Jesus goes where He is sent. He comes to us. Will we allow this Slave to do His work for us? He offers us His service for free! He charges no money. But if we would employ this Slave, we shall begin to see God’s love alive in His heart. If we would keep this Slave, we must allow His tough love to serve us, We need Him most in the hard work of conquering our sins. Funnily enough, we need this Slave to become our Master. Jesus is our Slave. The slaveholders of history should have seen Jesus in their earthly slaves. If they had, they would have freed them and thanked them for leading them to true liberation. Jesus alone is the true Slave and Master. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who can help us to endure grief, suffer wrongfully…and patiently be buffeted for the good. (Idem) Then we can begin to become His sheep, following the blessed steps of His most holy life, and ourselves becoming Slaves to others, following the Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, with St. Peter and all the Saints.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons