May 4, 2014 Second Sunday After Easter
The Shepherd's Justice
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 23, 1 St. Peter 2:19-25, 1 St. John 10:11-16
We were over the eastern Mediterranean, flying from Tel Aviv in Israel to Izmir in Turkey. Our Bible lands tour was headed next to the land once called Asia Minor to visit the seven churches of Revelation. Izmir is the place the Bible calls Smyrna, site of one of the seven churches. It is Turkey’s third-largest city today with a population of 4 million.
The twin-engine prop plane was so old that I wondered if Moses had taken this flight. To divert my mind from that thought I struck up a conversation with our tour leader, Dr. Randall Price. Randy, as we knew him by this time, said something during that talk that sticks with me 14 years later.
Maybe it’s because we had just toured the old city of Jerusalem and walked the stations of the cross and the images of our Lord’s suffering were seared into my mind. It was one of those pithy statements that reveals nothing new but captures something obvious.
But then you catch yourself wondering, if it’s so obvious why did it lodge so firmly in my gray matter? Randy said, “Mercy is not getting what we deserve, grace is getting what we don’t deserve and justice is . . .” I’ll finish the thought momentarily.
On this second Sunday after Easter the prayer book presents our Lord to us as our Shepherd. From Isaiah in his prophecy to David in his psalm to St. Peter in his epistle to St. John in his gospel, each passage portrays the Lord in Shepherd’s garb.
Since I can’t discuss them all in the mere three hours allotted me, I’d like to direct your attention to the epistle lesson. I’ve become intrigued over these last three weeks with Peter’s developing understanding of his Lord’s death, burial and resurrection.
On Easter Sunday, we found him rushing with John to Jesus’ tomb after Mary Magdalene’s report and finding the tomb empty. Only the cloths that had covered Jesus’ corpse remained. John, who is both the author of the gospel and the character in the account, reports that those discarded cloths were evidence enough for him.
He saw and he believed. He believed in his Lord’s resurrection. He says nothing about Peter. Was the chief apostle too thick or too skeptical to get it even then?
A week ago, also in John’s 20th chapter, we saw the risen Jesus appearing to all of the remaining apostles save Thomas. Peter and the rest can hardly doubt now. They rejoice – but we wonder if Peter’s joy was mingled with fear when the Lord he had denied three times stepped out of the grave and back into life.
Now, flash forward 30 years or so. We find a mature Peter interpreting those events and instructing new Christians who are scattered and feeling alone and afraid themselves. Of course, much has happened in the interim. Before His ascension, the Lord encountered Peter on other occasions. On one of those He instructed the apostle, “Feed My sheep.” He gave that command three times..
And just after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we see Peter proclaiming the gospel boldly despite opposition from the Jews. A more determined and courageous apostle faces down the leaders of Israel. The Good Shepherd has left sheep in his care and Peter will not be bullied. He will feed these sheep with the word of God.
After three decades of reflection, he is one of the elder statesmen of the young church as he writes to the scattered sheep. They are experiencing mounting persecution and Peter’s goal is to stiffen spines as his was once stiffened.
He tells them that they get no credit for enduring abuse when they deserve it for their misdeeds, but when for the sake of representing God righteously they bear up under unmerited affliction they find favor with their Lord.
Now, I suspect they were like us. We crave justice – or say we do. I haven’t been watching as closely this time around but I recall the first time the National Football League installed instant replay in the interest of perfect justice on every official’s call.
We’d sit through an interminable delay while some Mr. Magoo hidden away in a booth in the press box reviewed the play from 17 angles and then still got the call wrong. But this same league would allow tens of thousands of leather-lung fans who paid obscene prices to park their fannies to scream like banshees to keep the visiting team from hearing their quarterback’s signals.
Is that fair? Or is it fair that to clothe them in their team colors countless innocent red, blue, orange or green polyesters had to die?
Or take politics. When the bad guys have their way, they cut up the electoral map like a jigsaw puzzle to secure as many seats as possible for their side. When our good guys win, do we draw a perfect grid and make the next election as fair as is humanly possible for both sides? I don’t think so.
One fellow said we size up our friends with a God-like justice and expect them to evaluate us with a God-like compassion. Justice just might be overrated.
Mercy is not getting what we deserve, grace is getting what we don’t deserve and justice is . . . We’ll get back to that.
The difference in perspective between the young Peter and the old Peter is much wider than the River Jordan. In his youth Peter the Loud became incensed when he heard his Lord say He must go to the cross and rebuked Jesus, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” (Matt 16:22), provoking his Lord’s reply, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (16:23).
As the apostle invoked man’s justice, he also deployed man’s weapons. When Judas leads the chief priests and Pharisees and a detachment of troops into the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and slices off the right ear of the high priest’s servant.
Again he earns His Master’s sharp reply: “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (John 18:11)
The older, wiser Peter is not far removed from a cross of his own awaiting him in Rome when he writes to the scattered sheep. This Peter recalls that God washed his feet. Was that fair?
In his letter, Peter explains to the baby Christians how to live in the world in such a way that they represent their Lord to the world. He begins in general terms and then narrows his focus to address various groups and individuals.
To house slaves – a group that could include teachers and doctors – he says, “For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.”
What manner of justice is this? Is it not those who assault their slaves unjustly who should shut up and take their punishment without complaint?
Not according to Peter the Meek. He reaches back into the Hebrew Scriptures and pulls up Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant in chapters 52 and 53. “All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:10). But the Deliverer is “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . . He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities” (53:3, 5) . . .
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (53:6).
Peter is channeling Jesus the Meek, the promised Messiah. His only weapon is a figurative sword, the word of God. He conquers on His knees. He defeats death in His death.
The apostle tells the scattered sheep: “For to this you were called,” referring to their suffering, “because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.”
His steps lead to the cross. But then as Jesus Himself said to His disciples, then and now, “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt 10:38) and “whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Peter the Loud heard those words but did not listen; Peter the Loud ran from suffering by denying his Lord three times. Peter the Meek embraces his cross.
It is by his Lord’s stripes that he is healed. Because Jesus paid the price for his sins, Peter will not suffer for all eternity but will sup at the endless banquet at the King’s table.
And so now he seizes the privilege of entering into the suffering of the One who, “when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” Because of what Jesus has suffered, Peter has a not-guilty verdict from his Father on high.
Will he fear what men can do to him when he can become more like his Lord by entering into the suffering his Lord endured? No, he will ask to be crucified upside-down because he is not worthy of treatment as good as his Lord’s. This is the justice he begs for.
Mercy is not getting what we deserve, grace is getting what we don’t deserve and justice is . . . I’ll complete that thought shortly..
Suffering unjustly for the sake of representing our Lord well is not masochism. We are not called to seek out pain. Our brief is to protect our witness at all costs. In the early church to which Peter wrote, persecution would grow ever harsher; suffering was not academic for those Christians of long ago.
Affliction is part of the job description, Peter is saying, and Jesus is both our example in enduring it in silence for God’s sake and our protector. “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
The word for “Overseer” is episkopos, elsewhere translated “bishop.” He instructs and directs those under his care. And the Good Shepherd, as we heard in our gospel lesson, “gives His life for the sheep.”
If this metaphor seems remote to us, it did not to an audience in first-century Palestine, and especially in Judea, in which Jerusalem is situated. Sheep grazed on a narrow plateau, and on either side of it peril awaited.
On the west was a wasteland and on the east a region of ragged cliffs descending more than a thousand feet to the shore of the Dead Sea. Even on the plateau grass was far from plentiful and the sheep wandered in search of enough forage to sustain them.
No walls or fences restricted their movement. Predators in the wild added to the danger.
The shepherd kept a taxing vigil. He could not sleep while on watch for fear of losing his sheep. Sir George Adam Smith had a good look for himself and reported of the shepherd in “The Historical Geography of the Holy Land”:
“. . . the man and his character are indispensable. On some high moor, across which at night the hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning upon his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judaea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.”
Christ our Good Shepherd gave His life for us, “His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Ps 100:3). But He does not lift off of us the burden of following in His steps.
A week ago, we saw Jesus speak peace upon His disciples following His resurrection. This was peace “not as the world gives” (John 14:27) that He was leaving with them. It is the peace of God and not man because it includes the justice of God and not man.
In the end, we will see perfect justice. Do you believe in God’s promise? Then the world has no power over you. You are free. Do you stew over wrongs done to you by this world’s power-trippers and hate-mongers? Then you do not fully embrace God’s promise. You are not free. In hating them back, you’re giving them the victory.
God’s peace falls on those who place themselves on God’s altar and say, “Do with me as you will. Those who ask perfect justice of the world seek what the world cannot give. The world pretends to love justice but perverts it to attain its own ends. As long as the world’s justice remains in the hands of sinful men it will be a parody of God’s justice.
And, yes, some do grasp this truth and live it. They turn away from justice to embrace mercy and grace. In 1948, Communists took control of the town of Soon-chun, near the 38th parallel in Korea.
In the brief time they held sway there, someone among the people of the town fired on the oppressors. The Communists seized the two eldest sons of Pastor Yang-won Son, Matthew and John, and executed them. They died calling on their executioners to place their trust in Jesus.
After the Communists were driven out, it came to light that a young man of the village named Chai-sun had fired those shots. The elders condemned him to death, but the pastor intervened. He asked the elders to drop the charges and release Chai-sun into his custody. His 13-year-old daughter, the sister of the two victims, testified in support of her father’s request.
Chai-sun became the adopted son of the pastor and a believer in Jesus Christ. Pastor Yang-won Son said, “I thank God that He has given me the love to seek to convert and to adopt as my son the enemy who killed my dear boys.”
Mercy is not getting what we deserve, grace is getting what we don’t deserve and justice is the last thing we want. Unless, we might add, it’s the Shepherd’s justice. Amen.