The Rev. Paul J Cain
1 Peter 2:21–25
Third Sunday of Easter, 10 April 2016
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
“You were straying like sheep,” St. Peter writes to the confused, discouraged, and suffering recipients of his first letter, “but [you] have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
I would argue that one of the comforting words of the text is “were,” a reference to the way things used to be for these Christians, a reference to the way things used to be for us, before we first heard the Gospel and received mercy from Christ.
I could give you the detail to make your English grammar teacher or my seminary Greek professor proud: It’s really a verb in the imperfect tense, meaning an action happening over and over in the past, whether continuously or just from time to time. The Holy Spirit and St. Peter also knew that when the verb is “is” or “to be” like “were” is, it is just a simple past action. Granted, what I just shared is complicated, but the word “were” was not shared with us by accident. This is God-breathed Scripture co-authored by a human apostle and disciple of Jesus. That this word was chosen means even more Gospel comfort for us. The Lord, because of the forgiveness won by the death and Resurrection of Jesus and delivered to you in Word and Sacrament by the same Holy Spirit that inspired this text, regards your past sins as past, for you “have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of souls.”
Greek drives me crazy because it is filled with participles, words that end with “-ing” in English. Koine Greek loves these words that can further modify a noun or explain a verb. The latter is what the participle “straying” did for our friend “were.”
Dr. Nagel always taught us to follow the verbs. “Who’s running the verbs?” he would ask, and we would see how spiritually passive we are in the Bible and how active the Lord is for us and our salvation.
One more verb begs for explanation: have now returned. It’s passive, meaning that the “you” of the text, St. Peter’s original hearers, are being acted upon. This is great for us, because it also means that we today “are being gathered” by the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and returned to His own flock. And it’s not our doing! He did the work of suffering and dying and declared “It is finished!” He rose from the dead. And He sends the Holy Spirit to deliver life, forgiveness, and salvation to us through Sacrament and Word. The Spirit regularly gathers us around the gifts of Christ. It is the Good Shepherd of our souls dwelling with us before us, beside us, and in us.
I understand that is uncomfortable to get down so far into the verbal “weeds” for most of us. Yet, out of respect for the Lord Himself and the actual words recorded by the Holy Spirit and St. Peter, we benefit from such close attention to the comfort such specific words give to us.
Having examined the trees and some individual leaves, let’s look at the whole forest of our Epistle text: 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
There is other uncomfortable teaching in this text, the way St. Peter points out our sin. He does this through the example of Jesus NOT sinning in the ways that we so often DO. We commit sin. We can use words to deceive. We may even sinfully revile others out of revenge. We threaten those who make us suffer. We even almost give up hope. And, we strayed like sheep.
Misusing words is one way to describe in summary all of the sins St. Peter mentions by name. Combine all these varieties of verbal sin together and you get what we today call gossip. Author Thom Rainer recently covered this topic on his blog, sharing:
Gossip is a sly and sneaky sin that can destroy the unity of a church.
Gossip points to self importance; ministry and service point to the importance of others.
There is never a time when gossip helps or builds up.
Once gossip is out about someone, it’s hard to correct it if it’s false.
Gossip not only hurts the reputation of the subject, but of those who pass it on as well.
If someone gossips about someone to you, they’d likely gossip about you to someone else.
Gossip is a very evil and destructive force within the church.
Churches should have an environment of trust that does not allow for gossip.
Every church covenant should address gossip.
The nine ways gossip destroys a church are:
It’s often deceptive.
It harms reputations.
It destroys trust.
It indicates hypocrisy in the church.
It risks God’s judgment.
That is why pastors regularly mention gossip as sin, why the elders and leaders here try to address and correct gossip early, why we should address the issue in new member classes to explain why gossip is inappropriate, and why we wish to create a congregation of Christians that trust one another.
In contrast to the sin of gossip, Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
Finally, there is yet another uncomfortable teaching in 1 Peter 2:21, that we should follow in Jesus’ steps. Jesus is Son of God, Son of Man, our Savior, the Christ and Messiah, our Prophet, Priest, King, the Suffering Servant, and the Temple. He is also our best Example. And that makes us squirm.
We’ve seen how the example of Jesus has been misunderstood and even misused. An 1896 book called In His Steps led many Christians of the 20th Century to begin social ministries to care for the daily physical needs of other human beings. That’s a good thing. Yet, in some congregations and church bodies, this “Social Gospel” virtually replaced the actual Gospel in preaching, teaching, and church life. That’s not a good thing. Many of those congregations and church bodies now describe themselves as progressive or liberal and have publicly renounced major teachings of the Christian faith. Again, that’s not a good thing. We are right to be troubled by this as many of us were when the book was reprinted in the 1990s in conjunction with the “What Would Jesus Do?” fad.
Human Care can be done in an appropriate way. Pr. Matthew Harrison, before he became LCMS President, served the Synod by overseeing LCMS World Relief and Human Care. In word and deed, this agency of Synod modeled care for neighbor through Gospel Outreach and Human Care in our life together. This led to the LCMS emphasis for the Church of Witness, Mercy, Life Together. Today, we have the opportunity to embrace appropriate Christian human care ministry by adding a board with that focus to our congregation. Please stay for the Voters meeting today to consider adoption of a revised Constitution and Bylaws for Immanuel.
Both C. F. W. Walther, the first LCMS President and Johann Konrad Wilhelm Loehe, a trainer of missionaries for the LCMS and founder of the Fort Wayne seminary supported such human care ministry as a work of mercy:
Walther’s theology of mercy was one of stewardship: “Whoever has true love does not consider himself to be a lord over his goods but a steward of them, and he wishes, according to God’s Word, to distribute those goods to his brothers in need.”
Loehe defines mercy in this sublime way: “Mercy is goodness, goodness is love, and therefore, mercy is love. Mercy is goodness and love but in a specific relationship, namely, in relation to the unfortunate and wretched. Love is manifold. When it is directed toward God on high, it becomes devotion and adoration. When it is directed over the whole earth to other redeemed brothers, it becomes goodness, affability, and friendliness. But when it enters areas filled with misery and brings with it consolation, relief, and help, then it becomes mercy.”
Jesus entered our miserable world and brought heavenly consolation, eternal relief, and spiritual help to us. “You were straying like sheep,” St. Peter writes to the confused, discouraged, and suffering among us, “but [you] have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Amen.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.