Today's Epistle is the last in a long series which began on Low Sunday of reading taken from Letters Paul did not write, but authored by John, James and Peter. Those who love the Church's nighttime prayer, the Office of Compline, will recognize the source of those words, "Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about..." But the main thrust of the passage deals with the unpopular topic of humility.
When St Peter wrote, "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble," he was surely echoing what he had learned directly from the mouth of his Lord and Saviour. According to St Luke's Gospel, Jesus had said not once but twice, "for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Lk 14 :11 and18:14).
Peter takes this teaching and applies it specifically to life within the corporate life of the Christian community. Whereas the Prayer Book's rendition of the passage begins at the words "All of you be subject to one another," the context stated, "likewise ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder." And when we go more deeply into the context with the earlier verses of the chapter, we discover that Peter (remember, this is the chief of the Apostles writing) was not thinking of age groups, but of the clergy and laity within the Body of the Church. Authoritarianism excluded, power struggles ruled out, pride of place forbidden, arrogance condemned, the Church is a fellowship of love in which the disciples wash one another's feet. That upper room episode also had made its imprint on Peter's mind.
The Bible is replete with horrifying examples of men who exalted themselves but were humiliated by their Creator God. In their primal act of disobedience, Adam and Eve tried to "be as gods," but were driven out into the world as exiles, but humbly wearing the animal skins God mercifully gave them. We might mention Pharaoh, defeated at the Red Sea, or Nebuchadrezzar, forced to eat grass like an animal in his madness. The most horrifying example is Judas Iscariot who proudly sold his Lord for the price of a slave but wound up destroying himself.
In contrast to these horrible examples, we have the example of Jesus Himself, who humbled Himself on the Cross but is now exalted at the right hand of His Father.
For Peter humility is not merely a virtue to be cultivated (and a basis for pride!) but a logical response to the Judgment soon to come. Mark well his words, "in due time," and after that ye have suffered a [little] while." Humiluty is not a virtue but a precaution.
Today's Gospel, like last Sunday's, is a parable stressing the amazing lengths to which God goes to in His work of saving us. If the doctrines of grace have become familiar to us (perhaps so familiar that we treat them with contempt!), we need take a careful look at the consternation and indignation which this message aroused when Jesus Himself preached it. Whereas "the common people heard Him gladly," the wise and the learned were filled with indignation.
The original audience surely expected Jesus to give His stories a different ending. Perhaps the banquet could be postponed to another time, a time which would not inconvenience the guests, so that they would not feel subordinate to their host! Perhaps the shepherd would do the reasonable thing and calculate that he had enough sheep already. Or perhaps the shepherd might simply wait at the door of the sheepfold, waiting for the sheep to find its way back.
The most popular substitute for Christianity, and the most dangerous, is a message which goes: God will be happy to save you if you only meet Him halfway. Or to say it another way, God will help you out if you only do your best. Or again, God kindly offers to help us and now we must cooperate with Him. If you think that is the Gospel, think again!
Such a false Gospel is enticing not only because it contains enough truth to be dangerous, but especially because it is flattering to our pride. Such an equalitarian notion of God maintains our self-esteem. The false Gospel of “God is my co-pilot” is very close to the Serpent's promise, “Ye shall be as gods.”
Last Sunday we heard ourselves described in unflattering terms as “poor, maimed, halt, blind.” This Sunday the parable compares us to something lost. The stray sheep was in a desperate condition. Do not imagine that it was frolicking in a delightful meadow! There is hardly anything more pitiable than an abandoned animal. The sheep was without food and in eminent danger of wild predatory beasts. That is why sheep need shepherds. It was only a matter of time before the sheep would have died from starvation or from violent attack.
The Shepherd Himself exposed Himself to real danger in pursuing the sheep, and in that detail we have the Gospel of the Cross. The Good Shepherd, Jesus told us in John 10, is the one who laid down His life for the sheep. Our spiritual safety, both here and hereafter, does not come out of any search for God on our part, nor any equal partnership with Him. In the great work of our Saviour Jesus Christ, God has invited us to His banquet and carried us back to His fold. LKW