Our task this year is to give attention to the Epistle, the first reading for Sunday’s Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo. We try to include some context to enrich our contact with Christ in the reading and make some branching connections. Let’s start with a connection.
Our first reading for the 2nd Sunday after Easter is from 1 Peter 2:21-5. Last week our Introit was from 1 Peter 2:2 which harked to the newly baptized as newborn babes. After Easter the newly baptized wore their baptismal robes for the following week as “babes” in the Church. By this Sunday they have been out of those robes for a week. They have started to move away from the milk of babes to the solid food of the more mature.
This week our first reading is again from 1 Peter 2. Let’s see it in the RSV.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. 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. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.
Peter wrote this letter …. well… some scholars think that a later writer, after Peter’s death, penned it in the time of the persecution of Christians by Domitian around AD 81. Other scholars, however, defend its authorship by Peter, especially because it sounds like Peter in Acts. We are just going to go with “It’s Peter” and be done with it. Peter wrote this letter for Christians, “pilgrims” under pressure – being tested by fire (1 Peter 1:7) – in Asia Minor, rather than to a specific community. The writer says he is writing from Babylon, which is probably a nickname for Rome, though there were other Babylons in the ancient world, just as today there are various Romes. The letter is an encyclical especially about the Christian calling and about hardship and suffering. The writer makes the point of self-identification as an “Apostle of Jesus Christ,” which lends his words deep authority. In this chapter Peter addresses the lots of two vulnerable groups, slaves and wives, both of whom are in a position of submission. The theme of submission grows into a reflection on suffering.
Peter quotes Isaiah 53 here, which is the description of the Suffering Servant, foreshadowing the Passion of Christ:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth (v. 7) … All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way (v. 6) … although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (v. 9) … upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed (v. 5).
Let’s now circle back to the first verse of our reading:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
In stark terms, says Peter, now that you are Christian you have a calling, a vocation. You might in one sense of “vocation” have a calling to be married, to be a professed religious, to be single, to be in Holy Orders. You might be called to any of these but all of us are called to suffering. With baptism comes a universal vocation: follow in the steps of Christ even unto suffering. Peter gives us a sense of how deep that suffering might have to be by the invocation of the Suffering Servant.
Note also that Peter stresses that the suffering was not deserved. It was not deserved by the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, or by Christ in His Passion. It is not deserved by Christians enduring persecution. It is, however, part and parcel of Christian identity. Peter wrote to Christians who were suffering, not just to anyone who was suffering. In fact, sometimes people suffer because they have done wrong. In that case, you suffer deservedly. If, however, you suffer because you are doing something right, or because you are innocent of having done something wrong, there is merit in that suffering by your union with the example of Christ.
Given that Peter says that Christ’s suffering was an example, and that we are to follow that example, we have to conclude that our suffering – our suffering in a Christian, Christ-like way of suffering, will in turn be exemplary to others. It can be transformational. There comes to mind a passage in a sermon by St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine will often use the image of Christ as medicus, physician. He heals by being the one who does the suffering. He is the patient healer. English patient comes from the Latin word patior, “to suffer.” In a nutshell, what Augustine says is that while He was hanging, He was healing (cf. s. 184.6).
What make the suffering something transformative and exemplary, that is something that can also benefit others, is the love of God and neighbor that informs it.
When the Jews and Saul, not-yet-Paul, were persecuting the Deacon Stephen through false witnesses, they, “gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
“To this you have been called.” The disciple follows the master wherever he goes as the sheep follow the shepherd. Peter used not only the image of a shepherd (poimaino) of our soul who guides us into the path of suffering, but also that of, as it says in the RSV, the “Guardian” of our soul. Here the RSV stumbles a little, or rather loses something in translation. That’s always a danger with translation: we have to pick some word in our language to claim a meaning of a word in another. Sometimes there are more than one competing good meaning. The Greek word behind “guardian” of our soul is epískopos, which is an “overseer.” Later, in 1 Peter 5:1-2 (often read for Mass in the Vetus Ordo, as it was on the very day I originally posted this), the terms poimaíno and epískopos are merged interchangeably with “elder… presbýteros.”
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder (sympresbýteros) and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend (poimánate) the flock of God that is your charge (episkopoûntes), …. (cf. also Acts 20:28).
On a perhaps somewhat frivolous note, there is another, related term found in 1 Peter 4:15: allotriepískopos, which is “meddler, busybody,” someone who sticks him nose into other people’s business. Let’s wrap up with a little taste of 1 Peter 4, just to see how Peter’s thought is directed:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God.
Christ is the Shepherd and the “Bishop” of our soul. Is it possible that, as He is calling us to follow Him, our suffering when united with Him and under His gaze will be vain?