“You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Good Shepherd Sunday comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of Peter’s first letter. Dear friends in Christ, sheep suffer. That is simply a fact in this world of sin. Sheep suffer. They suffer the effects of living in a sinful world: diseases and sicknesses of all kinds, accidents, natural disasters, and finally death. But that isn’t the kind of suffering that Peter is talking about in our text. The sheep also suffer because of their own sin, they face the consequences of their actions; they go to jail, they destroy relationships, they sit in time-out or detention. But Peter strongly emphasizes that even this is not the kind of suffering He is talking about. “What credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” Don’t seek praise from God or men when you bear up under suffering that you deserved. In our text today, Peter is instead speaking about the third reason that sheep suffer: the sin of others. “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing before God.” The sheep do suffer because they dwell in a sinful world, they do suffer because they commit sins and have to face the consequences, but Peter doesn’t want to talk today about either of those reasons for suffering. Today, he wants to talk about the suffering inflicted by others.
“This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” Peter gets even more specific. He isn’t just talking about any sheep who is sinned against. He is talking about sheep who are mindful of God, that is, they are believers in God through Jesus Christ. They are the ones who know their Shepherd’s voice, and they suffer unjustly, not because they have done wrong, but because they are doing good. “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” It is a gracious thing to endure suffering for doing good; God is pleased with such a good work. But He is pleased only because that sheep belongs to Christ, because that sheep believes. Non-believers can suffer patiently too, but their endurance of suffering is not a gracious thing, it is not a good work, for they do not believe.
In fact, the sheep who belong to the Good Shepherd suffer because they are mindful of God, because they believe. The world inflicts great suffering on Christians; it always has, and it always will. It hates that flock, it wants to stomp it out, because this world is in the hands of Satan, and Satan is the sworn enemy of the Church, he wants that little flock to be destroyed, he wants no one to spend eternity in heaven. So the sheep are persecuted for their beliefs, for owning a Bible, for holding worship services. They are persecuted for going to Sunday School, for serving as an elder, for speaking the faith to another. In this country, the sheep are simply verbally abused, skewered in the media and behind their backs, but elsewhere, they are quite literally slaughtered for following Christ.
The sheep of the Good Shepherd are attacked for believing as a Christian, but they are also persecuted for living as one. The world tells them to believe what they want to on Sunday morning, as long as it doesn’t affect how they live in this world. Sheep are persecuted for not following the practices of their neighbors, for not engaging in sexual immorality, filthy language, or irresponsible behavior. Especially today, we are reminded of how biblical womanhood and motherhood has been distorted and marginalized by a world of abortion on demand, feminism, and sexual freedom. Those who maintain a biblical view of the family are called ‘bigots’ and ‘prudes,’ they are told that their opinions are not allowed, and women who want to model biblical motherhood find themselves swimming upstream. When the Good Shepherd’s sheep refuse to join in the practices of this world, they can expect to be shunned or verbally abused, they can expect to suffer.
But the sheep of the Good Shepherd also suffer for the same reason that all sheep suffer: they live among sinners, and sinners inflict suffering upon other sinners. A sheep’s suffering at the hands of others may have nothing to do with their Christian faith. A tyrannical boss, an abusive spouse, or an out-of-control government inflict suffering upon Christians and non-Christians alike. The thief who robs a home or car doesn’t care whether the sheep he sins against belong to the Good Shepherd or not; he simply wants their possessions. Suffering inflicted by others will come, one way or another; the question for the sheep is, how do they respond to it?
Peter gives them the answer: follow Christ. “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you may follow in His steps.” Suffer following in the footsteps of Christ your Lord. Suffer being traced out upon His cross, suffering as He suffered for you. His cross, His Passion, are an example for you to follow, and Jesus Himself calls on us to take up our cross and follow Him. Today, we live with an extremely domesticated cross. We put it on our walls and on our necks, which is good, but we forget that it is a symbol of suffering, that the cross proclaims to us that it is only through tribulation that we will enter the Kingdom of God. To Peter’s first hearers, the cross was a present reality; there was the very real possibility that some he wrote to would die upon what hangs around your neck.
The only way to endure the cross is to suffer mindful of God, as Peter exhorts you: “This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” Suffer not forgetting who you are or whose you are; suffer ever mindful of God, remembering that it is He who holds you in His loving hands, despite anything that this world does to you. Our example is Christ: “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten.” Suffer not responding to the violence and abuse of this world with violence and abuse of your own; suffer patiently, enduring attacks against you as one who belongs to the Good Shepherd. Christians don’t take revenge any more than Christ took revenge; how can those who are called to “turn the other cheek” justify violence against their attackers? Suffer giving a witness to the world, suffer putting your persecutors to shame, showing that you are different than those around you. Suffer not as a pushover, but as a Christian, as one who knows that this world can only kill the body, it cannot harm the soul. Stand your ground against the evil around you, refusing to let the sufferings they inflict compromise your faith or lead you into sin. Suffer patiently, with word and action speaking to and against the world.
Suffer in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd. His Passion is the ultimate example of suffering for doing good, as Peter reminds us: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth.” He was perfect, sinless, His only crimes were to give forgiveness, to preach the Kingdom of God, to heal the sick and to raise the dead. But for those crimes He was condemned to death, He would be stricken by the scourge, smitten by the cross, and afflicted by the jeering crowd. Jesus had the power to release Himself from suffering; in a moment He could’ve destroyed those who persecuted Him. Had He responded in anger, Pilate’s palace would’ve been destroyed, the soldiers would’ve laid dead, the religious leaders would’ve faced the same torture they wished to inflict upon Him. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, refused to act. “When He was reviled, he did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten.”
He endured those sufferings, all that the world inflicted upon Him, that bitter cup placed at His lips to drink. He faced every ounce of suffering that you experience in this world at the hands of others; He endured every bit of what you endure, and more, He suffered God’s wrath. But He did not fight back, because His suffering was for you. He suffered bearing your sin. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” He took all your sins, all your sufferings upon Himself and suffered for them. He commended Himself to the judgment of men and of God, He “continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” The righteous Judge declared the innocent Good Shepherd guilty, for this Jesus, who had no sin, suffered bearing the sin of all the sheep, He suffered in your place and in mine.
He suffered to take away that sin. “By His wounds you have been healed.” Our wounds, the suffering inflicted upon us by a sinful world, by our own sin, and by the sin of others, are all healed by the wounds of Christ. His shed blood is the balm that soothes the pain away. He gives healing in this world, the healing that comes through His blessed forgiveness, and He promises healing for eternity, found in the peace of the resurrection. By His wounds you are healed! His cross is the answer to suffering, because it promises the end of suffering, the end of sorrow, the end of sin, and the end of death. His wounds heal you when you come to this place and receive His blessed forgiveness, in Word and in Sacrament, His wounds heal you when you face any kind of suffering in this world of sin by comforting you with the promise of ultimate deliverance.
He suffered to bring you back to your God, to restore lost and wandering sheep back to their Creator forever. “You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd because we are wandering sheep, and He seeks us out, giving up of Himself to bring us back to Him. He calls us by name back to the fold, making us His own. The voice of Christ is not for reviling, for threatening, but for calling lost sheep. And that is what He does, calling you to His sheepfold, where He heals you by His blood, comforting you in the midst of your afflictions, and finally, when the Last Day comes, bringing you through Himself to the green pastures, the quiet waters, the laden tables, and the overflowing cups of eternal bliss. In the Name of the Good Shepherd, who lays down His live for the sheep, Amen.