Sunday, April 22, 2012

Second Sunday after Easter

1 Peter 2:21-25 / John 10:11-16

Christ suffered for us, leaving you and example, that you should follow in his steps ...

In contemporary homiletics, it is generally considered bad form to speak to the congregation in the second person plural. The preacher, so it is argued, should be first among those to whom he preaches. So, he ought either to speak to or rather about himself directly, noting his own difficulties and his own joys in the grace of Jesus Christ, or else he is, probably more commonly, to preach as one of the whole assembly. He is, that is to say, to speak in terms of "we" and "us", making sure both that he remembers, and that the congregations can see that he remembers, his own need to listen to and receive the word of God, to be a fellow traveler on the road to the Kingdom.

St Peter, however, rejects this advice entirely. In his first letter, while he happily includes himself among those for whom Christ suffered and died — Christ suffered for us — he is equally clear in excluding himself, at least rhetorically, from the exhortation to follow in Christ's footsteps. For you, he says, quite notably not we, were as sheep going astray, but you — again, excluding himself — are now converted to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. What are we supposed to make of this? Are we to think that Peter imagines that the exhortation he gives does not apply to himself? Are we to pretend that the man who thrice denied his Lord during the Passion need not be numbered among those who have gone astray, nor even among those who are now restored to Jesus Christ as Shepherd and Bishop?

If we choose to hear Peter's words this way, we will have missed a crucial part of Christ's plan for his Church. While it is true that all true authority, all true priesthood in the Church rests in the Head, in Jesus Christ himself, the fact remains that Christ's Body, the Church, was from a design formed from before the dawn of time, a structured body, an organized body, a hierachical body. More to the point, Christ intended, and intends even now, that we receive the graces of his redeeming work not outside of the ministry of his Body, the Church, but precisely in and through the Church he has given us. There is, in other words, no room or excuse for dividing the Church between "the people" and "the hierarchy" if, by that division, we imagine that the former is to teach and instruct the latter. We have been given the episcopate, the papacy itself as a continuation of the vicariate given to Peter, so that Christ might continue to exhort us to come to him. This voice, then, the voice of Christ in the Church, is meant to come to us not merely as one of those to whom it was directed, but even more as Christ himself addressing his beloved. That those who bear this burden have, do now, and will continue to fall short of the message they proclaim is part of the mystery of the grace of the risen Christ, that through the sinful and the bent, God can communicate to us the perfection of life and joy enjoyed by Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

There are, no doubt, many occasions to resist the exhortations of our pastors. We can surely, if we had the mind to do so, dissect, critique, and so finally reject the teaching they put before us. Yet, in doing so, are we indeed any closer to the life offered us in the risen Lord? When we imagine that by the teaching ministry of the Church we have been reviled, we have suffered, been threatened, and judged unjustly, can we claim fidelity to Christ by speaking ill of his ministers and rejecting their words? Or, shall we accept their teaching, even if it comes to us as a burden or a cross, and, submitting ourselves neither to their judgment nor even to our own, but only to the one who judges justly, and so find ourselves at peace with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, being dead to sins that we might, without rancor or resentment, live to justice.

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