Friday, March 30, 2018

"Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps."

[I am preaching this brief homily today, Good Friday, on the Second Lesson for Evening Prayer.]

“Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”


The crucifixion of our Lord on Good Friday frees us from sin and death. When we are “baptized into his death,” as St. Paul says (Romans 6:3), we are transformed in our very being. His death accomplishes our regeneration, but it also provides an example for us to follow when we suffer unjustly in our own lives. In our second lesson today, St. Peter pulls together both effects of the cross: we are transferred from death to life, and we are given an example to follow.

The latter half of our text is explicitly directed to slaves—more specifically, household servants—but there are textual indications that St. Peter intended his advice to apply to all Christians as servants in the household of God. St. Peter calls upon these slaves—who, in context, seem to have pagan masters—to endure unjust suffering patiently, a teaching that was no doubt hard to swallow. But for St. Peter, patiently enduring is not about abstract morality but is, rather, part and parcel of a Christian’s obligation to imitate Jesus. Our text dramatically shifts from the mundane, grim particulars of the Christian slave's daily life to the transcendent reality of Christ's suffering. Why is the Christian slave—and, by implication, every Christian—called to endure unjust suffering? “Because,” St. Peter writes, “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” As St. Augustine comments, “Christ taught you to suffer, and he did so by suffering himself.”

In the last few verses of our text, St. Peter draws heavily from the famous “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 52-53, which is our first lesson today. As God’s suffering servant, Jesus “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.” Despite this, he in “his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” Note the tangible fleshiness of Jesus' sacrificial suffering—the cross is not simply an abstract spiritual battle between good and evil. It is physical, bodily torture. The language of “the tree” draws us back to the Old Testament. We learn in Deuteronomy that a man hanged on a tree for a crime “is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:21-23). The innocent sufferer Jesus is killed like a common criminal under a divine curse.

This profound theological reality undergirds St. Peter’s difficult instruction for day-to-day life. The household servants to whom he writes may be suffering unjustly, but they are, in a larger sense, not innocent of sin. The implication is clear: if he who was in the fullest sense innocent responded in this way, you who are not ought also so to do. “When he was reviled, [he] reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.” Amidst the reviling of persecutors, Jesus' gaze was ever heavenward. This too should be our response to suffering.

At the end of our text, St. Peter points out that Jesus’ death is more than just a good example for us to follow—because his death is what transforms us. Unlike the suffering of saints and martyrs, Jesus’ death is what actually enables us to follow his example. Christ died “that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.” In this particular passage, St. Peter is less concerned with the eternal status of our salvation than he is with the earthly practicalities of right living before God. As one translation puts it, Jesus “bore our wrongdoings” so that “we, having abandoned wrongdoing, might live for doing what is right” (Elliott, Anchor Bible, 523).

Christ’s suffering on Good Friday gives us an example to follow—and it empowers us to follow him. 

 As the beautiful Collect for the Monday before Easter puts it,

“ALMIGHTY God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified; Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”