We ought to first note that the lectionary this week has skipped over I Peter 2.1-18. The very important passage in I Peter 2.4-10 will be next week's text.
The creators of the lectionary have evidently changed the order of the texts so that "Shepherd Sunday" might be celebrated each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Psalm 23, for example, is appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in each year of the lectionary cycle.
We should note that the omitted verses 11-18 begin with the introduction which reads, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh...." The first thing to notice about this verse is its clear definition of the status of the Christians Peter is writing to in the Dispersion. They are aliens and exiles. They have no status in their lands. They are the marginalized, the worker slaves, the undocumented workers of their time.
One commentator calls this section "ethics for exiles within the structures of this world." The kind of advice given here comes pretty much from what are called "traditional household duty codes." These were commonly held ethical codes of their time. There is really nothing uniquely Christian about this listing of advice. The Law, after all, is written on the heart of all people! See Romans 2.14-16. It is not the Law that is revealed with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is the Gospel that is revealed! Advice for ethical living in I Peter comes from the common wisdom of the society.
There is one disturbing reality in Peter's ethical advice for exiles. Peter calls them to accept the authority of every human institution [v. 13] and every slave master [v.18]. Submission is Peter's call. In our appointed text Peter continues by indicating that it is to their credit if they endure pain while suffering unjustly. This will bring God's approval! Christ is the example they should follow. "...when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly." V. 23.
It is imperative upon us to understand this advice in its social location. Peter is writing to aliens and exiles in the land. These were people who had no power to do anything other than suffer in their context. These texts, however, have often been taken out of their context and applied to people today. I once heard a preacher say that when Jesus was abused, '"He just took it." That is, indeed, what today's text says! Afterward the preacher's wife reminded him how many women who have been abused by their husbands have been told by good Christian counselors to be like Jesus who just took it! Feminist theology has rightly revolted against an indiscriminate usage of this passage from Peter and other passages as well that continue to afflict punishment on women. Liberation theologians, theologians speaking for the "aliens and exiles" in the world today, have also challenged this kind of reading of this and other texts.
When we address our people today in twenty-first century America we address very few in our pews who are "aliens and exiles." We preach to people who have rights in our society who, therefore, have the ability to protest unjust treatment through the courts and through the halls of political powers. Let us not proclaim to our people a false theology of submission based on a very different context from the pages of I Peter. This indeed would be to preach Law instead of Gospel. Our contemporary hearers are not powerless to work for a more just world.
On Shepherd Sunday we obviously have the chance to preach on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. This would be based on v. 25: We have been like sheep who have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way. We are called to return to "the shepherd and guardian of our souls." One approach to this text on this Sunday would be to tell some of the biblical stories regarding the Good Shepherd. Psalm 23 is today's appointed Psalm. Lift it up. The Gospel text is from John 10.1-10. "I am the door of the sheep," Jesus announces here. We can also tell the stories of the shepherd from Jeremiah 23.3ff and Ezekiel 34.23ff. Luke 15.3-7 could also be one of our stories.
After hearing some of these shepherd stories we can turn to our human need for a shepherd. The Good Shepherd comes to find the lost. Talk about humans being lost! Make it vivid. Make it real. Then be the mouthpiece of the biblical shepherd. You might say something like this: The Good Shepherd has good news for lost people. His words are: "I have come to be your Shepherd, you shall not want. [Psalm 23] "I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries and bring them back to the fold." [Jeremiah 23.3.] "Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out." [Ezekiel 34.11] "I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak...." [Ezekiel 34.16]. Behold, I am the Good Shepherd! Amen.
There are two other images in this text which could be developed into sermons. One image is the tree. In v. 24 we note that cross can also be translated as tree. Deuteronomy 21.22ff indicates that anyone hung on a tree is accursed by God. In Acts 5.27-32 Peter preaches about the tree and the one who offers Israel a chance for repentance and forgiveness. In Acts 10:34ff Peter again preaches, this time to the Gentiles gathered at Cornelius's house. The death of Jesus on the tree [v. 39] is a central part of his sermon. As a result of his sermon the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Gentiles!
Peter also mentions the wounds of Christ in v.24. This is the only New Testament reference to the wounds of Christ as such. In the Old Testament, however, wounds are spoken of often as a description of the human condition. See Isaiah 1.5ff; Jeremiah 30.12, 17; Micah 1.8 and Nahum 3.19. Isaiah again speaks of wounds in chapter 53, his great poem to the suffering servant. "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed." Isaiah 53.5.