“Returning to the Shepherd”
1 Peter 2:19-25 – April 30, 2023
How many here know the 23rd Psalm by heart? The 23rd Psalm is probably one of the most familiar Bible passages in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament. I myself memorized it when I was younger, when I was regularly memorizing verses from the Bible. These verses can be by turn comforting, soothing, encouraging, and supportive. Just what many people need at challenging or difficult times in their lives!
Today’s Bible reading hearkens back to Psalm 23. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle is straightforward in his statements. He talks clearly of suffering: the suffering of believers, and about Christ’s suffering on our behalf. Wait a minute! I thought that since I became a Christian that I would not have to suffer! Didn’t you? When we become Christians, we get a nice, easy life, don’t we? Who said anything about suffering?
Here in 1 Peter 2 is one of many places in the New Testament that talk about suffering, certainly. A number of other places in the apostle Paul’s letters mention suffering, too. Paul’s suffering, as well as that of his friends’. And, what about the Gospels? Our Lord Jesus does not shy away from talking straight about suffering. Carrying the cross, and following Him.
Sadly, I regularly have contact with people for whom life has become very difficult. Living one day at a time becomes the only way that some can possibly make it. Sure, since I am a hospice chaplain during the week, many of the patients and families I interact with are dealing with huge difficulties. And, usually these difficulties are physical in nature.
Except, life does not always send us physical problems. (Or, just physical difficulties.) Life happens, as we all can attest. Life can throw many of us curve balls, and even see us (or our friends) striking out at home plate. Not only reverses in health, but emotional upsets, lack of financial security, even spiritual distress of many kinds.
For many, many people throughout the centuries, Psalm 23 has been a help and a stay when the unexpected challenges and difficulties in life happen. This 4th Sunday of Easter is Shepherd Sunday, the day when we not only lift up the many blessings of Psalm 23, but on this Sunday we also look at other Shepherd-related Scriptures.
“Perhaps it was the image of Jesus tenderly carrying a lamb over his shoulders. Or the memory of shepherds in a field hearing the good news of God’s love born for them in Bethlehem. Or the Sunday School story of a shepherd boy becoming king. Even if they’d never met a shepherd. Even if they had only encountered sheep from a distance.”  Just about everyone attending church during Eastertide has some kind of connection to sheep and shepherds.
What happens when this Psalm 23, these familiar verses just do not fit with our state of mind, or specific situation. What happens, then? People still get very much afraid, still have health reversals, still get into financial difficulties, still walk through dark valleys.
This reading from 1 Peter 2 has some difficult words for us to listen to. Difficult words for us to swallow. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” I can attest that I have seen people who know that they will greatly suffer for the sake of and for the name of Christ, and yet they still believe. They can do no other but believe!
I am remembering my trip to Egypt, just a few weeks ago. I had the experience of being in a Muslim-majority country. Just like many believers today in North Africa and the Middle East, “This letter was written [during the first century] when the church was under constant threat; when the benediction was spoken in a whisper because everyone knew when they gathered again someone likely would be missing, caught up in the cleansing, deportations, and imprisonment. They were afraid of their neighbors. They were afraid people might discover that they practiced a minority religion, a suspect faith. They worried that neighbors might turn them in to the increasingly vigilant authorities who were out to make the nation safe.” 
This was the situation for these scattered believers in Christ, in the first century. And, this is the current situation – the suffering – for countless believers throughout the world today. Life continues to throw us curve balls, unexpected and sometimes unrelenting. Life continues to happen to all of us, in any number of ways. It does not matter how strong of a believer you or I may be, it can be terrifying to walk in the darkest valley, whatever that dark valley of our life may be. But – Jesus, that Shepherd of our souls is walking right beside us. Gathering His sheep together.
“The promise is that this one understands; this one has been where we are. This one walks with us into the suffering. This guardian is a close companion, not one who waits until we make it through on our own and then gives us a gold star or some other commendation. No, this one is right there with us. This one knows us. This [shepherd] cares for us.” 
In my chaplain’s work, I meet with patients and their loved ones who are in denial, fearful, or angry. Sometimes, they even are serene and accepting of that valley of shadow. What I have been moved to say, again and again, is that our Great Shepherd Jesus is right by our sides. Right there in the room or the hallway, whether they or their loved is sleeping or awake, in pain or pain-free.
To be sure, our reading from 1 Peter does not just leave us wallowing in suffering. No! Our reading “presents the [shepherd] of our souls as the one who brings us back together, who brings us home. We celebrate that [shepherd] today, the one who walked through the world and showed us what a life of meaning and purpose looked like.” 
The message from 1 Peter for us today? Our Shepherd Jesus is with us always. Always! And, He will bring us home. No matter where, no matter what. And, that’s a promise.
(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!