This morning's epistle and Gospel both point out the generous love of our Lord for His adopted brothers and sisters. Saint Peter quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaias -- in a passage that we heard a few weeks ago on Wednesday of Holy Week. It is clearly a prophecy that was fulfilled in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. And, quite likely, Peter was with our Lord when He spoke this closely related parable about being the Good Shepherd -- but it is also likely that Peter did not fully understand its meaning when he first heard it -- for most Jews of Peter's time, the Messias was expected to be more of a warrior than a suffering servant.
Indeed, prior to the crucifixion, Peter seems to have been the most vocal opponent any time our Lord mentioned anything about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die -- to the point that our Lord even referred to Peter as "Satan" and "a scandal" for contradicting His intention.2 And it was Peter, we are told by Saint John, who cut off the ear of the high priest's servant in a last violent attempt to prevent the Sanhedrin from taking Jesus prisoner.3
It had to puzzle Peter when our Lord said that "the Son of Man ... has come to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."4 Perhaps, only later on would he come to make the association between our Lord's characterization of Himself as Good Shepherd who would lay done His life, and the prophesies of Isaias. But the epistle we read this morning was written with the advantage of retrospection -- Peter was close then to his own death, and had about thirty years in which to ponder the significance of our Lord's death and resurrection.
Peter is, of course, praising our Lord and remarking on our good fortune that God the Son would show such dedication to lost sheep, whom we all are. But notice that what we read today starts out with the phrase: "Christ ... left you an example, that you may follow in His steps." Peter is telling us that it is not enough to admire our Lord's altruism and generosity, but rather, that it is something for us to imitate.
If we read this short passage in its larger context, we find that Peter was addressing the various classes of people -- citizens and servants, the married and the single, the clergy and the laity. And in one way or another, he tells all of them (and all of us) that if we unite our sufferings and difficulties and persecutions in life with the sufferings of Christ; and if we imitate Christ in His humility and His generosity -- we "will rejoice with exultation in the revelation of His glory" -- "the honor, the glory, and the power of God and His Spirit will rest upon [us]."5
Understand, that Peter is not suggesting that we should court misery or even death, but that we must be prepared to accept these things if they come upon us in the process of living the Christian life. He was, above all, writing to the Christian communities that were suffering persecution for the Faith; and suffering the ridicule of their pagan neighbors -- pagans who simply could not understand the idea that a god would suffer for his people, or that his death could somehow be counted a victory over anything.
In actuality, much of what Peter advised would lead to a reduction in the difficulties of those who followed his advice. It is an exhortation to Christians to live in harmony by adopting our Lord's example of humble service to one another. "Have a constant mutual charity.... be hospitable to one another.... govern not as lording it over your charges, but becoming from the heart a pattern for the flock.... humble yourselves, therefor, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in the time of visitation."6 There still might be persecution, of course, but by and large it would be a whole lot easier to live in a world where everyone «followed this example in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.»
Finally we must observe that Saint Peter also addresses the idea expressed by our Lord, that we must also bring in "the sheep that are not of this fold."7 Peter tells us to "hallow the Lord Christ in [our] hearts.... always ready with an answer to everyone who asks the reason for the hope in you."8 He is suggesting that the most powerful tool we have for "gathering in the lost and straying sheep" is our good example. If we truly follow the example of our Lord -- if we treat one another with that "constant mutual charity" even in times of adversity -- it will be noticed. "Behave yourself honorably among the pagans ... so that by reason of your good works they may glorify God in the day of visitation."9 That is to say that it is only by virtue of the good that we do and the difficulties we endure that we can cooperate with our Lord as his shepherds and distinguish ourselves from the hirelings.
Remember: "Christ ... left you an example, that you may follow in His steps."