But if you endure when you do good and suffer for it,
this is a commendable thing before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example,
so that you should follow in his steps.
1 Peter 2:20-21
What is Lent for? If Peter has anything to do with it, we will use it to meditate on the passion of Jesus and turn our lives to model his, including the dying that leads to rising. Christ suffered for each of us, leaving us an example, beckoning us to follow in his steps. Lent is the opportunity to renew the journey and deepen the turning.
I felt surrounded by small opportunities to turn in the past two days. There were small ways to do what Paul calls “dying daily.”
For instance, in the Enola Holmes movie on Netflix, the plot swirls around a person from 1888 named Sarah Chapman. The whole cast suffers for doing good as they uncover the corruption of the Bryant and May Match Factory. The nonfictional Sarah Chapman is rightly remembered as the first woman who organized a strike by women. Activist Annie Besant encouraged her work by writing an article called “White Slavery in London.”
If you look up 1 Peter 2, you’ll see Peter was talking to slaves when he spoke about following in the steps of Jesus. And if you look around the U.S. and the world, you’ll see that slavery still exists; prisoners are designated slaves in the Constitution! When the movie was over, I went to throw away my Cheezits box and was choked with tears. If you can’t see people suffering for good during Lent, it will be hard to experience the crucifixion and resurrection during the first week of April.
The next day, I woke up early to take my wife for a medical procedure. I interrupted a meeting I was enjoying to pick her up earlier than expected. I would not characterize loving my devoted and wonderful wife as suffering. But, as I often tell couples, if you want to live for yourself, there is nothing worse than a mate. They call out the selfless love in you; they demand a lack of self-protection; they incite turning and growing.
As I was rushing to the doctor’s office, I rode in the elevator with two women who seemed dressed for work. I commented on that. They told me they were going to Harlem for a funeral. I knew the church they were talking about. I sympathized. I blessed them on their way. Just talking to someone on the elevator can feel like a passion. When we’re relating across racial lines which seem more radioactive than ever, that’s a passion. It takes a little death, some suffering, to love.
You see how this goes. We don’t just die daily, we die all day daily. The point of Lent made in 1 Peter is to turn into the suffering of love and truth because it is our destiny to be fully human and united with eternity, just as Jesus demonstrates.
The atonement as an example
Looking at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as an example was common among the Apostolic Fathers (ca. 100-200). Later, it was further developed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142). People who compare theories named it the “exemplar” or “moral influence” view.
Clement of Rome (ca. 96) wrote:
For [Christ] came down, for this he assumed human nature, for this he willingly endured the sufferings of humanity, that being reduced to the measure of our weakness he might raise us to the measure of his power. And just before he poured out his offering, when he gave himself as a ransom, he left us a new testament: “I give you my love.” What is the nature and extent of this love? For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.
Saint Clement was probably taught by Peter and Paul in Rome. After those apostles were killed, he became the leader of the church. I have been to his namesake church in Rome (San Clemente), which was supposedly built on the site of his house. And I have spent many days on his namesake beach in California (San Clemente).
A key work of Lent is to follow in Jesus’ steps, to “willingly endure the suffering of humanity” like he did. Our relationship with Jesus, calls out the love in us. It is a daily challenge to work out the truth Clement relays to his generation: “For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.” Some people think this is just a moral argument and we should all be good people. That’s true. But it is really a promise of newness. Transformed people love like Jesus, not people who try real hard to be good.
For me, the call means caring about someone in the elevator, caring for my wife, and very likely risking my life and reputation to do what I can do to love the world, like Jesus, knowing I will suffer. I have many examples who help me stick with it. For instance, now that Jimmy Carter is in hospice care, the media is eulogizing him, he is such a good example! They keep quoting him with a good quote to apply during Lent.
I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.
You may argue with Peter, Clement and Jimmy Carter because they just seem impractical. There are many critics who have gone before you. They ask, “Where is the power? Where is the miracle? How do we rule the world if all we do is love? How can you make a living being this way? If Jesus is merely an example of suffering love, why have a crucifixion?”
Jesus is not merely an example. He’s not merely anything. He is the Son of God, demonstrating what God does and what humankind should reflect. God is not coercive. God does not demand. Instead, Jesus invites and beckons, “Follow me.” The cross is the ultimate invitation to each human being to live the life they are given by God. “Lay down your life for your friends. Love your enemies.” Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
It is not what Jesus says that saves us or having correct thoughts about what he says that makes us good. What saves us is receiving the love of God which transforms us, then following the entire pattern of the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ example does not give us a list of instructions, it provides us a way, a paradigm, a narrative to live into. He is a revelation. The Lord’s example reframes our entire existence: incarnation, mission, crucifixion, resurrection – these become the sea in which we swim, the fount of our feelings, the grammar that structures our thought, and the inspiration for our behavior.