ISSUES OF FAITH: Just like the chorus of a love song

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”

He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” (John 21: 15-18, NIV)

The passage, however, just doesn’t make sense as it stands in English.

Christ’s hearers (the other apostles) would have had a completely different experience in hearing this conversation.

When we are speaking or writing in English, we have, basically, one word for love, as reflected in the translation from John printed above.

New Testament Greek has three words for love: agape, philos, and eros.

When Christ asks Peter if he loves Him the first two times, he uses a form of agape: Christian love, or spiritual love, but Peter responds with philos, what you might call a companionable love. Philadelphia, for instance, is called “The City of Brotherly Love,” an example of the use of philos.

Unfortunately, Peter has missed the point, just like we do.

He is saying yes, sure, but also rejecting the idea of ​​the right kind of love — the kind of love that Jesus was looking for, both from Peter and also from us.

Jesus knows Peter is capable of so much more, and God always, always, takes what we are willing to give, if it is all we can give.

Jesus gives Peter a second shot, like being given a chance to take an exam over again with no penalty for the first failure.

And sadly Peter, in all his human cluelessness, misses the mark once again.

Jesus asks, “Do you love [agape] me?” And Peter, poor old Peter, answers again, “You know I [philos] love you.”

Then Jesus asks a third time, but this time he changes, the rules of the game. He switches to “philos.”

Peter responds a third time with “philos,” but this time, we’re told, with sadness. No doubt, because on the third round, Christ’s use of philos, not agape, is an acknowledgment that Peter, being human, can’t love Jesus the way he wants.

If Peter missed the point before, he sure didn’t this time.

His failure was right in his face.

Jesus was highlighting Peter’s error by that switch in language but also giving him a way out.

Fine, Jesus is saying, if you can’t love me now the way I know you can, then I’ll take this.

But this is key. In all three times, even with the wrong answer all three times, Jesus told Peter the same thing all three times: Feed my sheep.

He twice asked if Peter loved Him as Peter’s Lord and Savior, only to hear Peter twice answer “You know I love you like a brother.”

But the third time, He met Peter where he was at: “OK, fine, do you love me like a brother?”

Jesus wanted to hear Peter’s yes.

Jesus will always take what He can get, even if it’s the wrong answer.

Christ wanted Peter to feed His lambs, but also knew that doing so would require that Peter would grow into agape love — that being like a brother to Christ was not enough.

He wants our yes as well.

Be sure of this — like Peter in all his human failure, God comes to us where we are and wants us to be more than we are right now.

Be more. Be Love.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a Deacon at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Port Angeles/St. Swithin’s Episcopal Church, Forks.

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