When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
Today’s picture is the alternative to yesterday’s. Not the Ik, but the community of love. Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” People like to connect this with Peter’s triple denial of Jesus: he was being given a chance to undo the damage. In addition, something else is happening in the original language, something that doesn’t appear in English.
There are several words for ‘love’ in Greek. ‘Philein’ means to love someone as a friend; ‘agapan’ usually means to love someone in the distinctive New Testament sense: to love them unselfishly, creatively, in the way that Jesus loved. In John's usage, this kind of love is mysteriously deeper and wider even than friendship, because it doesn’t depend on like-mindedness as friendship does; it can even reach out to include an enemy. Now, Jesus first asked Peter, ‘Agapas me?’ (Do you love me with this kind of love?) Peter replies, ‘Philo se’. (I love you as a friend.) The second time, the words are the same. But the third time, Jesus asks him, “Phileis me?’ And Peter answers as before, ‘Philo se’.
There is something touching about this. Peter wasn’t yet able to love Jesus in that heroic way; he could love him only as the friend he had known for three years. But the third time around, Jesus steps down, as it were, to accept what Peter was able to offer at that time.
Friendship, though it is a precious gift, can have a built-in trap. It could mean that you never allow the other to surprise you or shock you; it can mean ‘come into my camp.’
Can we put it this way: all forms of love and friendship are capable of advancing gradually towards to ‘agapè’. How do we go along that road? Like Peter, by doing the best we can.
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