“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” John 21:15
A piercing and loaded question… one that smacks of a parent asking a teenage child, “Are you busy?” To which the child may respond, “Maybe,” meaning, it depends on why you’re asking.
So too, my truthful answer to the Lord would be, “It depends.” “What do you mean by these?”
‘…do you love me more than these? Christ has just finished eating a meal with the apostles. Do these refer to the meal – his physical needs? Or does it refer to the apostles who are his companions? Maybe both; maybe neither.
We have heard it said that the three questions Christ asks Peter represent the reconciliation of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ before the crucifixion.
Yes and perhaps more. Many scripture verses seem to contain layers of meaning and a nuance in this exchange is revealed through language. The New Testament was originally written in Greek and in Greek, there are 4 different words for love. Two of the references for love in John 21 are:
Agape love: selfless unconditional love of one person for another - divine love -- love for the sake of the beloved alone.
Philia love: friendship, loyal, brotherly love
Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him. The first time, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him in the sense of agape love. The verbal form of this word equates to following through and acting on one’s love. Agape love is one of sacrifice because it is unconditional and not concerned with self. Jesus didn’t just ask Peter if he loves Him, but rather if he loves Him to the extent that he would demonstrate his love as a sacrifice.
In his response, Peter uses a completely different word. He uses the word philia. Love in the philia sense refers to having a deep feeling for someone as a friend. Peter admits a strong feeling of friendship for Christ.
Yet, that is not what Christ was asking.
At the same time, this is a truthful answer. Peter, who had adamantly declared at the Last Supper that he would follow Jesus even to death (Mark 14:29), is measured in his response.
Christ in return calls Peter to a higher love than which he is at this point capable of by his own strength: “Feed my lambs.” Christ is inviting him to a genuine agape love, one that requires grace that comes from a supernatural source.
Then Christ asks Peter again if he loves Him with an agape love.
Peter, even in the face of Christ’s invitation to agape love, he again declares his friendship only, admitting that he is not yet able to love him in that deep, self-sacrificing sense.
Christ’s third question is not a repeat of the previous two (unlike in the English translations of the Bible). Knowing that Peter is not yet ready for agape love, Jesus simply asks Peter if he loves Him in a philia sense.
The Scripture passage above tells us that Peter was grieved that Christ had asked him this. Many suppose this is because Jesus has just grilled the first Pope as if He didn’t trust what was heard the first time.
Peter’s sorrow could be the realization that Christ appears to have lowered His expectations with the third question. Peter’s resignation (of the love he is capable of) is palpable when, in his response to the third time the Lord asks the question. Peter says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (with a philia love).
Even with this response Christ does not lower his expectation and His call. He tells Peter, “Feed my Sheep.” What may be unspoken: You may not be ready now, but you will be. Through my grace, I am confident in a future yes.
Christ is faithful. Just like with Peter, our Lord takes our response, full of conditions and questions, and knocks at the door of our yes. We know Peter did eventually say yes to the agape love to which Christ called him.
Just like with Saint Peter, it is Christ’s commitment to us -- the Lord’s word -- His grace mixed with our philia love yes, that chips away at our conditions, inviting us to an agape love yes.