— The Lord’s Day —

Easter, the Third Sunday

Pondering the Father’s victorious Word: Jesus

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love (ἀγαπᾷς, agapas)
me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him,
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (φιλῶ, philo) you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love (ἀγαπᾷς, agapas) me?”
Simon Peter answered him,
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (φιλῶ, philo) you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love (φιλεῖς, phileis) me?”
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
“Do you love (φιλεῖς, phileis) me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything;
you know that I love (φιλῶ, philo) you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.””

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

What a question to ask after breakfast, “do you love me more than these?” As the account is presented, Simon Peter wastes no time in responding immediately to Jesus’ question with an emphatic, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Throughout the ages, many understand this dialogue as an act of mercy that Jesus extends to Peter: 3 times he denied Jesus, 3 times now he professes his love for Jesus. In Sermon 224, Saint Augustine notes: “Christ rose again in the flesh, and Peter rose in the spirit because, when Christ died in his passion, Peter died by his denial. Christ the Lord was raised from the dead, and out of his love he raised Peter. He questioned him about the love he was confessing and entrusted him with his sheep. After all, what benefit could Peter confer on Christ by the mere fact of his loving Christ? If Christ loves you, it is to your advantage, not Christ’s. And if you love Christ, it is to your advantage, not Christ’s. And yet Christ the Lord wanted to indicate how people ought to show that they love Christ. And he made it plain enough by entrusting him with his sheep. “Do you love me?” “I do.” “Feed my sheep.” All this once, all this a second time, all this a third time. Peter made no other reply than that he loved him. The Lord asked no other question but whether he loved him. When Peter answered, our Lord did nothing else but entrust his sheep to him.”

Looking at the Greek text of this event, it is quite interesting to note the use of the verbs ἀγαπάω (agapao) and φιλέω (phileo). In the Gospel according to Saint John, the verb ἀγαπάω is used to express Jesus’ love as unconditional, self-sacrificing, self-surrendering total gift of Self culminating in the Cross. φιλέω is the Greek verb that expresses love as the bond shared and experienced by friends. Thus as far as the Text is concerned, Jesus asks Peter in the first and second question, ‘do you love me with an unconditional, self-sacrificing, self-surrendering love?’ Peter’s response to both of those questions is, ‘Yes Lord, I love You as a friend.’ Jesus’ question to Peter a third time is different, ‘do you love me as a friend?’ Peter responds for a third time, ‘Yes Lord, I love you as a friend.’

Many centrist scripture scholars view the Evangelist’s use of verbs ἀγαπάω and φιλέω synonymously. Fr Raymond Brown, for example, in his magisterial work on the Gospel of John contends that as far as Peter is concerned, he is ‘hearing’ Jesus ask him the same question 3 times, regardless of the distinction of the Greek verbs. A number of scholars note Peter’s “distress” at being asked a third time the ‘same’ question, supporting the view that Peter ‘hears’ the same question 3 times.

Yet the Sacred Text in its original, canonical Greek does employ distinct verbs for love. One might ponder whether or not Peter, at this point in his life, was ready and able ‘to hear’ let alone fully receive ἀγαπάω? Perhaps where he was at that time in his life, φιλέω was not only what he ‘heard,’ but what he was capable of doing. When one examines other dialogues in the same Gospel, a similar pattern emerges. Nicodemus, for example, comes to Jesus “in the night,” an important Johannine image against the Light Who is Jesus. Jesus takes Nicodemus where he is at in life and we learn at the end of the Gospel, he assists in the care of Jesus’ burial. The woman of Samaria is another similar case. As Jesus met her at the well, He ‘met’ her where she was on the journey only to emerge at the end of the account as an evangelizer! In time, Peter does respond to Jesus with love that is ἀγαπάω ... and it is a lesson that is both comforting and challenging for each of us as Jesus’ present disciples to know that He certainly meets us where we are in life - and - He will never leave us where He found us.