Bishop Conlon gave each priest of the Diocese of Joliet a book as a Christmas gift, a book entitled “Into His Likeness,” by Edward Sri. The introduction of that book tells the story that we hear this morning from the 21st chapter of St. John’s Gospel.
On a spring morning along the Sea of Galilee some 2,000 years ago, the Risen Lord Jesus asks his disciple Peter a deeply personal question, “Do you love me?” On the surface, the question seems to be a no-brainer. Of course Peter loves Jesus! However, the story carries a significance that we cannot understand unless we read it in its original language.
The word that Jesus uses for “love” here is the word “agapao.” This kind of love is total, unconditional, self-giving love – the kind of committed, sacrificial love Jesus modeled throughout his life, most especially on the Cross. Jesus is not, therefore, asking Peter if he loves merely with ordinary, human affection. There is another Greek word, “phileo,” – the love of friendship, tender, but not all-encompassing which describes human affection. So when Peter responds to Jesus, the evangelist puts the word “phileo” on the lips of Peter. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter responds affirmatively. Three times, Jesus uses the word “agapao.” Three times Peter responds with “phileo.”
On the third response, Peter responds by saying, “Lord, you know that I love you.” In actuality, he is saying much more. He tells Jesus, “You of all people know how far away I am from agape. You know that I am only capable of loving you with my imperfect human love, my ‘philia.’”
Here comes the most remarkable part of the story – and the one that sheds light on the drama of our own walk with the Lord. Despite the fact that Peter does not love Jesus as Jesus loves him, Jesus accepts Peter’s imperfect human love and tells him to “feed his sheep.” Peter has presented himself to Jesus as he really is – not in the inflated view he previously had of himself on that fateful night when he swore that he would never deny Jesus. He has learned the truth of his own fragility. Once he comes to terms with the truth about himself – that he is simply not capable of “agape” right now – a new era begins in Peter’s friendship with Jesus. At precisely this moment, Jesus suddenly talks about how Peter will one day live “agape” like Jesus did. Peter will be changed. His heart will be transformed. One day, Peter will find himself stretched out on a cross just as Jesus was.
The story of Peter’s transformation is the story that God wants to write in the hearts of all disciples. Jesus meets us where we are, as we are, with all our fears, wounds, and sins, and transforms our “philia” into “agape.” Pope Benedict XVI once observed, “From that day, Peter followed the Master with the precise awareness of his own fragility; but this understanding did not discourage him. Indeed, he knew that he could count on the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus beside him. From the naïve enthusiasm of initial acceptance, passing through the sorrowful experience of denial and the weeping of conversion, Peter succeeded in entrusting himself to that Jesus who adapted himself in his poor capacity of love. And in this way he shows us the way, notwithstanding all of our weakness. We know that Jesus adapts himself to this weakness of ours. We follow him with our poor capacity to love and we know that Jesus is good and he accepts us.”
What Jesus did in Peter, he will do in each of us! One day we will finally be able to let go of our own inability to give ourselves to Jesus totally, unconditionally, giving our very selves to Jesus as our Master. None of us have reached that goal yet. However, one day, we too will find ourselves standing around the throne of the Lamb who was slain, singing the great hymn of salvation, crying out in a loud voice, “Worthy is Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing." I am sure that you did not count off the various gifts of which the Lamb was worthy. However, had you done so, you would have noticed that the creatures of heaven are investing the Lamb with seven gifts. Seven is the perfect number in the Scriptures. Jesus is perfect; we are not. Jesus loves with “agape,” we are not yet capable of this kind of love. Even so, Jesus still accepts us if we are willing to follow him and work at the conversion of heart that will change our “philia” into “agape.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator