In yesterday’s post, I alluded to the fact that I’m 100% convinced that Sunday’s beloved story of the restoration of Peter is really as lovely as we think it is. It all stems from a conversation of which, I was not a part.
Yesterday morning, my boss and his son had breakfast together. As they are wont to do, they ended up talking about the Gospel lesson for Sunday: paying particular attention to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ third attempt at the same question. While the NRSV tries to sound more modern by having Peter “feel hurt,” most translations have John saying that Peter was “grieved” because Jesus had, for a third time, asked him “do you love me?” TKT came back from breakfast eager to share with me their conversation and to look up that word in the Greek. Ultimately, it seems to be a plain old word for “grief” or “mourn,” but the question lingered, what made Peter feel this way?
John says that he grieved because Jesus had asked him this question a third time, which seems reasonable enough, but I can’t help but think that there is something deeper that the English misses out on. The first time Jesus asks Peter “do you love me,” he uses the word “agape.” Peter replies, “Yes lord, you know that I love you,” but instead of “agape”, he says “phileo.” Jesus asks again, “Do you agape me?” Peter again responds, “You know that I phileo you.” Finally, Jesus says, “Do you phileo me?”
Jesus asks of Peter the deepest sort of love that is possible. He invited Peter back into a relationship of agape, self-giving love, but Peter can’t make that leap. Jesus knows that agape exists within Peter. He knows that he will stand firm in the faith, even to the point of crucifixion himself, but unfortunately, Peter can’t see it yet. Peter remains unsure. He’s unsure of the power of the Spirit. He’s unsure of what this new resurrection life means. He’s unsure about a kingdom that is not of this world. And so all Peter can muster is phileo. Deep down, I think he hopes to hear himself say “agape,” but Jesus seems to let him off the hook. Peter realizes that Jesus knows he has stopped short of being fully restored into relationship, and it is grievous unto him.
As I ponder all the ways in which I keep God and my neighbor at arm’s length, it is grievous unto me as well. Through the power of the Spirit, God expects agape love from me, but it is often difficult even to muster up phileo. It is part of falling short. It is sin that keeps me from loving the way God loves, and like it was for Peter, it keeps us from being fully restored to right relationship.