Do You Love Me?
June 30, 2013
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
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.”
“I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” ~ Anne Lamott
I was not the world’s best student back when I was in high school. Actually, truth be told, I was not a very good student at all. I hated going. I begged my parents to homeschool me or at least let me homeschool myself. I faked being sick as often as possible.
I rarely did my homework. I cut class with such alarming regularity that people just assumed I wasn’t supposed to be there. And even when I was there, I wasn’t exactly all there, if you know what I mean.
And yet, in spite of my bad attitude and lax participation, my teachers, to their credit, occasionally still managed to teach me some pretty amazing things.
In fact, every now and again there would be one of those magical moments when I didn’t just learn something, I learned something really important—a moment in which a teacher would speak and not just present us with another fact to memorize, but with a Truth—a Truth with a capital T.
(That sort of thing still existed back in my school days.)
They would offer up a Truth that would hit me as if for the first time and truly reshape my way of understanding the world.
One such moment I can still recall occurred in English class during sophomore year. We were reading The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault, a novel about ancient Greece.
Mrs. Gleason—perhaps because she was having trouble getting through to us—put the novel down, crossed her arms, looked out at us all, and said, “Look. When someone says ‘I love you,’ there is only one response they are hoping to hear in return.”
Now, I was not just a bad student, I was also a slightly obnoxious one, so as soon as she said this, my mind began to race.
Whenever people utter ultimatums, I still automatically resist them, but back when I was a teenager I resisted them with all the force I could muster, so I attempted instantly to compile a list of responses one might consider suitable to a declaration of love—responses like “Wow,” “Gee, thanks,” and “I really like you too”—at which point I realized that she was absolutely right.
In fact, I felt as though she was staring straight into me when she said, “The only acceptable answer, the only response any of us want to hear when we offer up the words ‘I love you’ to another, is ‘I love you too.’” I love you too.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus asks Peter repeatedly, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And Peter says to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” On the surface, it appears that this exchange would meet with my English teacher’s approval.
It sounds as if Jesus and Peter are both saying exactly the same thing, which is why it might seem odd that they would go through this exercise three times: “Do you love me? Yes, I love you.” “Do you love me? Yes, I love you.” “Do you love me? You know that I love you.”
But in Greek, the language in which this story was originally written, when Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” he is using the word agape for “love.” “Simon son of John, do you agape me?”
Agape love is a self-sacrificing love.
When Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friend,” he is using the word agape. Jesus is really asking Peter, “Do you love me enough to die for me?”
Peter, though, unlike Jesus, responds all three times with the Greek word philios, and basically says, “Lord, I have great affection for you. You know that I really, really like you.”
Anyone who has ever been in love knows how scary it can be, especially in the beginning of a new relationship, to pick the right moment to say “I love you” for the first time.
And anyone who has ever gone out on that limb and uttered those three words, only to hear something like “Wow. Gee, thanks. I really like you too” knows the truth of which my English teacher spoke.
And possibly that person knows something of the disappointment Jesus must have felt when Peter responded the way he did.
In many ways, this is actually a really sad scene, as Jesus asks over and over again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” only to hear Peter respond, “Lord, you know that I like you.” But if you place this story in the larger context of Easter, then you realize an agape from Peter would most likely have rung hollow at this point in their story—and Peter, more than anyone else, would have known this.
The irony here is that I do not doubt that Peter did love Jesus. Peter is at times an impulsive and crazy character, prone to lopping off ears or, as in this story, rushing to put all his clothes back on before he jumps into the water.
There is obviously more than tremendous affection here—there is an undeniable and headstrong passion, in fact—but Peter is also the one who denied Jesus not once, but three times, the night before his execution. It was a denial neither one of them could, would, should ever forget.
That denial hangs in the air between them.
They both know all too well the limits of Peter’s love; if Peter has proven anything, it is that he does not yet love Jesus enough to die for him. So when Peter cries out in response, “Lord, you know I have affection for you,” it is as much a confession as a declaration.
To say more, with all that has transpired so recently, would be disingenuous, hypocritical, dishonest, insincere. And so Peter gives Jesus exactly what he has to give, no more and no less. He offers him his philios, his friendship.
At which point something extraordinary happens. Jesus asks him a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” But this time Jesus is the one who changes the words. He says, “Simon son of John, do you have philios for me—affection for me?”
Do you like me?
Are we still friends?
The Bible tells us that “Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time: ‘Do you love me?’”
“Lord, you know everything,” says Peter; “you know the affection I bear for you.”
You know that I like you. You know we are still friends.
Jesus brings the question down to Peter’s level. He lowers the standard of love from agape to philios, a standard Peter can finally live up to.
So why is Peter hurt?
I used to think it was because he thought Jesus kept asking him the same question over and over again, as if he didn’t believe him—until I realized that Peter was probably hurt more by the realization that Jesus did believe him. Jesus believed and understood Peter more than Peter understood himself. By which I mean that Jesus knew exactly how much Peter loved him, and they both knew that Jesus deserved better. They both knew that Jesus loved Peter enough to die for him and loved him enough to die for him even still—whereas Peter, well, Peter still had a long way to go.
The only acceptable answer, the only response any of us want to hear when we offer up the words “I love you” to another is “I love you too.”
Peter couldn’t say those words just yet, at least not with same fervor that Jesus could, but there is good news here in this story all the same, for Peter and for us, because Jesus was willing to take Peter’s philios for all it was worth.
He didn’t demand something Peter couldn’t give, but he accepted Peter’s love for exactly what it was and upon this peculiar rock built his church, just as he said he would.
Jesus did not compel Peter to love him more. He did not reject him for failing to live up to a higher standard. He simply acknowledged Peter’s level of commitment and sent him out to work for the kingdom—“to feed his is sheep”—just as he was.
And the good news for you and for me is that Jesus is willing to do the same for us, as well. The Lord does not compel us anymore than he compelled Peter. We are not forced to love God any more than we want to or any more than we are ready to.
But the beauty is that each little bit of ourselves we do give over to the Lord is received by him and transformed by his love into something greater. I mean, think about it: if he can build the whole Christian church out of one man’s limited and self-conscious friendship, imagine what he can do with us, even now! If we, like Peter, can give him our affection, he can take our philios and, with time, transform it into agape. We have only to open the door and let him in.
I’m not saying that the Lord is an exception to my English teacher’s claim. I’m sure he would love to hear us respond to his love with all the love we can give, but he is extraordinary in his response to all of us. God does not stop loving us, even if we have only the slightest bit of love to give him in return.
What God does do is take the love we are willing to offer for all it is worth, and then do all he can to lead us into an ever-deepening relationship with him, in hopes of transforming not just us but all the world.
We are called to go forth, just as Peter did, to feed his lambs and tend his sheep by offering that same love to one another—a love that accepts the other just as they are with every hope of helping them become something more.
That is the good news of today’s gospel passage, but it is not the only news I want to leave you with this morning. Before I close, I would like to say a few words about the love we offer one another.
Our reading today teaches us that God is patient and generous in his love, for which we should be deeply grateful. But I can’t help thinking that God is so patient, at least in part, because God can afford to be. After all, he has all eternity to wait for us to finally get it.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have that same luxury with regard to one another.
Although I dearly wish it were not so, more and more I think we all know that those we love can be taken from us at any time.
Not only that, for all that we love our friends and our family, our parents and our children, our partners, our brothers and our sisters with that first love Jesus asked for, that deep and abiding agape love, the truth is that in our day-to-day interactions, we don’t always treat one another as if that were the case.
In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we are often hardest on those we love the most. We withhold our love and approval from one another, not because it isn’t there, but because in the midst of our own hurt or frustration or immaturity, we just aren’t always ready or able to express it.
And so I would encourage you all this morning to come right out and say “I love you” when you feel it. Say “I love you” to your family, your friends, and even your fellow members here. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be real or that you should never get angry or fight. By all means, express your aggravation and your disappointment.
Argue, get fed up, even yell if you need to, but try as best as you can never to hang up the phone or leave a meeting or let a conversation end without making the effort to express that for all your frustration with one another, you still regard each other as absolutely precious.
God can and will wait for us to come to a point of perfect love for as long as need be, but we don’t always get that opportunity with one another.
So please, in your day-to-day interactions, dare to keep saying “I love you.” Don’t be afraid. And when you are blessed to hear those three words from another, if it is true, please don’t ever pass up the opportunity to say, “You know what? I love you too.”
Rev. Sarah Buteux