Ideas are a dime a dozen, or so they say. There is no doubt that ideas come flashing into our heads all the time. Many we dismiss rather quickly. Others have some hold on us. An idea can suddenly emerge as something new, even brilliant, until another even more brilliant idea displaces it. These ideas are often paper thin and don’t stay the pace. But there are some few ideas that have mass and momentum about them, carrying us through the days and years, giving us hope, courage and direction for a lifetime. Such a one is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see it in the amazing transformation that takes place in the Apostles. They have moved from being timid, unlettered men from half-pagan Galilee to unashamedly bold and courageous men standing before the highest powers in the land. They are accused of filling Jerusalem with their teaching. What a wonderful accusation! And their reply is simplicity itself. “We must obey God rather than men.” What better example of the power of the resurrection than the transformation of these men who are now rejoicing that they have been found worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. Christianity and the resurrection is indeed an idea whose time has come.
Perhaps it’s understandable that such a powerful idea would only dawn slowly on the apostles. While they had experienced the risen Christ on a few occasions and even rejoiced at his appearance, the full impact of his presence was not yet felt. It was still only paper thin. Today we find them listless, dithering between going forward with what they experienced or going back to their old ways – to what was tried and truly tested, namely fishing. “I’m going fishing,” says Peter and they all immediately joined in.
There are many parallels between this episode and that of the calling of the disciples by the lakeshore in Luke 5:1-11. In both cases they fish all night and catch nothing, suggesting that without Jesus all our efforts are in vain. Then in the morning Jesus arrives and tells them to cast out their nets once more, and in each case, and to the amazement of all, a huge catch is landed, 153 in all – I wonder who did the counting!
It is in the conversation afterwards between Jesus and Peter that the differences arise. But are the differences really that great? We shall see. In Luke Peter falls to his knees, feeling unworthy to be in the presence of Jesus and asking him to leave. In John it is Jesus who initiates the conversation asking Peter three times: ‘Do you love me?’ It is easy to see the correspondence between Jesus triple question to Peter “Do you love me?” and the three denials of Peter at the passion. Peter answers in the affirmative each time, but in the Greek text we find that Peter is not exactly responding to the question Jesus is asking him.
In Greek there are four different words to express the English word love, all with slightly different meanings and nuances. The two that are of interest to us here are ‘philia’ and ‘agape’. Philia means friendship, the admiring companionship we feel toward people with whom we share some significant interests. It’s a family kind of love. The word Philadelphia means brotherly love. Agapé, on the other hand, is a more radical love. It means generous and self-giving love, even when there is nothing tangible to be gained. Agape love never counts the cost.
Back to the gospel story. Jesus asks Peter, “Agapas me – Do you have agapé love for me?” meaning “Do you love me in such a manner as to sacrifice your life for me.” Peter knows that he has not lived up to this standard of love. He knows that he disowned Jesus in order to save his life. So what does Peter answer? He answers, “Philo se. Yes, Lord, I do have philia love for you,” meaning, “Yes, Lord, you know how much I deeply admire you and how devoted I am to you, but it’s not quite agape love.” There is a confession of failure in this. Peter is saying, “Yes, I love and admire you, but no, I have not been able to love you with a self-sacrificing love as you demand.” So Jesus asks him a second time whether he has agape for him and Peter again replies that he has philia for him. Finally, unwilling to embarrass him further, Jesus then asks him “Do you have philia for me?” And Peter answers “Yes, I have philia for you.” Jesus accepts Peter the way he is; he accepts his philia friendship. As we see in today’s first reading and in his life later the fullness of agapé love came later in his willingness to die for Jesus.
Thus the Peter we see here is a far cry from the boastful Peter at the Last Supper who professed he was willing to die for Jesus. In fact, he is much more like the Peter in Luke falling to his knees at the feet of Jesus and confessing his unworthiness. He is not the boastful man who thought he was better than the other disciples. He is the wiser, humbler man who would not claim more than he can deliver. Peter’s confession is like that of the father of the possessed boy who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” What Peter is saying is “I love you, Lord; help my lack of love.”
It is easy to sing a hymn like Oh, the Love of the Lord Is the Essence. But do we really know what we are singing? Peter challenges us today to realise that a hymn like this only tells half of the story. The other half is that there is a part of us that does not love, that denies the Lord when our life or our well-being is at stake. Peter’s example invites us to bring this negative experience to God for healing. So today, let us join Peter in his confession: “I love you, Lord; help my lack of love.”
Sunday, 10 April 2016