John 21:15-19, Third Sunday of Easter
In ancient Greek, three words for love are commonly used. Eros means a physical, carnal kind of love, hence the word “erotic”. It’s the lowest kind of love. Secondly, philia, is most frequently used. Philia means warmth, affection. It implies deep friendship that goes beyond the merely physical. An English counterpart for philia would be “to cherish”, “affectionate tenderness,” “virtuous loving,” the love between best friends. Agape is a third word for love. It is the highest, noblest of all because agape involves not only the emotion, not only feelings of warmth, affection, tenderness, but also the will. Agape is a deep, willful, decision-driven loving, even in the absence of the tender emotions characteristic of philia. Agape is more principle than emotion. It’s even almost supernatural in that it goes against what is natural—like loving one’s enemy, like forgiving someone who wrongs us, and like dying for our friends. In fact, agape is the word used in “Greater agape has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In its innermost sense, agape is that kind of love by which one is willing to lay one’s life on the line for the sake of the beloved.
Now the rich and layered nuances of the word “love” in the original Greek are all lost in the English translation of today’s Gospel. The English uses only one word: love. But read the original Greek, you will see that in that intimate lakeside conversation between Peter and the Risen Lord, John uses philia and agape for love—and you will see that this makes all the difference. Allow me to re-read to you the Gospel in its original Greek. So, please remember the difference between philia (a very tender, affectionate, virtuous love between best friends) and agape (the willful, deliberate love, regardless of emotion, including the willingness to die for the beloved.)
“Simown, Iowannou (Simon, son of John), agapas mepleion toutown (do you love me more than these)?” “Nai, Kurie(Yes, Lord),” he answered. “Su hoidas hoti (you know that) philow se.” A second time, Jesus asks, “Simown Iowannou, agapas me?” Peter answers, “Nai, Kurie, su hoidas oti philowse.” And, so, a third time, the last time, Jesus asks Peter, “Simown Iowannou, phileis me?” And Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the 3rd time, but this time, “Phileis me?” In his heart of hearts, Peter knew at that point, that his love for Jesus was nowhere near agape. And Jesus knew that, too. He knew that from the beginning. I mean, how many times did he know Peter would deny him? The Lord was well aware of what Peter was capable and incapable of doing, also the kind of love Peter was capable and incapable of giving. We can be sure that Peter’s philia was important to Jesus. But whether Peter loved Jesus with the highest, noblest kind of love…well…Peter’s “philowse” made it quite clear that his answer was no. At least, not yet.
The most important lesson of John’s story, however, is not about Peter falling short of the highest form of loving. Notice, the third time Jesus asked Peter, the Lord no longer said, “Agapasme?” He said, “Phileis me?” In other words, John’s story is about Jesus’ love for Peter. He loved Peter so dearly that he was willing to move a notch down his expectation of Peter’s love for him. Why? Because that was all beloved Peter could do. That was all the love Peter had in his heart for him. But see, that was what agape was: isang pag-ibig na handang magparaya. Jesus was willing to shift the gear down from agape to philia for the sake of what Peter could and could not yet do, for the sake of what Peter could give and could not yet give.
I always tell students and retreatants, “God always begins from where we are.” If we can love God only this much, philia, he’ll take it. But he never gives up on us just because our love for him falls far short of his love for us. God’s love does not work that way. On the contrary, divine love, which is agape, will continue believing in us and empowering us until we’re capable of agape, too; loving each other so much that we would put ourselves on the line for each other.
Yet, for many years, even centuries, how many times have you and I been led to believe that, unless our love for God reaches a very high standard first, God will love us back only so much, as well; or only so little, as the case may be? For many years, haven’t many priests and elders given us the impression that God’s love for us has a lot of “unless.” “Unless you go to mass every Sunday…unless you go to confession…unless you receive communion…unless you pray the rosary…unless you wear your scapular…unless a priest is present…unless you use the right words of prayer…” And even more dehumanizingly these days, “Unless you’re married in Church…unless you’re heterosexual…unless you get an annulment…unless you get back together with your husband even if he cheats on you, beats you up, and swears at you in public…then God will forgive you only so much, grace you only so much, and love you only so much…if he even will.” What many Catholics don’t know is that we’ve entirely subjected divine loving to human actions and human conditions. No longer is human loving dependent on divine love. God’s loving is now determined by human loving. And not many Catholics notice how presumptuous that is, how vainglorious to think that what we do and how much we do will determine how much grace God will give us and how far God will save us and how deeply God will love us back. In that case, Catholics have reversed Genesis. We have now created God in our own image and likeness.
Well, no. The entire person, life, and ministry of Jesus shows that God’s agape far exceeds what we could ever do for him. The good news is, God is willing to begin from where we are. The Incarnation is the historical proof for that. God is willing to begin with how much, or how little we can give, with how near or how far we’re willing to go for him; with how deeply or how superficially we can love him. God loves us so much, he’s willing to adjust his expectations…because that’s what deep loving means, sisters and brothers. Now if we do not understand that about God’s love, maybe it’s because we’ve never had anyonelove us that way, so we don’t know what agape looks and feels like? Or, maybe, we don’t want to ever love that way, because it’ll hurt too much? So, in that case, we could give God only this much love, this much meritocratic, self-conscious, fearful, measured love.
Well, I have news for you. And it’s good news. He’ll take it!
*image from the internet