John 21:15-19, Friday of the 7th Week of Eastertide
Today’s Gospel reading is one of the most well-loved accounts of Jesus and Peter. This is the encounter where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?,” three times. Many homilies and commentaries have already shared with us how Jesus’ repeated questioning reflected Peter’s inability to confidently reciprocate Jesus’ self-giving love. Peter is not yet ready. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him using the Greek word agape — the deep and profound kind of love — while Peter replies with philia — a “lesser” kind of love compared to agape. Jesus, on his third questioning, used philia instead of agape in order to give Peter the time and space needed before Peter can confidently express love at the agape-level. Basically, by changing his “standard” of loving, Jesus met Peter where Peter was.
The second part of the Gospel was Jesus’ prophecy of Peter’s future. Jesus says that there will come a time when Peter would be dressed and led to a place where he does not want to go, “signifying by what kind of death [Peter] would glorify God.” From there, the Gospel ends when Jesus bids Peter to follow him. The Gospel passage today ends in verse nineteen, and the chapter continues until verse twenty-five, but nothing really clarified what Jesus meant when he said to Peter, “Follow me.” Instead of wallowing in the seeming vagueness of the statement, I brought the question to prayer. What did Jesus mean when he said “Follow me” after acknowledging Peter’s present ability or inability to love fully and after prophesying about Peter’s end?
For me, the Gospel passage has clearly shown Peter’s present situation: he cannot yet fully and completely love (agape) Jesus. However, Jesus has revealed to Peter how it will all end: Peter glorifying God with his own death — a complete self-offering. Jesus says that, in the future, Peter will be able to love at the agape-level. Yet, still, because of his profound love and compassion, Jesus recognizes and accepts Peter’s loving. How can Peter move from his present situation to the end that Jesus talked about? How can Peter move from insecurity to confidence? From doubt to complete faith? From resisting to complete surrender? From philia to agape? I take the cue from Jesus’ invitation: “Follow me.”
This passage speaks volumes to us who try to sincerely follow the Lord, but who, at the same time, are confronted with our own weaknesses and attachments that prevent us from fully surrendering all to the Lord. I’ve met many good and holy Christians who would inspire me with their love for God and neighbor, but often I would hear them say at the end, “I cannot seem to give my all to God — just not yet, not completely. But I want to.” I think that is the beauty of Christian discipleship: we always remain students, always in need of instruction, correction, and direction from the Lord in the context of prayer. The horizon always seems a little bit farther from us. The promised land seems too far.
Sometimes this can make us feel desolate and sad, thinking that we are not moving anywhere. But that is not the case. We are moving — we are progressing in our own spiritual journeys — but our ideals will always seem farther from our present state. And, that, for me, is a blessing. Because the distance from who we are now to the person who we want to be for the glory of God is the space where we can always grow to be better individuals.
This is where the Ignatian spirit of magis makes so much sense. The magis is often misunderstood as the best, the grandest, and the most excellent in the external sense. But more and more, I begin to realize that the magis is not an external output, but an interior disposition of striving to be better than today. The magis demands a slow and reflective introspection and a deep relationship with God that will allow us to enter into the depths of who we are and what we can do. The magis requires a humble surrender that we cannot be the best in all things, but we can be a little bit better than who we are now. The Magis is being able to recognize my own gifts and my little contributions — my five loaves and just two fish — and having the courage to offer them in order to feed the multitudes because I know that I am offering it to the One who can make wonders with what little I can give. The magis is the path that makes it possible for us, despite our sinfulness and our weaknesses, to follow the Lord. It is consoling to know that the fastest sprinter in the world was once a helpless baby who could not even walk; and that our most admired saints once wrestled with God and refused to easily heed his call.
This is not complacency, but a challenge to always discern where the greater good, the better option, and the more loving next step lies. The keenness needed to recognize the greater good, the better option, and the next loving step is grounded on our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who shows us where we are now, how far the journey still is and what we can do. The path to heaven is made with baby steps.
When Jesus asked Peter to follow him, it was not an invitation to do something extraordinary right away, but to trust in the process of being transformed by his relationship with Jesus. It was an invitation to grow more into becoming more like Christ in every step. Yes, the promised land is far away, but we have a companion on the journey. Yes, we cannot yet love completely, but there is already Christ who loves us so much and is willing to teach us how to love the way he loves us. It is consoling for many of us to know that our God, our loving God, is not only there during the start of our journey to holiness; he is not only there to meet us at the end; rather, our God is a companion who walks and journeys with us in every step.
Bien Cruz, SJ is Jesuit scholastic who will spending his regency years at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan.