15 So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. – John 21: 15-17
This passage in the gospel of John is a very telling one, a very telling one because it encapsulates the Love we are capable of receiving from our Lord God who is Love. The verse is about the greatest Love story ever told. On a personal level, it is my all time favorite passage in the Bible. A quote from the movie “The Perks of being a Wallflower” is fitting to be mentioned in the context we will focus on: “We accept the love we think we deserve”. The trouble we go through is we settle for the kind of love that we think is best for us. What causes that trouble can be identified when we put “we think” on greater emphasis. There is a difference between our thinking and that which is the case. For example, by all means I can say “I want to be a pilot”. One is not restricted to say that “I want to be a pilot”, but there still the possibility that that person is going to be a doctor, simply because of his natural disposition and tendencies, as well as his personality. He may want to be a pilot, but not have recognized that his nature orients him towards being a doctor. By some means, perhaps divine, will he realize eventually. Our thinking is subject to fallibility whereas that which is the case is not, for the latter is the Truth. So, we can say that “I think I deserve this kind of love because so and so” while the truth is, there is a greater kind of love that we actually deserve. The distinction between that we think and that which is the case is important in shedding light on to the main point of this reflection.
To begin, it is important to note that in this particular scripture, the English language only has one word for “love” while the Greek language—the original text of the scripture—has three words for it, and in this particular passage two words for “love” are used. These words are “philine” and “agapine”. Philine is to love in a very natural and humane way. This is the kind of love one finds among friends and someone who has compassion for humanity. It is a love found among true friends. Agapine is to love in a totally sacrificial, selfless kind of way. It is to love beyond the human way. It is a love found from two people who truly love each other. Or from a loving parent towards his or her child. Thus, agapine is a higher, nobler kind of love than philine (In fact, the word used in the famous passage of chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is agapine). In the gospel passage, Christ is with Peter. The setting of this passage is after the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ. Christ makes a surprise visit to his apostles who were on a shore with Peter. Peter was on a boat, going back to his fishing business. Finding out that his loving Lord is around, ecstatic, Peter went down from his boat and greeted his Lord a welcome. All of the other disciples were around as well, so it was quite a crowd. Peter’s heart was filled with fire, a fire of desire to see the Lord once again. However, he had remembered that it was the same fire of desire that drove him to deny his relationship with the Lord on that night He was arrested. What initially was a fire of desire to be with the Lord completely turned into an utter embarrassment and shame within. He remembers that he completely failed to live up to his promise for his Lord. Even though Peter was ashamed at himself, ashamed perhaps in the most excruciating way, Jesus recognized his heart, and went on to approach Peter to his boat. Just like Peter, we at times feel a sense of shame for our failures to live our lives for the Lord. How many times have we failed Him in our lives? We try to commit our lives to the Lord only to be thwarted by our human tendencies, that is, our tendencies to pursue our own way. We try to live our lives according to what is pleasing to Him, only to be hindered by the desires of our passions. Mankind is by nature frail; it is in a state of perpetual unrest because of sin as a result of the disobedience of our original parents. Yet, no one knows that best than the Lord himself, that is why He gave His only son, so that those who believe in the Word made Flesh may not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). He perfectly understands that we can never repay the infinite debt we owe to the Infinite God, which is why He sent His Son who is in Him to the world, to redeem us. It was He, whom we offended, who paid our debt by humbling himself on the cross, as a Paschal lamb of Divine sacrifice. What a beauty! When the moment comes when each of us encounters Him intimately, however, He will not ever interrogate us about our humanity. He will only ask one question to us, just like He did to Peter, a question to us that only matters to Him: Do you love me? God’s eternal intention to Love overcomes the fact of our sinfulness. Loving is the only thing that defines God, and nothing else; condemnation is just the result of total, conscious rejection and disdain towards that Love, an act made my Lucifer which ultimately led to his great downfall. In the gospel passage, Jesus asks Peter that question three times. In the first question, the literal translation from Greek is “Do you agapine me?” Or in other words, do you love me in a totally sacrificial, selfless kind of way? Not wanting to shy away from expressing what he truly feels deep within his heart, as if he confesses, Peter announces that yes he does love the Lord in such a way. Jesus then asks him the second time the same thing: “do you love me in a totally sacrificial, selfless kind of way? Peter, again, did not hesitate to say yes and perhaps he might have thought Jesus wants to reaffirm his love for Him. Jesus then asks him the third time, but this time it is different. Jesus asks him—from the literal translation—“do you love me in a very natural and friendly way?” The impression is clear; for Peter, it seems that there’s no reason for Jesus to relegate his question in such a way other than that Jesus seems to doubt what he truly feels. Peter was grieved as a result. Out of a sense of being questioned he proclaims “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). This might be Peter’s impression upon the Lord asking him the third time in a relegated way. It is most likely, however, that Jesus asked him as such not because He doubted Peter. It just does not make sense, since Christ is the Lord of Love and not of doubt. He himself is love for God is Love. The true reason why He asked Peter as such is because, simply, He is God. He loves Peter so much, that He perfectly understands Him. He understands that Peter is still bound by the realms of humanity although his love for the Lord is beyond human. The Lord knows that Peter is human, which means that at some point in his life, he will still feel inclined to reserve that love for himself. To be human is to struggle between loving the One who made out of His love and loving yourself. Jesus knows that at some point in the future, Peter might have only reserved a lesser love for Him. Even so, He will still receive it with equal joy as when He receives the greatest love a human being can give. God loves us so much that He will take anything we have for him, regardless if it is the greatest love, the lesser love, or nothing at all! Every ounce matters to him. An ounce of love from us matters to him as much as a thousand ounce. He will settle for less for us if He has to. Perfect love is in Him. His Love remains the same; it endures forever, and the very least we can do is to give thanks to Him (Psalm 107:1). The love He has for us when He created everything is the same as when He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16). It is the same the love when He died on the cross to redeem us from our sins through His Son Jesus Christ. And guess what, His love will remain the same for us for all eternity. His Love for us is perfect despite our imperfections. Therefore, it is truly and divinely evident that we—human beings—Love is the ultimate good; it the most intrinsic in us. Nothing about us matters to Him at all, except whether we love Him or not, for we are made by Love, in Love, for Love, and to Love.
Just like Peter, we are human beings. And to be human is to be frail, to err. We are frail because of our sins, or our innate tendencies to fall away from God and His love. Mankind is perpetually an adventurer, an adventurer in this world. We search for the meaning of our lives in all corners of the world. Yet, we do not find it there because we can only find our meaning if we return to the Lord, receive His love for us, and redirect ourselves to Him. And in return, we pursue to love Him in a totally sacrificial, selfless kind of way just as what Peter did. And as St Augustine affirms it: “We are made for thee, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”. Although difficult to pursue, it is still worth living our lives for Him because of His love for us, that He understands us most perfectly. A life of total love for the Lord is a life worth living. If we live a life totally dedicated to the Lord, we are very much inclined to love others and ourselves with all our hearts, minds, and souls (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28).
I think that when we encounter our Saving God, chances are we would have a plethora of questions to Him, more or less burning questions we are eager to find answers. Yet, despite our curious nature or, even more so, our frailty, failures, brokenness, and imperfections – there is only one question He is going to ask us. With His powerful eyes, eyes that envisioned all things that are, He will ask us only one question, and that is:
“Do you love me?”