Beneath this Gospel text we’ve just read is a subtext. This interchange between Jesus and Peter is happening, of course, following Jesus’ crucifixion, where Peter had denied that he as much as even knew Jesus. The subtext is that Jesus has gone back to Galilee to find Peter. The northern shores of Galilee are a long ways from Jerusalem, but Jesus obviously knew where he would find Peter, and what he would find in Peter. Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. This could only be agonizing for Peter, having denied at Jesus’ crucifixion as much as even knowing Jesus. Denied three times. The subtext behind Jesus’ three questions of Peter – “Do you love me” – is that Jesus has already forgiven Peter. And Jesus already has plans for Peter: Peter will be the key person on whom Jesus will entrust the oversight and leadership of his followers. Jesus already knows this.
If we go one subtext deeper, we will better hear what is going on in this interchange between Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me.” In the New Testament, we find four different Greek words which are translated, in English, as “love”; however each of these Greek “love” words have subtle differences. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and verb Jesus uses for “love” is agapan, which is a self-sacrificial love, a laying-down-your-life kind of love, it’s the love of the ultimate self-giving of one’s life, the very thing we understand Jesus offered in his death on the cross. That’s Jesus’ question of Peter: “Do you love me in such a way that you would offer up your life for me, just as I have for you?” Peter responds to Jesus, “I love you.” But Peter uses a different verb for love. He uses philein, the kind of love we have for our close friends and neighbors. A better English translation of the word Peter uses in response is “fond.” Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me, the ultimate kind of love for me as I have shown for you?” Peter responds, “I am fond of you.”
Jesus asks Peter again, “Do you love me, the ultimate kind of love for me as I have shown for you?” Peter responds again, “I am fond of you.”
Jesus asks Peter a third question: “Peter, are you fond of me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I am fond of you.” And Jesus accepts that.
Jesus’ love for Peter is relentless. And Jesus sees something in Peter – from the very first time Jesus met Peter until now, the very last time he meets Peter – that Peter did not see in himself. Jesus knew and accepted and made plans for Peter, far beyond what Peter could imagine for his own life. The end of the story is that Peter becomes such an indomitable leader on Jesus’ behalf and in Jesus’ name, the Emperor Nero is so incensed, he not only had Peter crucified, he had him crucified upside down.
So what happened to bring about this change in Peter? Two things. Peter had opened the door of his heart to Jesus, barely opened the door of his heart to Jesus – Peter admitted his fondness for Jesus – and through that crack in the door Jesus’ love for Peter took over. If you can’t love Jesus with your whole heart, love Jesus just a little or, rather, let Jesus love you just a little, as much as you’re able to receive his love. Jesus will love you on your terms, but – look out – his love will consume you. Sooner or later, his love will overtake you, if not in this life, then the next. Sooner or later Jesus love will win out. Why not sooner?
And secondly, Peter stopped his denials. Not his denials about Jesus but his denials about himself. Peter said “yes” to his destiny. Peter surrendered the control of his life to Jesus. I don’t think Peter’s surrendering his life was particularly heroic, or even virtuous. It was simply taking too much energy for Peter to be living a false life. Peter needed to be real and he relented from all his resistances, from all his character flaws, all his fears when he said “yes” to Jesus, because that was the only way to be real. And Peter died full of the love, the agape love Jesus had offered him.
Say “yes” to your life – what God has clearly given your life to be about. You will be real, you will be free, and you will be indomitable, absolutely indomitable. You will die well loved.
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