That’s a lot of love, what Jesus is saying again and again in this Gospel passage appointed for today. In three verses, Jesus names “love” 8 times. How to live? Live loving. Love. Love. Love. Love… With each repetition, Jesus is clearly trying to catch our attention, but how? What does Jesus’ word “love” mean for us? We need to do some detective work, because the Greek of the New Testament has four completely different words for “love,” words which are indistinguishable in English. What love – which of the four loves – is Jesus talking about here, and repeatedly? (And, in our short lesson from the First Letter of John, the word “love” appears five times, and it’s the same word for “love” that Jesus is talking about here.)
- In English, we speak of the love parents have for their newborn baby.[i] They love their precious little girl.
- Or there’s the love we have for a close friend. I write a note to a friend, and I close the note with, “Love, Curtis.”[ii]
- Or there’s the love between two people who have “fallen in love” with one another. They are smitten with passionate love for one another.[iii]
- Or there is the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live.[iv]
In English we use the same word, “love,” to describe all of these experiences of love, but in the Greek, these are four completely different words. Which of the four Greek verbs for love is Jesus talking about here? It’s the latter, the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live. In Greek, this word for love is “agápē,” and Jesus lives up to this kind of love in his crucifixion. It’s with that kind of love Jesus is calling us to live our lives: the self-sacrificing love of our own person on behalf of another, so that they can live. Jesus normalizes this love.
Now there’s two ways we can hear Jesus’ calling us to love – repeatedly calling us to love – as he did. Is this a command? Or is this a promise? If Jesus is only commanding us to love as he loved – with this heroic, self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, giving up our life out of love so that another can live – this is a very tall order. It’s certainly beyond my capacity. And I think that was also true for the disciples who now understood what Jesus’ love meant for them. They had been following Jesus in life, and they now realized that they would be following Jesus in death. They realized the cost of their discipleship. And so at Jesus’ crucifixion they scattered, Peter’s denying that he even knew Jesus. So poignant. The disciples were almost scared to death, and they fled.
But something clearly happens to these disciples. If we move ahead a few chapters in this Gospel according to John, we find an answer to our detective work. Following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus has gone back to Galilee to find his disciples who have been out to sea, hiding.[v] Jesus asks Peter three haunting questions about love: “Peter, do you love me?” Now what verb is Jesus using? Of these four different Greek verbs for “love,” what does Jesus express? “Peter, do you love me?” What love? What verb for love is used? It’s the same verb from today’s scripture lessons: “agápē”: this self-sacrificial love, laying-down-your-life kind of love.. It’s the love of the ultimate self-giving of one’s own life, the very thing Jesus offered in his death on the cross.
Peter responds to Jesus’ question whether Peter loves him, “Yes,” but he’s really saying, “No.” Peter does not repeat Jesus’ verb “agápē.” Peter uses one of the other “love” verbs, the kind of love we have for our friends or mates: philein. It is as if Peter responds to Jesus’ question about love by saying, “Yes, I care for you deeply.” Jesus asks Peter again, “Do you love me, the ultimate kind of love for me as I have shown for you?” Peter responds again, not with Jesus’ word for love, but with his own word: “Yes, I care for you deeply.” Jesus asks Peter a third time about his love. But this time Jesus changes his language. This time Jesus uses Peter’s verb. Jesus downscales his question. Jesus asks, “Peter, do you care for me deeply?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I care for you deeply.” And Jesus accepts that. He is reconciled with Peter, and he tells Peter that Jesus will build his church on Peter’s leadership.
What happened? Peter had opened the door of his heart to Jesus, barely opened the door of his heart to Jesus, and through that crack in the door, Jesus’ love for Peter took over. If you cannot love Jesus with your whole heart, love Jesus just a little or, rather, let Jesus love you just a little, as much as you are able to receive his love. Jesus will love you on your terms, but – you just watch! – his love will fill you. Sooner or later, Jesus’ love will conquer you, and that is an amazing thing.
Jesus’ command for us to love comes with his promise of provision. And that is something I do understand and have experienced, as have you, undoubtedly. There are these moments in life that call from us a tremendous offering of ourselves, of literally giving up our lives in a self-sacrificial way on behalf of another: the blood, sweat, and tears as we pour out our life’s energies on behalf of another. That’s the experience of agápē love, where we are offering our lives, expending our lives fully and freely on behalf of another, out of love for another. And it’s not something we could have calculated, nor something we could have prepared for. It’s simply something that we’ve been presented with and enabled to do: to love is such a deep, deep way, in the moment this is called from us. Jesus calls us to love, and he enables it.
This is the very thing that happened to these frightened disciples, most all of whom ultimately ended up being martyred for the love of Christ. It’s not as if any one of these disciples woke up some morning and said to themselves: “Chin up! Today is my turn. Today I’m going to give up my life for the love of God.” I don’t think so. Rather, each one of them found themselves in a circumstance where the giving up of their life was called from them, clearly. And they were fully, freely prepared and enabled to give up their lives with this self-sacrificial love to which Jesus calls us, this agápē love. And you will know about this. I’m sure this has happened to you. You might even look back on your life after some incredibly momentous, costly experience where you literally gave up your life for someone, out of love, and at huge self-sacrifice. And, looking back, you might even ask yourself, “How did I do that?” “Where did my freedom, and capacity, and power, and endurance come from that allowed me to give up my life is such a profound way, to love so deeply?” The answer is, you were enabled. With Jesus’ command to love comes his provision of power to love. With the command to love comes his promise of provision. Jesus will provide for us, for you, which is the good news, very good news indeed, to enable you to live loving, and to love living in Jesus’ way.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
[i] Storge (Greek: στοργή).
[ii] Philia (Greek: φιλία).
[iii] Eros (Greek: ἔρως).
[iv] Agápē (Greek: ἀγάπη).
[v] John 21:15-19.
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