“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15)
Peter looked up to meet Jesus’ gaze even as Jesus looked away to indicate the group of fishermen eating breakfast around the camp fire nearby.
Peter’s response, barely audible, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.”
This conversation between Jesus and his disciple can be found at the end of The Gospel of John. In this scene, the disciples have been on a boat fishing in the Sea of Galilee, when they spot Jesus on the shore. This is one of a small handful of times the scripture records Jesus appearing to his disciples following his crucifixion, and the last time such appearance in the Gospel of John. This scene is significant to us not merely because it is the last one recorded, but because of this particular exchange with Peter.
Everyone has favorite bits of scripture that speak to them. The Gospel of John has been my favorite book of the Bible for about as long as I can remember because of this particular conversation between Jesus and Peter. This scene touches me every time I read it. In this intimate discussion I sense the profound forgiveness that Jesus extends to Peter, and by extension to all of us who seek to follow him. In it, I feel the generous spirit of Christ as he forgives his disciple and heals their relationship. Jesus doesn’t merely forgive and forget, he goes much further, entrusting Peter with the care of his fragile flock of followers, the church.
“Feed my sheep.”
When we read this story in our English translations, it is powerful and touching enough. Knowing that Peter denied Jesus three times, we can imagine the shame and contrition that Peter might be feeling, even as he is confronted with his friend who miraculously lives among them again. But behind the words, once I started reading about the meaning of the specific words Jesus and Peter are using in this conversation, a whole other dimension of the love of Christ for us opened up to me. There is a subtlety to this conversation that gets lost in translation, a subtlety that should not be missed by those who read this chapter of the Bible.
Becoming a follower of Jesus didn’t fundamentally change Peter’s personality. Peter had an impulsive nature, as we can see when we read through the Gospels. I remember hearing a sermon a few years ago when the speaker said of Peter that when he didn’t know what to say he just kept talking. It may have been this element of his personality that made him a natural leader for the other disciples. But it also marks him as a real, flawed human being. Who can’t relate to that?
After Jesus’ arrest, we read, “Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.” (Jn. 18:15-16) This other disciple was probably John, the author of this gospel, but the text itself doesn’t make this claim. Entering the courtyard, Peter gets questioned about his affiliation with Jesus.
Because Peter and this other disciple enter the courtyard through a connection to the high priest, it is possible the other disciple was assumed to be loyal to the temple and not a follower of this recently arrested criminal. Maybe Peter looked nervous and sweaty, so gave himself away based on his demeanor. In Mark and Luke’s version of this story, Peter is easily identified as a Galilean, but Matthew’s version specifies that Peter’s accent gives him away. Reza Aslan, in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, writes, “Long before the Roman invasion, the term ‘Galilean’ had become synonymous with ‘rebel.’ … The Galileans seem to have considered themselves a wholly different people from the rest of the Jews in Palestine… These were pastoral folk—country folk—easily recognizable by their provincial customs and their distinctly rustic accent…”
“You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
“I am not.”
We don’t get any hints about how the other disciple may have reacted to this denial. We might be shocked at this quick denial, reading this in the safety of our homes. But to someone who had been following a teacher facing a death sentence for rebelling against the Roman Empire, an answer of “yes” to the gate keeper’s question might have resulted in instant arrest.
Peter’s earlier impulsiveness along with his ethnic distinctiveness had made him a memorable figure. The other people in that courtyard were sure they had seen him before, and so pressed him with the same question again and again. At each questioning, he escalated his response, until finally, as the Gospel of Mark describes, “… he started to curse and to swear with an oath, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about!’” (Mk. 14:71) At which point, he realizes he has fulfilled Jesus’ prediction of this very denial.
“And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:75)
We don’t really know how many times Jesus may have appeared to his disciples following his resurrection. So we have no way of knowing what opportunity Peter may have had to discuss these events with Jesus. I imagine that when Peter saw Jesus on the shore, he jumped out of their boat and swam to shore to meet up with Jesus for any number of reasons. And perhaps to apologize in some way. If so, the once talkative Peter might have found himself suddenly searching for words.
Jesus addresses him by his original name.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15)
Koine Greek has several words we can translate as love, and two of these are used in this exchange between Jesus and Peter. First, agape is the self-less, unconditional, purest form of love. The Wikipedia entry for Greek words for love elaborates on this definition by saying, “Whether the love given is returned or not, the person continues to love (even without any self-benefit).” The other word for love used here is phileo, “affectionate regard or friendship”. Understanding that these two different words for love are in use, with their shade of meaning, reveal an interesting characteristic of Jesus as he asks the same question three times. (Apologies in advance for my butchered Greek.)
The first time, Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you agape me more than these?” to which Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo you.”
The second time, Jesus asks, “Do you agape me?” to which Peter again replies, “Yes, I phileo you.”
I could speculate a number of reasons why Peter replies to Jesus using a different word than the one Jesus used. Instead, what I find amazing is what happens the third time Jesus asks this question of Peter.
“Simon son of John, do you phileo me?”
Jesus condescends to meet Peter where he is, and uses the same word Peter used.
“Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time… He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I phileo you.”
Jesus responds to all three of Peter’s answers saying, “Feed my sheep.”
In scripture, God is described as unchanging and eternal. But in his relationship with specific individuals, as well as with mankind as a whole, God is demonstrably and amazingly flexible and forgiving. Throughout the Bible, God actively seeks out mankind and desires relationship with his creation. We are imperfect, so God condescends to meet us where we are, even as Jesus met Peter where he was.
This principle of the condescension of god—condescensio Dei—can be seen in many instances of God’s dealing with his messengers. God bargained with Abraham over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen. 19) God bargained with Moses when telling him to confront Pharaoh and lead the Jews out of Egypt. (Ex. 3-4) God also wrestled with Jacob who bargained for a blessing before agreeing to release God (or a man or an angel?) from his grasp. (Gen. 32) God chooses his messengers for his own reasons, is willing to meet them where they are, and accepts their limitations as the vessels of his word.
The most famous examples of the condescension of God can be found in the John 15. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In all three of these parables, we are the thing that has been lost, we are the valuable thing being searched for. We are the lost sheep for which the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in safety to go in search of the one. We are the lost coin for which the woman who still has nine silver coins in hand turns up the lights and sweeps out the entire house in search of the one. We are the lost son for whom the father watches every day to return, sparing no expense in celebration when his lost son finally returns to him. In these stories, God desires to know us and to have a relationship with us. We are precious and unique to him. He never stops seeking us until we are found.
Even with the concessions that we demand of God, we too often and too quickly fail to meet God’s simple request of us, “…Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk. 10:27)
God’s love for his creation endures, holding back nothing for our sake, not even the life of his Son. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (Jn. 3:16-17)
We are imperfect, yet God desires relationship with us and meets us where we are. As sincere as we may be and as much as we may try, yet still we make mistakes. That we make mistakes and can be forgiven isn’t the point. The point is that God desires connection and relationship with his creation. He actively seeks us out, and willingly wrestles with us to the extent we’re willing to wrestle with him.
In our relationships with each other, disappointments and betrayals are inevitable. We are human, after all. The question isn’t whether those we care about will hurt us, but when. What matters is that we choose to continue to be in relationship with the people whom we love through the hurts and disappointments.
Peter was with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ preaching career. Peter saw all that Jesus did and heard all that Jesus taught. Yet Peter was imperfect and denied Jesus three times. Jesus in turn forgives Peter three times, a fitting symmetry.
Jesus meets his disciples where they are, on the beach that morning. He meets Peter where he is, guilty and humbled. And he meets us where we are. Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, he seeks us out, meets us where we are, and never gives up on seeking relationship with us, his beloved creation.
Note on translations:
I’ve used a couple of different translations of the Bible here, including but not limited to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and Holman Christian Standard Version (HCSV).