Sermon from John 21
I love how the Lord has a sense of humor. Sometimes He just seems to play little funny jokes on us. One moment like this was recorded in John 21 after His resurrection. The Resurrected Christ does a trick where He provides His disciples with a miraculous catch of fish before they realize it is Him, and it is this miracle that reveals to them He is there. So they rush to join Him on the shore and enjoy a meal together.
But then Jesus pulls Peter aside and He gets more serious. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Think about any close relationship you have… Why would someone ask that loaded question? That question only gets asked when there’s reason to doubt what the answer would be – the other person in the relationship makes a mistake, starts acting differently, or does something to harm the relationship. In this case, Peter had denied Christ three times.
So Jesus asks him, “Simon, do you love me?” (Note that He used Peter’s pre-conversion name here.) Peter is hurt and ashamed over his denial of Christ, and he says, “Lord, you know that I love You.” And Jesus asks him three times, to cut all the way down to the heart of the matter, addressing the three times that Peter denied Him. The Lord isn’t afraid to hurt us in order to cut through the issues that are keeping us from Him in order to bring us ultimate healing. Sometimes our pain has to get worse before it can get better.
But then Jesus doesn’t leave Peter in his pain. He provides him with a way to move forward: “Feed my sheep.” He’s inviting Peter to get back into the action of building the kingdom of God.
Nobody is going to love the flock of Jesus Christ more than someone who loves the Shepherd of the flock. However, humans tend to stumble, make mistakes that harm our relationship with God, and wander away to love other things more than God. So sometimes Jesus tests our love for Him in order to make us more fit for His ministry.
One interesting note about the original Greek of this passage in John is the use of two different words for love. Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Him, using the word agape, which is ultimate, unconditional, self-sacrificing love. But Peter only answered that he loved Him with the word phileo, which is brotherly love, a less passionate and devoted kind of love. Jesus asks Peter twice for agape, but Peter answers each time with phileo. But then, in what I think is a beautiful picture of grace, the third time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”, He uses the word phileo. Peter wasn’t able or willing to give Jesus agape at that point, but Jesus expressed that He was willing to receive phileo instead. He lowered His standard to meet Peter where he was.
Isn’t Jesus kind? He is willing to accept us where we are, to receive even the smallest amounts of love we can give Him. Yes, He wants us to love Him whole-heartedly, with an agape kind of love. But He is so kind that He won’t turn away even our phileo. He will work with whatever level of response we will give Him, and He will never remove His agape love from us no matter what.