The full meaning of love: Christ and St Peter in St John's Gospel

The full meaning of love: Christ and St Peter in St John's Gospel

Andrew Kania

The Resurrection of Christ, the most awesome event in history, accompanies in the Gospel of St John the spiritual resurrection of St Peter (21:5-17, RSV). The tripartite questioning is symbolic, for in the three questions that are asked lies a penitential act with each subsequent affirmation of love erasing each previous denial on Holy Thursday.

But there is also a deeper reading to this passage that is only unlocked when one studies the original Greek text. For a much richer story lies beneath the limited gloss of the English translation.

The English language, although rich in scope, has only one word for love, whereas the Greek - the language of the New Testament - gives us four words: eros, or sexual love; philio, the love between friends; storge, the love between family members; and agape, unconditional love.

Unconditional love

So what exactly was being said between Christ and Peter?

In John 21:15, Christ asks: "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" In this passage the love that Christ speaks of is agape. In essence he asks of Peter whether the love he bears for Him is not only greater than that of the others, but whether this greatness of love is unconditional.

This is a profound question: Do you not only love me more, but beyond the depth and breadth of infinity? Peter's response indicates the limitations of his humanity: "He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you'."

Peter's love for Christ is philio; he loves Christ, but not unconditionally. He has lied to Christ once about the extent of his love for Him and he cannot do so again.

The Peter we see is a humbled man, a man of broken and contrite spirit (cf. Psalm 51:17). But Christ does not reject Peter's love, even though it falls short of His question: "He said to him, 'Feed my lambs'." The second time Christ questions Peter he again uses agape: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?".

Once again Peter responds with philio, and once again Christ affirms the extent of Peter's commitment: "Tend my sheep."

It is evident that Christ would rather have a man love Him honestly, if to a limited extent, than promise much, but deliver nought (cf. Matthew 26:33-35).

When Christ questions Peter a third and last time there is an added reason as to why Peter cries for it is not only a reminder of his triple denial, but the question Christ poses is significantly altered: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?".

In the English language there is nothing odd, but in the Greek the question is vastly different for Christ no longer asks Peter for the agape love but rather he asks Peter if his love is philio.

Peter would have understood the importance of the difference in the questioning. He cries, not only because he has been questioned a third time, but also because he understands that his love is limited and not as great as Christ's.

Peter can only reciprocate fully the love that Christ offers by giving up his life for he is a man and his friend is God. The greatest possession Peter has to offer is his life. But he cannot yet do this as he is unready.

Peter therefore counters: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Peter here uses philio, and for Christ this admitted weakness from a man who is desperate to love Him with a human heart and all its failings is enough. He responds: "Feed my sheep."

We have here in the Greek original the very essence of Christ the good and gentle shepherd: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (cf. Matthew 11:29-30).

Christ will not force Peter to love him any more than he is capable of doing. But if Peter desires, then he will learn to love more fully each step of his journey in following Christ.

Peter's death

In the original Greek then, after the interchange between Christ and Peter, we become aware that Christ is intimating in a subtle manner how Peter would eventually die: "'Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.' (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, 'Follow me'." (John 21:18-19).

Christ accepted Peter's love with its limitations but He also challenged Peter to grow in fullness for the future. Thus in Peter's death in Rome would come the eventual answer that Christ first requested of him: Do you love me Peter - even if everything you possess and everything you are is to be given up for my sake?

On the day of his martyrdom, Peter gave his answer, not in words open to misinterpretation, but through stark action. In this Peter revealed a love for Christ that was truly agape.

Christ will always meet us where we are, but if we allow it He will take us from our limited vantage point to a place far beyond our imaginings.

Dr Andrew Thomas Kania, who is from Perth, WA, is currently studying at Oxford University.

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