Jesus and Peter reconcile

This post is a reblog from my previous blog, Stepping Stones (from about two years ago).

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”


This interchange between Jesus and Peter is so tender. Jesus asks Peter multiple times: “Do you love me?” and we see the reiteration of love, back and forth between Jesus and Peter. It is a deeply reconciling moment. As many commentators have suggested, Jesus seems to offer the three questions as a way to allow Peter to affirm what he did denied before, when he denied his friendship with Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Peter gets another chance to give his true answer to Jesus.


The Greek used in this passage makes the situation a little more nuanced, though. The first two times that Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus uses the Greek verb associated with agapic love, or a love that is unconditional or even self-sacrificing. Agape is a kind of love that looks to the good of the other. Later Christian thinkers choose agape as the best Greek word to communicate how God loves us and as a model for how we ought to love our neighbor : with a love that encompasses all without condition. Aquinas defines it as the ‘effective willing of the good of another.’ It’s doing what is best for the other, and not for oneself.


Peter answers Jesus’ question, “Do you love me (agapically)?” affirmatively: “You know that I love you.” But Peter responds with the verb for love associated with friendship love (philia). Philia is the love that we have for our friends, although it can also be used a little more extensively than the English word for friendship. Philia is a kind of love that concerns a personal and felt connection to another person. If you are my friend, I love you not just because you are a human being. I love you because, in some way, we connect in a particular and special way. Agape can be one way, as when I love my enemy. But philia is reciprocal: like the interchange and give and take between Jesus and Peter’s language here, philia requires that both friends love one another.


Given that Peter has betrayed Jesus, it makes perfect sense to me that Peter would hesitate to tell Jesus that he loves him with an agapic love. After all, Peter did not exhibit that kind of love for Jesus when he denied him and ran away in fear. Rather, Jesus exhibited that kind of love for Peter, in his self-giving death and his forgiveness. Peter is being honest in not claiming to be better than he is. But he still tells Jesus that he loves him: Peter loves Jesus as his beloved friend, as a person who matters to him, even if he lacks the perfectly selfless love that Peter probably wishes he had. Jesus asks him the same question a second time using the term agape, and Peter again reiterates his love for Jesus, again using the term philia.


The third time the question and answer changes, but it is not Peter who changes his language. It’s Jesus. Jesus asks Peter: Do you love me? And this time he uses the verb associated with philia, or friendship love. And Peter affirms his philia for Jesus.


What is going on here? I have two suggestions. One suggestion is that Peter is admitting that he loves Jesus as an imperfect and sinful human being, and that Jesus’ change to his question the third time is a way to show Peter that he doesn’t demand perfect, unfailing love from Peter. They still have a relationship even in Peter’s imperfection, even in Peter’s being only a human being and not a god. In all the limitations that come along with being human, Jesus and Peter remain friends.


A second suggestion is that Peter is standing somewhat firm with Jesus in affirming his particular friendship for Jesus when he refuses to use the word agape and sticks to the term philia. Perhaps Peter refuses to use the word for agapic loving not only because it is not accurate with respect to his own shortcomings, but also because Peter is good at identifying something else significant about how he feels about Jesus: Jesus is not just loved because he is God. Peter loves Jesus because Jesus is his friend, because they have a shared history over time that is distinctive.


Jesus’ third question, then might be a response to Peter, to affirm the friendship between them. Yes, Jesus dies for everyone and his resurrection is for all, and Peter’s ministry will also be a ministry for “all.” But Jesus’ humanity has not disappeared in the Resurrection and it does not disappear when Peter takes up his ministry of agapic love. Peter still loves his friend Jesus in his particularity. Perhaps his answer “You know that I love you” is in part a question posed back to Jesus: Do you love me (Peter) as a friend despite all that has transpired? Now that Jesus is resurrected and appears different, does that particularity of care between them remain?


We might see Jesus’ asking the question the third time with the verb for friendship-love as a clear “yes”: Jesus loves Peter as friend and invites his friendship. Jesus loves Peter not simply because he fits into the category of “human being.” Jesus loves Peter in all his particularity: for his gifts, his weaknesses, his strengths, even his little quirks. He still loves Peter for the history and the story of friendship that exists between them.


Jesus loves each person this way, too. God does not just love us because we are human, or even because we are Christian. God loves and appreciates each of us in our particularity and in all the little distinctive ways in which we each know and live out a certain, concrete, unrepeated history with Him. Jesus is also affirming the good of loving one another in such a truly human way, too. It’s good to love “humanity” but beware of the person who loves “humanity” but doesn’t love his or her family or friends! For it is in our messily human and particular relationships that the most difficult and also the most rewarding loving takes place.


The passage ends with Jesus’ allusion to Peter’s own crucifixion for the sake of the faith. So we get a little reversal at the end of the story: Jesus knows that Peter can and does love agapically, even though he does not recognize his capacity to do so right now.


Perhaps the message is that these two kinds of love that philosophers love to separate and to define, agape and philia, are not so separate after all.  Jesus’ agapic love for us makes loving our hard-to-love neighbor easier. But also, our friendship with Jesus and friendship with one another are also interconnected. Jesus and Peter are a model for how to be friends with one another. Jesus invites Peter (and us) not only to the drama of the cross but also into the great drama of everyday love: “Come, follow me.”