By The Very Reverend Sam Candler
At some point in our Christian lives, we will hear that the New Testament uses several different Greek words for the English word, “love. “Love” can be “phileo love” – which refers to familial or brotherly/sisterly love”—or “love” can be “agape love” –which refers to divine, self-giving love.
When Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” three times, Jesus uses the word for “agape love” the first two times. Do you love me with divine, self-giving love? But Peter responds using the “phileo love” form of the word; “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you with familial, brotherly/sisterly love.”
What is going on? Is good old Peter, the representative par excellence of human discipleship, unable to achieve or admit divine love? Maybe so. When Jesus asks the question a third time, it is Jesus who changes the form of the world love to “phileo-love.” “Do you love me with phileo-love? Jesus adapts the question to the way Peter has been answering it. Maybe that is why Peter is hurt.
Still, Jesus loves Peter. And Peter loves Jesus. What if, at root, love is the same no matter how it is expressed? For instance, isn’t familial brotherly/sisterly love also a “self-giving” love? God desires our love, no matter how we define it. Indeed, in the grace of God, our various definitions may all lead to the same place.
“Tend my sheep,” Jesus advised Peter after each question. Love, no matter how we define it, is not only a feeling. It is an action. Love, whether divine or human, results in activity and behavior. In the grace of God, all our definitions of “love” do lead to a similar place; they lead to action.
Does God love you like a brother or sister? How?
What is the best way to tend, or to feed, sheep?
Most gracious God, you love us with a love that penetrates deeper than any definition of ours. Help us to turn your love for us into an active love for our neighbor. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, AMEN.
The Very Reverend Sam Candler is Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, Georgia