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Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

May 05, 2019

Passage: John 21:1-19

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

Category: Easter

Detail:

 

Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, Year c (2019)
May 5th, 2019
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) Revelation 5:11-14 John 21:1-19

 

There’s a lesson for us about discipleship in this morning’s Gospel lesson that I think is essential for us all to understand, and in order to get us there, we have to take a little language detour. It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I want us to have a look at what the original Greek text of the Gospel has to say. But before your eyes glaze over, worry not, I’m going to begin by referencing everyone’s favorite 20th century Anglican theologian, C. S. Lewis. 

One of Lewis’ most popular books is titled, The Four Loves, and I’d be willing to bet that a good many of you have either read the book or at least heard of it. In the book, Lewis tries to explain how the English word “love” has four variations in Greek that each convey a different concept of love. The basic point of Lewis’ argument in The Four Loves is to draw attention to the fact that saying “I love you” means different things depending on whom you are addressing. As in, the love that I have for my parents is different than the love I have for my wife or the love I have for my friends. 

Briefly, in the book, Lewis examines four Greek words: storge, eros, philia, and agape. Storge conveys the idea of familial or familiar love that is the natural and instinctual result of social bonding. Eros conveys the idea of romantic love. Philia is love between friends, freely chosen and not based on instinct, that comes from sharing common values or interests. And agape is selfless love that perseveres regardless of circumstances. Of these four loves, agape is the only one that cannot fall prey to human selfishness and distortion. And Lewis classifies agape as the kind of love that God has for us and the kind of love that we all should strive to have for God and for one another.  

So, with this background in mind, I want to take a look at the conversation that Jesus has with Peter. In the translation we have, we miss out on something. Because it sounds like the conversation is just a back-and-forth, with Jesus asking, “Do you love me?” and Peter replying, “Yes, I love you.” 

But that’s not really what the text says. In the original conversation, Jesus asks, "Simon son of John, do you agape love me more than these?" And Peter responds by saying, "Yes, Lord; you know that I philia love you." And we’re meant to notice the difference. Because, really, Jesus is asking Peter, “Do you love me with the highest form of love, selflessly and no matter what?” And Peter responds by saying, “Yes, Lord, I love you like a friend.”

At the second asking, Jesus again uses the word agape, and again Peter responds with philia. But at the third asking, Jesus switches to philia, and Peter responds with philia. And we’re meant to notice the difference.

And I think that there’s a very good explanation for why these different words for love are used in this conversation. 

If you think back to everything we know about Peter’s involvement with Jesus, it’s pretty clear to see why he’d be hesitant to use the agape form of love in his response to Jesus’ question. I won’t go through all of what the Gospels tell us about Peter, but if you recall, Peter claimed that he was ready even to die with Jesus rather than betray him. But when the chips were down, Peter denied three times that he even knew who Jesus was. So Peter really could not claim to have agape love, the kind of love that is unswerving and free from self interest. On that count, he failed. That’s why he responds to Jesus’ question the only way he honestly can, by saying, “Yes, Lord, I am your friend.” 

The sting of the third question is not only that Jesus is asking for a third time; it’s that he’s lowering the bar. 

Because at the third question, Jesus leaves aside the higher form of agape love and instead goes with Peter’s choice of philia. So Jesus is basically saying, “You claim to be my friend. Are you really my friend?” It’s a fair question, given all that has gone before. And Peter responds with a penitent appeal to Jesus’ knowledge of what is true, and he claims again that “Yes, I am your friend.” 

And there’s the lesson for us from the Gospel. Peter’s story is very much our story as well. We all fall short of the kind of love that God has for us. All too often, our love of God and our love of each other is not free from self interest. And our efforts to live the Christian life miss the mark or come to nought. Like Peter, even though we want to be faithful, at times we fail. Often, we fail. But if, like Peter, we can still say to Jesus that we want to be his friend, that’s good enough. 

Because look at what Jesus says to Peter after each time Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I am your friend.” Jesus give him a job: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. No matter our failures, if we are penitent and loyal in claiming to be Jesus’ friends, that’s enough for Jesus to commission us to do the work we’re called to do.  

And doing the work involved in devoted friendship to Jesus will lead us eventually to the kind of love - agape love - that is the ideal. If you recall, Jesus says to Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” In other words, by following Jesus as a devoted friend, we will at length discover love that is selfless and sacrificial. 

So, as we move further into the Easter season, I hope that we will all take this lesson to heart. The risen Lord did not return to accuse Peter of failure. Nor is he with us to accuse us of a lack of love. He asked only if Peter was his friend, redeeming Peter’s three previous denials by allowing Peter three times to profess his loyalty. Just so, he is here to redeem our failures as well. He only asks if we are his friends. And if we say yes, he bids us to follow.