Do You Love Me?
I think it is fitting that just coming off Confirmation Sunday, we are confronted with a passage of love. For me as a teen, this was one of the biggest questions and fears¾the fear that I would never find love. The interesting thing was that as a teen, my fears and concerns were around one particular kind of love, that being the romantic, and I did not realize the love that had been around me my whole life.
For me, one of the most powerful pericopes in the Gospels is John 21:15-17. This pericope is focused on one question asked by Jesus to Peter three times: “Do you love me?” This is both a parallel to Peter’s three denials and an opportunity for him to find redemption. Peter, God bless him, is a bit slow on the uptake. He does not connect with how this discourse is setting the stage for a different relationship between him and Christ.
As you read the passage, you cannot help but see Peter’s frustration with the repetition. But with each ask, Jesus is giving a clue as to what his love is all about. God’s love is different than the love we experience in this world because it is all-encompassing. It is always both forgiving and comforting, but also relational. We see the forgiveness and redemption in the three questions, but what we often overlook about God’s love is the relational aspect. When it comes to God’s love, there is an expectation that we do something in return. In this case, with each affirmative from Peter, he is also being commissioned to care for Christ’s followers.
This is interesting, because it stands in contrast to the love that is commercialized in our society. God’s love is not an emotional state or feeling; rather, it is a relationship and an understanding. In the Greek New Testament, there are two words which are translated as love: philo and agape. “As to the distinction between [agape] and [philo]: the former, by virtue of its connection with [agape], properly denotes a love founded in admiration, veneration, esteem, like the Latin diligere, to be kindly disposed to one, wish one well; but [philo] denotes an inclination prompted by sense and emotion.”
Thus, agape love is actually a very different type of love than philo. Philo love is a temporal love, one based in emotion; this is your sexual love, the desire-of-your-heart love, the love of the moment. However, the agape love is neither temporal nor is it even emotional. Some might even call it a transcendent love.
One of the great problems in the English language is how we lose a great deal of meaning when we meld the two loves into one. Within the Christian context, it leads to so many problems. I can think of the televangelist asking the gathered, “Do you feel God’s love?” Unfortunately, that changes what the love relationship is between man and God. It is not a temporary feeling. It is a long-term calm. When you mix the temporal emotional love with the powerful transcendent love, we reduce God to good feelings and warm thoughts.
God’s love is more than a mere emotional experience. To be honest, this is where people have used emotion to take advantage of others. Because it feels good, it must be the right thing to do! But looking back to the love we see in the pericope of John 21:15-17, we need to remember that this pericope is not painting a picture of a comfortable love. Peter is uncomfortable pronouncing it, and as he is called to practice it, we all can see the foretelling of great struggles to come. But the thing about God’s love that is so remarkable is that we can know that through this love, we will always find welcome and strength.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen