Psalm 103:1-2, 11-12, 19-20
Back when I was teenager and a newly converted member of the Christian community, I recall a particular sermon that explained to me for the first time that there were two Greek works for love in use in this particular passage of John’s Gospel. I don’t know why I remember this, except perhaps, that I was beginning to sense, even then, that there was a potential cost to discipleship.
The two words for love to which I refer are “agape” and “filios”—they appear today in the reading in the verbal form. Hence, Jesus asks Peter twice “do you love me,” using the word “agape.” To this twice Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” using the word “filios.” It is possible to overstate the distinction, but generally the Greek word “agape” was reserved for self-effacing devotional love, while “filios” was expressive of friendship and convivial bonding. Hence, one could loosely translate this exchange thus: “Peter do you love me in a self-abandoning kind of way? Yes, Lord, you know that we are buds” (or “mates” if you are English or Australian.) The punch line comes the third time Jesus asks the question, this time switching from “agape” to “filios.” Thus we might translate: “Peter, are we buds…” Poor Peter was not ready to go the distance, but he would be someday. The text goes on to predict his eventual martyrdom, which, by tradition is said to have taken place in Rome.
I have known about the different words for love for nearly twenty five years, but they still have the power to affect me. Yet, as I ponder them today, especially in association with the reading from Acts, I am struck by the theme of constraint—there is way in which following Jesus forces us down an ever narrowing path. When Paul appealed to Caesar, we know that he, like Peter, would face eventual martyrdom in Rome. Such was the true cost of their discipleship. What might Paul have responded to the question, “Paul, agapas me (do you love me)?”
While I do not expect to face martyrdom, I have felt over the years
a growing sense of the gravity of my commitment to Christ. That commitment
constrains, and moves me in a certain direction—toward service to the gospel
and the body of Christ. It is, in a word, being more than “buds”
with Jesus. The more we grow in the Christian life, the more we are
invited to give our hearts to the Lord. This journey is often difficult—at
least I have found it to be so. After all these years, it is still
a great comfort to know that Peter found it difficult as well.
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