Sunday, June 29, 2014

Love Him, or Like Him -- There's Work to be Done

Every time I read the last chapter of John's gospel I slow down at the exchange between Jesus and St. Peter. If you have a Bible that translates in the margin the Greek words used for 'love' in that passage, you will find the dialogue come alive for you. I published this essay in my book, Lessons Along the Journey. I modified it for this blog because of its encouragement.-----------------------------

I’ve grappled with forgiveness, commitment, holiness, and a dozen other spiritual markers along my journey with Christ. Even as I write this, the grappling continues.

Yet, as I reflect over the decades, I can clearly see one predominant thread woven through each lesson learned. It is this: God loves me. His love was there when my father left me. I was five. His love was there during my teen years when I got lost in unspeakable sin. It was there when I raised my fist and accused Him of not caring about me. It was there when . . . when . . . .

Truth is, it’s always been there. 

Several years ago, as I read the exchange between Jesus and St. Peter in the last chapter of John's gospel, the Holy Spirit opened my heart to a lesson that summarizes the essence of Jesus' relationship with those who call Him lord and savior.

The New Testament writers used two words for “love” – phileo and agape. Phileo (fil-EH-oh) carries the idea of tender affection. Agape (ah-GAH-pay) is often used to describe God's unconditional, merciful, and enduring love – the kind of love He commands us to have for Him and for others.

One morning, as I read the twenty-first chapter of St. John’s gospel, I paused at verses 15-17. The margin of my Bible includes the Greek words used for “love” in this passage. I include the words in parentheses below:

"When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” He said to him, "Feed my lambs.”

"He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep.”

{Now note the change in the verb Jesus uses}

"He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love (phileo) me?” and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.” (Jesus) said to him, "Feed my sheep.”

As I meditated on the passage, I wondered why Peter responded to Christ’s agape with phileo. A modern version of the conversation might sound something like this:

“Peter, do you love me with all your heart?”
“Lord, I have great affection for you.”
“Feed My lambs.”
 “Peter, do you really love me?”
 “Lord, I think you are wonderful.”
 “Tend My sheep.”
 “Peter, do you have great affection for me?”
 “Lord, you know I do.”
 “Feed My sheep.”

Two things caught my attention in this exchange between the Lord and Peter. First, Peter must have felt miserable about his thrice denial of his best friend and Lord. But then I noticed how the Savior tried to help Peter move beyond his guilt. When Peter wouldn't say – couldn’t say – he loved (agape) Jesus, the Lord came down to his level: “Okay, my friend. Do you have affection (phileo) for me?”

How like Christ to be so gentle to our wounded spirits.

And second – and this is equally important – after each agape/phileo exchange the Lord’s charge to Peter was essentially the same: “Feed My sheep.”

In other words, “Peter, I know you feel guilty, but your repentance restored our relationship. Your sorrow and continued guilt are unnecessary. Don’t let them keep you from your task to tend My flock."

How like the merciful Christ to call us out of our sorrow. How like Him to renew our relationship – vessels of clay that we are – and set us about the work He’s given us to do.

I need that gentleness and mercy. And I imagine you can probably use a dose of it yourself.

When we feel unable to tell Him, “I agape You,” the Savior tells us it’s okay if we just phileo Him. And when our sorrow overwhelms us, the Shepherd comes alongside, puts His arm across our shoulders and tells us, as He always tells us, "I agape you."

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33). The penitent's sins are forgiven. All of them, forgotten. All of them, washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

Now, let's get about doing His work.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Commentaries -- Be Cautious

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)

I use several English translations of the Scriptures during my routine study through the Bible. Doing so helps tease out important nuances – nuances that can be missed when translating from one language into another. I typically have used the Catholic Revised Standard Bible and the Ignatius Study Bible (my recommended Bible for Catholics), along with several Protestant translations such as the New International, the New King James, and the New American Standard Bible (my recommendation for Protestants). 

For decades I have cautiously used Bibles with commentaries printed alongside the biblical texts. I know the text itself is fully inspired by God, but the commentaries are simply the opinions of editors and theologians. And while their comments can help increase our understanding of various passages, those same comments can misguide us because, unlike the biblical writers who wrote under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, commentaries by editors and theologians are just that: Commentaries. Opinions. 

Moses, Isaiah, Hosea, Luke, Paul, and the others cannot be wrong. Editors and theologians can be.

Several weeks ago I retired my worn New American Standard Bible and replaced it with a New American Inductive Study Bible (NAISB). I purchased the NAISB because it has what has become a unique feature in modern Bibles: It has 1.5 inch margins that permit me to jot down my thoughts as I read. 

The other day, as I turned to St. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, I perused the editor’s introductory comments. This is part of that commentary:

“Paul also was concerned about the church at Ephesus. Timothy, his faithful co-laborer, was pastoring that strategically important church. Possibly concerned that he might be delayed and that Timothy might need instructions to set before others as an ever-present reminder, Paul wrote to his beloved son in the faith an epistle that would become a legacy for the church and a pillar and support of the truth . . . .” (underline is my emphasis). 

This editorial comment perfectly illustrates the danger inherent in an uncritical reading of any Bible commentary – whether in a Catholic Bible or a Protestant one. In this case, unless we are familiar with First Timothy, we would miss the theological error nestled in that last phrase about the “pillar and support of the truth.” The editorial comment can lead us to believe Paul’s epistle was the pillar and support of the truth.  But that is not at all what the biblical text says. Here is what St. Paul wrote: . . . I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

The Holy Spirit, writing through St. Paul, wants us to know it is the Church – not the letter Paul had written to Timothy – but it is the Church that is the “pillar and support of the truth.”

Based on the plain sense of this text (there are others, of course), and on the context of this text, Catholics believe Scripture undergirds the Catholic view of apostolic succession and the authority given by Christ to the Church to support and infallibly teach truth regarding faith and morals. One would never come to that conclusion by only reading the editorial commentary.

"All Scripture,” the Holy Spirit reminds us through St. Paul, “is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;  so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). 

It is important for Christians to make a habit of reading the Scriptures – to read them often, and prayerfully. It is also important for us to remember that while commentaries can be useful tools of Bible study – commentaries can be wrong.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Invitation

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” (Revelation 22:17)

When God says something once, we do well to pay attention. But when He repeats what He says – I think that means He really, really wants to make a point. 

That’s what I thought when I recently read again His invitation to me – and, of course, to anyone who cares to hear it: The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty, Come. Let the one who wishes to take the water of life without cost [Come] (Revelation 22:17).

As I laid the Bible on my lap, I remembered what God said several hundred years earlier, through the prophet Isaiah: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:1-2a).

Then another text came to mind, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30).

At that point my memory went into overdrive as scores of similar invitations across the length and breadth of Scripture floated through my thoughts. And I wondered why some think there is a better offer waiting for us from elsewhere. 

I can tell you from four decades of experience, there is no better offer. We can live a hundred lives over, even ten thousand lives over, and we will never receive a better or more genuine appeal.

On December 24, 1972 I responded to God’s RSVP with a simple, “Yes, Lord, I come. With all my dark past, with all my hunger, and with all my thirst – Oh, Lord, I come to You. Quench the longing of my soul.”

Indeed, since that day in 1972 I have repeatedly, perhaps hundreds of times, reminded myself of my RSVP. Our Father’s invitation is too gracious, too abundant, too life-giving – and too important – that I do not want to forget how badly I need Him day by day.

What about you?