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.

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