When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. John 21:15-17
The Cistercian fathers did us all a great favor when they recovered and re-published an early 12th century treatise by the Scottish monk, Aelred of Rievaulx. Its title is Spiritual Friendship. Rhetorically, in answering the question “Is there a difference between ‘charity’ (i.e. love) and friendship?” Aelred of Rievaulx says that the difference is vast. If we are to love the way God loves and John tells us that God loved the world, loving what God loves seems incumbent upon us. Being careful to not over state his case the monk refers to Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 and says “divine authority approves that more are to be received into the bosom of love than into the embrace of friendship. For we are compelled by the law of love to receive into the embrace of love not only our friends but also our enemies.” Friendship is the higher calling. “Frankness not flattery, generosity not gain, patience in correction and constancy in affection—these are the marks of a genuine Friendship”.
We’ve pretty well turned that upside down. We’ve come to believe that, like on Facebook, we should have lots and lots of friends and be very restrictive with who gets into the circle of those whom we say we love. How can we hold to that if we are to love what God created and called good? Being a personal acquaintance with someone and being a true friend are quite different things. Aelred said that we love very many who are a source of burden and grief to us, for whose interest we concern ourselves honorably, not with hypocrisy or dissimulations, yet we do not admit these to the intimacy of our friendship. The point is there can be love without friendship but true friendship without love is impossible. Jesus set the limits on love when he said “greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” That’s how far love between friends should extend.
In reading our text for today, Simon Peter is standing around a charcoal fire with Jesus. We recall that the last time we were told that Peter stood around a charcoal fire was in the courtyard of the high priest while Jesus was being interrogated.
This is the Peter who on more than one occasion declared his unfailing devotion to Jesus. Matthew reports (26:33) that Peter declared, “Even though all may fall away because of you, I will never fall away”. In the upper room, just before Jesus’ arrest, he said to Jesus “I will lay down my life for you…” Within hours his self-confessed love failed and he openly denied that he even knew Jesus. The courtyard scene begins with his being stopped at the gate while the other disciple of whom it says “knew the High Priest” went in. But then turned around and spoke the gate keeper and brought Peter in with him. She asked Peter “Are you another of this man’s disciples?” Peter replied “I am not!” That’s when he took his place around the charcoal fire provided by the servants and police. The others warming themselves asked him “Are you another of his disciples?” But he denied it, saying ”I am not.” Then a relative of the man whose ear Peter had severed from his head insisted, “Did I not see you with him in the garden?” And for a third time Peter denied his relationship with Jesus.
Now, once again standing by a charcoal fire, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he answered, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
It might be instructive to note what Jesus did not ask. He didn’t ask “Simon, son of John, do you fear me?” He didn’t ask, “Simon son of John, do you glorify and worship me?” His question wasn’t even concerning his faith. He did not ask, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you believe in me?”
He did not ask Peter anything about his good works or his devotion. “Simon Peter, how often have you been on your knees seeking divine mercy for the slight you did to me?” “ …. how much have you wept over your denial of me?” “How much time have you spent in prayer for others?” “How often have practiced your faith in practical ministry?” No. It was not in reference to his works, but in reference to the state of his heart that Jesus said, “Do you love me?”
In reading the text I couldn’t help wondering to what Jesus was pointing when he asked Simon son of John do you love me more than “these.” We can’t be sure. But only a few hours before this, impatient for Jesus to meet them on the beach, impetuous Peter proceeded to return to his profession as a fisherman. “I’m going fishing” he said and the others followed suit. So, for Peter, was it his profession that became the source of his alienation of affection? Maybe you wonder too what it would be for you? It goes to a process of self examination. What gets our priority – what do we love more?
When Jesus repeated it a second time the question was even simpler. “Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” But not finished, the symmetry is unmistakable and the pain Peter felt was real. “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon son of John, Do you love me? ”Though it looks the same, in English, the third time Jesus asked Simon the question it wasn’t the same. Not by a long shot. In the first two instances the Greek word translated love is the word ‘agapn’, synonyms for which are words like: generosity, kindly concern, devotedness. This time, the third time Jesus uses the word ‘phylias’. Am I your friend? Jesus asks.
Aelred wrote of having a friend, a spiritual friend: “…what joy to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in your spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans!”
There’s a phrase that has found its way into marriage ceremonies which reads: “Friendship heightens the joys of prosperity and mitigates the sorrows of adversity by dividing and sharing them.” “Nothing is to be denied a friend, nothing should be refused a friend…” The question to Simon was a practical one. Earlier Jesus had told his followers “You are my friends if you do what I command you, and that is to love one another.” (Jn15:14) What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus? Simon, son of John, are you my dear friend?