Sermon: Do you love me?
What does it mean to love someone? It is hard to capture in English what Christ is asking Peter in the Gospel today. Greek, the language in which St. John composed his Gospel, has many words for love, two of which John employs here – “agape” and “philia.” “Philia” is a love of deep friendship, the kind held by two brothers in arms who have just emerged victorious after a harrowing battle. It means loyalty, self-sacrifice, and a sharing of emotions. It is far beyond the misuse of the word “love” so commonly found in our culture – “I love pizza” or “I love dancing.” But it still isn’t “agape.” “Agape” is the deepest form of love, a totally selfless love that is a complete gift of yourself to the other – a love that always puts others first. It is a love that only God can live to its perfection.
When Christ asks Peter if he loves Him, he is asking if Peter has “agape” love. Peter responds, “Lord, you know that I love you with philia love” – brotherly, comrade love. Christ repeats the question and Peter repeats his response. Then the third time, John tells us that Peter is distressed when Christ repeats his question. After Peter twice responding that he has philia love for Christ when the Lord asks if he has agape love, Christ asks him, “Do you love me with philia love?” Peter is startled and distressed because the question has changed. He is distressed by Christ seemingly stooping down to his level, accepting the limitations of his feeble love and making it clear that He loves Peter despite his weakness, despite his inability to love in the way that God loves.
Christ meets Peter at his level, but notice what happens next. He immediately calls him to something greater – precisely to agape love. He foretells how Peter will glorify God with his death – his hands stretched out on a cross like his Master, only upside-down, upon his insistence that he was not worthy to do in the same way as Christ. He will imitate the self-giving love of the Savior, loving with the agape love that he was afraid to profess there at the lakeshore.
The Peter we see just several weeks later in the book of Acts is not the same hesitant Peter we see in the Gospel of John. This Peter is bold, telling the Jewish leaders, “We must obey God rather than men” when they are ordered not to teach in the Lord’s name. (Notice, by the way, that Acts refers to “Peter and the Apostles.” The primacy of Peter, continued by his successors, the Bishops of Rome, is an Apostolic and Biblical doctrine, contrary to what you might be told elsewhere. Peter too is the one singled out by Jesus to tend His sheep. Peter is not merely the first among equals.) He even “[rejoiced] that [he] had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” of Christ.
Holy Mother Church holds out this example of Peter’s transformation on this third Sunday of Easter because She wants us to know that Christ’s Resurrection, which we continue to celebrate throughout the Easter season, is meant to work a similar transformation in us. How many of us, after all, are ready to tell society that we must obey God rather than men? How many of us rejoice to suffer dishonor for the sake of Christ’s holy name?
So how, then, can we be transformed like Peter? What will make us the bold witnesses to Christ’s Resurrection that the Lord desires us to be? Where is our charcoal fire around which Christ will stoop down to take our imperfect love of him, and transform it, redeeming those times when we, like Peter, have denied him?
Firstly, we must recognize our own weakness like Peter did. Do we not so often pretend through pride to be better disciples of Christ than we really are? Do we not tell ourselves that we are pretty much good people, that we don’t kill people or steal or do anything that would earn you a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list, so we are pretty much guaranteed to go to heaven? Do we not thus presume upon God’s mercy rather than humbling repenting as Peter did of the many ways in which we too deny Christ? How many of us turn away, at least in our minds, when Holy Mother Church and Her ministers challenge us with hard truths that are difficult for us to accept?
Secondly, in order to be transformed, we must worship God. The Book of Revelation presents us with a vision of many others who have been transformed as well: the countless number that surrounds the throne of God and cries out: “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.” In order to be transformed into bold witnesses like Peter, and in order to experience the heavenly reward of those who have been faithful to the end, we must fall down and worship God rather than ourselves. In order truly to worship God rather than ourselves, we need to worship in a way that focuses on Him rather than us. This means that the most fundamental question about worship is not: “How do I want to worship God?” or “What makes me … feel … like I’ve really worshiped him?” “Or what makes me … feel … closer to God?” But rather, “How does almighty God want to be worshiped?”
That would be a very difficult question to answer, unless, of course, you have two thousand years of tradition and an authoritative interpreter of divine revelation, namely the Catholic Church. Yet nevertheless, especially in recent decades, personal taste and cultural trends have been some of the primary drivers behind the decisions that were made regarding how even Catholics would worship. It is time for us to consider how we can worship in greater continuity with those centuries of tradition, in a way that doesn’t strive to be up-to-date and instead just ends up being dated, but is, instead, timeless. When we restore Catholic worship to being about God rather than about ourselves (by what we sing, by how we act in God’s presence, and by the postures we assume, among many other things), then we will restore the ability of our worship to transform us just as Christ transformed Peter.
Thirdly, the big point of difference between the Peter in John’s Gospel and the Peter in the Acts of the Apostles is the event of Pentecost. Before ascending into Heaven, Christ told His Apostles, “You will receive power and ability when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” The Holy Spirit has transformed the Apostles to be the witnesses of the Resurrection, which will take the ultimate form in Peter’s life of fulfilling Christ’s words about the kind of death by which he would glorify God – martyr, after all, means witness.
All of us who have received the Sacrament of Confirmation have received the same Holy Spirit who came upon St. Peter and transformed him to be a bold witness. We need to draw upon those graces, recalling how Confirmation left an indelible (un-erasable) mark upon our souls. We don’t need to sit around and wait for God to transform us in order to be witnesses, because He already has!
Finally, the Apostles were not afraid to continue teaching in the name of Jesus. As Catholics, we are so often afraid to talk about Jesus. We talk about “growing in our faith,” we talk about “learning more about our faith,” we might even talk about “growing in prayer,” but how often do we actually talk about Jesus?
I don’t think that I need to prove it to anyone here that Catholics struggle to talk to other people about Jesus. We’ve come to regard that as Protestant, or Evangelical, or just plain weird. Our faith is a private matter and that’s that. Persecuted for many years by American society, we have made an implicit bargain that we will not bother the rest of the country if they will not bother us.
Well, that bargain is done. American society is no longer content to let Catholics simply do their thing. They want to force Catholic institutions and Catholic individuals to violate their consciences to perform immoral medical procedures. They want to force us to lie about whether someone is a man or a woman. They want to teach your children that their religion is discriminatory, mean, and offensive. And yet we are still keeping to our part of the bargain, not talking to anyone about Jesus.
Why can’t we talk to people outside these walls about Jesus? Probably because we can’t talk to people within these walls about Jesus. We are all so afraid that even our fellow Catholics (or maybe especially our fellow Catholics!) will find us weird because we are actually about excited about the Man who died for our sins so that we might have life and who desires to have a personal relationship with each and every one of us. We tell people all the time, “I’ll pray for you!” but why don’t we actually just stop and ask, “Can we pray together right now?” Why are we so afraid to pray with one another? Do you think that the Apostles didn’t pray together before they went into that meeting with the Sanhedrin? Didn’t Jesus pray with the Apostles the night before He died, pouring out His soul to His almighty Father right in front of those men He loved so much?
Maybe, and it scares me to say this, but I think that it might be true, maybe we can’t talk to anyone within or without these walls about Jesus because we don’t have anything to say. St. Peter and the Apostles couldn’t stop talking about Jesus because they had seen, known, and encountered Him in a personal way, but have we? The Apostles continued to experience His presence among them even after He ascended into Heaven in the power of His Spirit present in each one of their fellow Apostles, and most importantly of all, when they came together to share His sacrificial meal that He commanded them to do in memory of Him. Do we recognize Him here and now in our midst?
The Lord of all the universe wants you to be His witness “even to the ends of the earth.” What will you have to say about Him? Maybe you have encountered Him in a profound way at some point in your life, and you need to recapture that fire with which your heart used to burn. Maybe – and I think that this is a distinct possibility that we really need to take the time to consider – maybe you have been a Catholic your entire life, maybe you’ve “got all your sacraments,” but have never really had that encounter, or never really opened yourself up to that encounter that you experienced on an objective level through the Sacraments, but have never allowed to come down to a personal level that can transform your life.
If that’s the case, don’t be afraid. Jesus recognized the feebleness of Peter’s heart and He came down to His level in order to call him higher. He wants to do the same thing for you today. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
You will be able to answer like Peter, “Lord, you know that I love you,” if you admit your weakness and the imperfections of your love; if you worship Him in spirit and in truth rather than making your own desires the focus of your life and even of your time at Mass; if you draw upon the many graces you have already received and the way your soul has already been conformed to Christ by Baptism and Confirmation; and if you are ready to shatter the culture of silence that keeps us from talking about Jesus.
Today, the Lord asks you just as He asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
II Sunday after Easter, A.D. MMXIX
Image: Raphael, Christ's Charge to Peter, 1515