The Final Question
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 5/17/2015
Based on John 21:15-17
There is a story that the secretary from my first pastorate use to like to compare me to time to time, usually when I would start asking a lot of “why” questions. She would say, Pastor Steven, you are like a man who is walking along the street, totally broke , knowing that all he had to do was pray and God would supply him with something to eat, and when a hamburger would appeared in his hand, instead of first thanking God of this miracle and then eating the sandwich, he would first start asking “how did that happen.” As anyone who has ever spent time volunteering in the church office knows, I quite often am bouncing off questions about a piece of scripture that I am meditating on that particular week. When I am doing this, my asking isn’t to find a definitive answer, but rather, I am seeking other points of understanding so I can dream up more questions to struggle with.
Jesus did this quite often as well. In traditional Jewish form, when asked a question, Jesus generally answered with a question. When he saw teachable moments, he would often employ questions as a way of teaching. In his parables, he often used a question as a way to end the story. During Lent, I preach from a book written by Rev Martin Copenhaver, titled Jesus is the Question: The 307 questions Jesus Asked and The 3 He Answered. With the help of this book, we explored some of those questions like: “What are you looking for?”, “Do you see this woman?”, “Where is your faith?”, “Who is your neighbor?” This past week Ascension of Jesus into Heaven occurred, and next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost (so be sure to come with your brightest red clothing), so I decided I wanted to close out our last Easter Sunday with the last time Jesus ate with some of his disciples before ascending into heaven.
We find ourselves at the end of the Gospel of John, with some of the disciples fishing. We are told that Peter and some of the other disciples didn’t really know what to do after Jesus’ death, so they decided to do what they do best, fishing. They weren’t really having much luck, until a voice from shore suggested that they put their nets on the other side of the boat, which when they did, they harvested a bumper catch. As they came to shore, they realized that the voice was that of Jesus. Jesus had a fire going and cooked them breakfast. Then after breakfast Jesus took Peter to the side and asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” What an interesting question for Jesus to ask the man He himself had appointed to build his church.
I have been with you here at Mountain View now for three years; the same amount of time Jesus spent with his disciples. How would you respond if I asked you, “Do you love me?” Would you respond by saying, “Yes pastor, I love you.” More importantly, what do you mean in that response? In a recent theological discussion with someone who grew up within the church and has a pretty good grasp of the bible, we explored the reality of how hard it is to understand scripture. Now on the surface, understanding what is written is usually pretty simple to comprehend, but are the words that we are reading, accurately translated to the correct words for our language and culture? I am not saying that God’s word is secretive, but rather the difficulty comes because the original manuscripts that we have used to translate into our language were written in a particular time and culture that is not our time or culture.
Specific to this morning’s scripture the word that is difficult to understand is found in the question that Jesus is asking Peter? “Peter, do you love me?” The word “love” is the word that does not easily translate from the original text. The writings of the books in the New Testament were written originally in Greek, and if that isn’t difficult enough, the original Hebrew texts were translated from Hebrew into Greek as well. This shouldn’t be a problem for us as the two primary languages that English is based on is Latin and Greek. Yet, a cultural difference in language use is problematic with the word “love.” When we say this word, what do we mean? Is the meaning of “love” the same when I say, “I love ice cream” as when I say, “I love my child”; or when I say, “I love my spouse” mean the same as when I say, “I love my parent”; or when I say, “boy, I would love to hook-up with that gal or guy” what am I saying?
When we use the word “love”, we have to look at the context to which it is being used. The Greek language took out the guessing of what “love” meant by creating three words for our one word “love.” In Greek, there are three directions of love: Agape, which is an unconditional love, the love that does not ask for anything in return, self-giving love, or sacrificial love. It is the kind of love associated with Jesus or God. Phileo, is a brotherly or sisterly love. It is the kind of love associated with friendship – warm and generous but not completely unconditional. It is the level of love that we as humans most commonly operate on. The third type of love is called Eros, which is at the basic instinct level, that which is sexually charged.
So why did Jesus ask Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?” Especially when Peter’s first answer was, “Yes Lord, I love you.” When we just read this story through the eyes of our usage of the word “Love”, it would make little sense for Jesus to repeat the question three times. One explanation some theologians have come up with to justify our use and understanding of the word “love” is that Jesus asked this question three times as a way of absolving Peter’s three denials of Christ, in order for Peter to be able to become the rock in which Jesus was to build his church upon.
The translation that we heard this morning differs from the standard translations in that each question asked by Jesus and each answer given by Peter uses the original Greek translation instead of our generic English use of the word “love.” In the original Greek, we see Jesus asking Peter, “Peter do you Agape me; Peter do you unconditionally love me?” Peter responds, “Yes Lord, I phileo you; I love you Lord like a brother?” Peter does not answer Jesus’ question. So Jesus asks again, “Peter do you unconditionally love me?” Peter again responds, “Yes Lord like a brother.” Again, Peter is unable to answer Jesus’ question. So on the third time Jesus asks a different question, “Peter, do you phileo, me? Do you love me like a brother?” An exasperated Peter protesting responds with, “Lord you know I love you like a brother, why do you keep asking me?” Finally Peter responds to Jesus’ question, phileo to phileo.
What I glean when I read this story with this definition of “love”, is this: Jesus, finally realizes that Peter is incapable of following Jesus at the level that Jesus was asking. So much so, that Peter didn’t really hear (this is conjecture on my part) what Jesus was asking which is why he became so upset with being asked three times. I think also, it shows the reality that most of us, when we say we love Jesus, and God, and work toward ministering in Jesus’ name, can only do this at the level of Phileo, at the level or commitment of brotherly/sisterly love; a love of compassion and giving, but not without some sort of conditions.
The second piece that I gain from this scripture is that we are being asked by Jesus to follow him at whatever level we are at in our understanding of Jesus’ request to love him. In other words, “No matter who you are, or where you are at in life’s journey, you are welcomed.” It is a story of our ability to inter into relationship with God at where we are in life, of who we are in the present. God isn’t demanding us to be anyone other than who we are in order to be in relationship with God. Our goal as children of God is to strive for the “agape” in our lives, but the true reality is, most of the time we will not be conducting our lives at that level, and I see through this passage, that God understands this and still “agapes” us.
The final question before Jesus ascends into heaven is “Do you love me?” For us to be in an active relationship with God, Jesus is asking us to make that commitment, no matter where we are at in our life’s circumstance, God in his unconditional love is able to welcome us. Rev Copenhaver suggests: that if you want to grasp what a Christian life entails, repeat these three questions that Jesus most often asked, 1) What are you looking for?, 2) What do you want me to do for you?, and 3) Do you love me? For the question, “Do you love me?” is the question asked by someone who wants to be in relationship with you Pg 128, Jesus is the question, Martin Copenhaver . It is the final question Jesus is asking of us? Amen