The Golem Speaks

The Gospel of John 21 (Do You Love Me?)

Published by Peter Mains on June 20, 2013 at 09:57 PM

This chapter starts at night, reminding us of the night Jesus was betrayed. Peter, taking the lead, goes out to catch fish, and a number of the other disciples follow. They spend all night fishing with no luck. Our efforts are the same without the presence and the power of God in our lives; if we are not following His will.

In John 18, Peter denies Jesus three times, abandoning the one he had just sworn to defend at all costs (John 13:37). John, in contrast, follows Jesus and enters the palace of the high priest, just as he enters the tomb first. Peter is left out in the courtyard, warming himself by the fire. He has settled for safety, even if it means forsaking our Lord. Thankfully, our Lord is not done forming Peter.

John 21 is not the first time that Jesus has appeared following the resurrection, but it is the first time that we know of that Peter has seen Jesus. At the tomb, John understands that Jesus is risen, but we are not told that Peter does. Jesus later appears twice (John 20:19, 20:26) to some of his disciples, but Peter is not listed among them. When Peter hears that it is the Lord, he runs toward Jesus, almost naked (γυμνος/gymnos).

As St John Chrysostom wrote, "the disciples Peter and John again exhibited the peculiarities of their several tempers. The one was more fervent, the other more lofty ; the one more keen, the other more clear-sighted. On this account John first recognised Jesus, Peter first came to Him."

This passion that Peter feels for Jesus is authentic. We may be tempted to believe otherwise, because he abandoned Jesus at the palace, but we are Peter. We love God, yet fall short of His glory. We find ourselves contented, out in the cold, warming ourselves by a fire when we could be in the presence of the Light of the World. Yet, we can simultaneously have a love in our hearts for the Lord that must be nurtured in order to serve Him.

Jesus nurtures this love in Peter by asking him three times, "do you love me?" Peter responds three times that he does.

Now, much has been made of the fact that Jesus uses two different words for love (φιλεω/fileo and αγαπαω/agapao), while Peter only uses one (φιλεω/fileo). Some commentators say that Jesus is coming down to Peter's level. That is certainly a well respected interpretation of this passage, but we should be careful not to so quickly reduce the complexity this passage.

First, how sure can we be that φιλεω implies a lesser, more brotherly type of love? After all, John is described in John 20:2 as the disciple that Jesus εφιλει (loved). Did Jesus love John in a less intimate way than he loved Peter? Jesus loved John, and all of us, enough to lay down his life for us. If his relationship with John is even closer, then how can we cast this as a lesser type of love?

There are two other puzzling contrasts in this exchange that also cloud the picture. The first time, Jesus commands Peter to "feed My lambs." The second time, Jesus says, "tend my Sheep." Finally, He commands Peter to "feed My sheep." These small differences may touch our hearts in different ways, at different times. The literal sense of the words does not unambiguously point to a single, simple reason for these variations.

One notable thing is that John uses the word αρνιa (arnia) for "lambs." That may seem rather unremarkable, because we all know that sheep and lambs appear throughout the Bible. After all, we are Jesus' flock and Jesus is the Lamb of God. So, maybe we would expect to see many "αρνια" scattered throughout the Bible. In fact, John is the only author to use the word in the New Testament. All of the other New Testament uses are in Revelation, and refer to our Lord.

So, perhaps, in this exchange in which Peter is rehabilitated, Jesus is progressively handing Peter more responsibility. There was a time when Jesus broke bread and ate with the disciples, the first Christians. Now Peter must feed them. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but now Peter is called to tend the flock. Finally, Jesus is the Bread of Life, and Peter is to feed all of His sheep.

This passage is inseparable from earlier passages. In John 6, we see how Jesus feeds the multitudes with fishes and loaves. Here, He again shares fish and bread with His disciples. They last time they ate together, Jesus was betrayed by Judas, and John 21:20 reminds us of that. Now, they eat together one last time in John's Gospel.

As suggested above, Jesus is preparing Peter for greater responsibility. We know this, because Jesus tells him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." What greater devotion can a Christian have for our Lord than to die for him. If we dismiss Peter's earlier declaration of willing to die for Jesus as just talk, then we miss Jesus' great love for our first Pope. As St John Chrysostom observed, "[f]or since Peter ever desired to be in the dangers which were for His sake, 'Be of good cheer,' He saith, 'I will so satisfy thy desire, that, what thou sufferedst not when young, thou must suffer when thou art old.'"

This brings us to the end of John's Gospel. If we imagine that we are hearing this story for the first time, perhaps from John himself, we would be bound to ask some questions. First, is this true and, if so, what should we do now?

Peter steps in to ask the second question for us. "What about this man?" Peter asks, referring to John. Jesus responds, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?" Peter is on the road to martyrdom, and Jesus reminds him to keep his eyes on that path.

John concludes by underscoring the truth of his account. "This is the disciple [John] who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John 21:24-25)

The truth of the Gospel is something that we cannot negotiate. There is no separating Christianity from the reality of the incarnation.

Think about the way in which this most literary of the Gospels treats the topic. John was capable of writing an account that reads as a tapestry of many colors and textures. Yet, he does not take the road of leaving his opinions open to interpretation. He believes in a real, literal Jesus Christ, whom he loves. This disciple, who was so intimate with our Lord that he lay with his head on Jesus' heart, wants you to know the heart of Jesus.

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