The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
10 April 2016
First, a lesson in Greek grammar. I try to avoid showing off my linguistic skills, but John is such a lover of words that sometimes it’s necessary for me to strut my stuff from the pulpit. So bear with me. Many of you may already know this, but there are generally four words used for “love” in Greek, two of which are common in the New Testament. The first is agape, which means “love” in an intense, intimate, and meaningful way. Some commentators define it specifically as “sacrificial love.” The second is phileo, which is basically, “I like you very much.” It’s a deep enthusiasm for something or someone, but it’s not necessarily personal, which is why any sort of hobby or intellectual pursuit often has a phil- prefix, such as philosophy, the love of wisdom, or philately, the love of stamp collecting.
In this passage, both agape and phileo are used, and something gets lost in our King James translation. Jesus first asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” and Peter says, “I philo you.” In other words, “Peter, do you truly love me?” and Peter says, “Well, you know I really, really like you.” (You hear the sheepishness there?) So Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” Then Jesus asks again: agape? And Peter answers a second time: philo. Finally, Jesus changes course and asks him, “Peter, do you like me?” and Peter famously says, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I like you.”
In other words, rather than making Peter come to him, the Risen Lord comes to where Peter truly is at that moment. You’ve got to like Peter for his honesty, but love Jesus for his capacity to meet people where they are, even if it’s not where he would like them to be.
So that is where Peter is emotionally in that moment. But what about where they are physically when this exchange takes place? Again, John is such a lover of symbol that I cannot think it is merely coincidental that these three exchanges take place in front of a charcoal fire.
You see, there are precisely two charcoal fires mentioned in John’s gospel. The first is the charcoal fire around which Peter huddles when Jesus is brought before the High Priest after Jesus has been arrested. It is at that charcoal fire that Peter denies Jesus three times. In this morning’s gospel, Peter is invited to another charcoal fire, where Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. For each denial, Peter is given the opportunity to proclaim his love for Jesus. For each sin Peter committed against Jesus, he has an opportunity to experience Jesus’ redemptive love.
But why did Peter deny Jesus in the first place? At its most basic level, denial is the failure to act consistently with what one truly knows or feels. The very fact that Peter ran away from that first charcoal fire and wept bitterly demonstrates that even in the act of denial, he still loved Jesus. His failure is not simply an act of cowardice; it is a failure to love with an unfeigned and open heart, regardless of the consequences.
One commentator I read opined that at least part of what was going on with Peter at that first charcoal fire was his desire to be accepted by the group warming themselves there. Peter is willing to deny Jesus for the sake of being included. But it doesn’t quite work, does it? His companions at that first charcoal fire are suspicious of him, and the warmth comes not from the people huddled around the fire, but only from the fire itself, which is by nature a warmth that will turn to ashes and die.
Over against the false inclusion of the world symbolized by that first charcoal fire is the charcoal fire on the shore, which represents an invitation to genuine inclusion that forgives and transforms. From that second fire Peter receives not just temporary warmth, but food—a meal, like the Eucharist, that sustains him. The physical fire may die, but it gives something to Peter that nurtures and strengthens him. This food is a sign that Jesus will always feed his people and provide what the shepherds of his sheep need in order to proclaim the Gospel and follow him.
Meditating upon these two charcoal fires, I find it significant that Peter is not invited to join the first but kind of tries to sidle up to it, to fit in, to become anonymous—and fails miserably, three times in his attempts—whereas Jesus specifically invites Peter to that second charcoal fire, where he is called by name and where he is not simply accepted for who he is, but also forgiven for what he has done, loved for who he is and commissioned to feed others.
How often have I preferred the charcoal fire of the world to Jesus’ paschal fire? How often have I wanted to fit in, to be anonymous, to go with the flow, even at the cost of denying my commitment to Christ and his Church? And how often have I shrunk back from Jesus’ fire, that fire of love and forgiveness that feeds and equips me, fearful that the cost of following my Risen Lord’s call will be more than I can handle? The invitation to Jesus’ fire is an invitation to intimacy with the Risen Christ. But it’s only an invitation. We, like Peter, still have to choose how to respond.
When I consider what compassion and mercy God has shown us in Christ, I am inspired to pray for the paschal fire to shine forth in me, so that I might shed that same compassion and mercy on others, especially those who, like Peter, might least deserve it in my otherwise dim-sighted eyes. At such times, I need to remind myself that Peter in his denials was still a good religious person. Peter loved Jesus even while denying him. Peter hungered and thirsted after righteousness both before and after he encountered the Risen Lord.
But what was missing in his life before his encounter with the Risen Christ was a love for all people that knew no bounds. To be sure, even after encountering the Risen Lord, Peter failed from time to time in proclaiming in word and deed the boundless love of Christ. Traces of his old self are to be found in the New Testament precisely to remind us that it is by Christ’s grace and love alone that we are able to live that Gospel of love. Peter teaches us that if we embrace the Love that first embraces us, in all our brokenness and sinfulness, that Love has the power to transform not only us but the world around us.
So let us embrace the Love that first embraces us, let us feed his sheep, wherever they may be, knowing that sheep aren’t always fluffy and clean and nice. I know; I once lived at a monastery that raised sheep and saw Br. Pierre cleaning maggots out of an infected horn. Sheep can be dirty and smelly and ornery. They can also be joyful and inspiring, like the spring lambs we herded to their first shearing in late summer. So when the Risen Christ charges us—and not just the ordained among us—to “feed my sheep,” he wants us to do so not simply in his name but with the same forgiving love that brought him to that second charcoal fire, to the sorriest of his lost sheep, and to reach out to others knowing that we, too, once were lost but now have been found. Having been found, we must find others and share Christ’s love in every way possible, saying with Peter, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee,” and hearing in return that call again, “Feed my sheep.”