WE READ scripture and are often caught up by the Holy Spirit in subtleties found there. Such is that which is found just before the Ascension of Our Lord. Subtlety is deeply expressed for us in the last chapter in the Gospel According to Saint John. The text tells us of the final moments before the Ascension, a time wherein the earthly Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus bodily ate with the disciples as they gathered together on the seaside. Amid them was Peter, the chief disciple who had denied Jesus three times. He was the one upon whom the mantle of leadership was placed, but he like most… hid in the face of persecutions that had occurred before Jesus was crucified. With importance we note here, therefore, this important portion of the conversation the Lord had with him. We note that there was no accusation, nor condemnation, but simply a question that our Lord put before him…
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.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
A 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.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved 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. 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.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-17)
As we consider the Ascension of Our Lord, we pay close attention to this conversation occurring just before the event. The conversation, when read in the original Greek language in which John wrote, offers us a linguistic subtlety that asks for prayerful thoughtfulness by the power of the Holy Spirit. As followers of Christ, we need strive to obtain meaning out of the text (exegete), rather than impose our own interpretations. Therefore, we rightly note a distinction in the written Greek that was used.
Take note that in the initial question posed, our Lord asks Peter whether that disciple loved him. In Greek, the root word used by Jesus was agape, defined as “divine love”. In other words, Jesus asked whether Peter loved him with a love set apart as love for God. Peter answered the question in the affirmative, but in answering changed the word. He used the word phileo, meaning “brotherly love”. Hearing the response, Jesus then told Simon (Peter) to “feed his sheep”.
As we continue to read in the Greek, we find that Jesus repeated the original question using the same words. Once again Jesus got the same “brotherly love” response. So again, he told Peter to care for his sheep.
Finally, it would seem to those knowledgeable in the Greek subtleties of words… would point out that Jesus gave up on the task of his disciple getting the nuance of what he was asking. John related that finally Jesus repeated the same question, but himself used the word “phileo” when asking.
As we consider this Ascension conversation, therefore, first let me offer this. As students of scripture, we believe that this gospel message was written in Greek some fifty years after the Ascension event. Second, many biblical scholars attest that it was written and read in Asia Minor, an area of the Roman-ruled Greek provinces. However, given these as true, we must also note that the conversation probably took place amongst Jesus and his followers using the Aramaic street language. Aramaic was the language that both our Lord and Peter spoke. We rightly then ask, “Did the oral tradition that spawned the gospel record deliberately give distinction to the word “love” as used in the original conversation?” I would offer that it did not.
I consider that the translation of the original conversation preserved in oral tradition into the kione (community) Greek, originally written by the power of the Holy Spirit into this gospel, caused this flavoring subtlety. If we can grasp the meaning of this by power the same Holy Spirit… we may be on a right path toward a scriptural message for our own day… which comes directly out of John’s first century churches.
First we thoughtfully must ask, “If we accept the nuance as that of the writer guided by the Holy Spirit, we see that an early church heresy may have been fought in this text.” We know that as the gospel message spread, it was communicated first by those called by Jesus as disciples. The chief of these disciples was blessed Peter. Could it not have been that there were some in the writer’s time who would elevate the person of Peter, rather than looking only to Jesus Christ? I think that this was true! Saint Paul had earlier in church history warned about this tendency in his First Letter to the Corinthians…
“For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely men?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 3:4-11)
This being so, that John’s readers wrestled with this malady, could not the nuance be a Holy Spirit emphasis? I tend to believe so. I consider that John’s translation into Greek emphasized a singularity of salvation which the Holy Spirit would have us know. John subtly tells us in the Greek that even forgiven Peter did not quite get the message at first, even after the Resurrection! The power to answer up that Jesus is divine love poured out (agape), certainly did not come to Peter until the Day of Pentecost. That Pentecost faith was a gift that came upon Peter, given from God on that day though the Holy Spirit. That Pentecost faith gave him power to witness boldly.
In summation, therefore, we in the church today dare not hold any person or group of persons up as equal to God revealed through Christ Jesus. Why do we still try to do such heresy? We need not look far in scripture for answer. Saint Paul told the early church in Rome
, “…All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
Surely this sinfullness accounts as reason that John described our Lord as allowing Peter’s answers, and passed over his reply. But even more subtle in the midst of the conversation, we note that each time an answer was returned by Peter, Jesus commanded his follower to “feed his sheep”. It is in this last instruction, therefore, where Peter would finally comprehend the nuances of divine love. It would be in following this instruction to feed his sheep that would bring Peter to understand the difference between the two forms of love. Brotherly love only becomes perfected… as the perfect love of God… when love is poured out through sacrifice freely given!
So it was that Paul and Peter both ended up going to Rome in daring witness. Even when hounded, bound and persecuted… they both stated that the faith of the church is eternally truly expressed only through the divine, sacrificial love of Christ. Paul first confessed so in that his letter to Rome continued…
“…they (sinners) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.”
This faithful proclamation of singularity led to Paul’s imprisonment, and his witness was followed thereafter by Peter, who is recorded as saying…
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may rebound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:3-7)
Sacrificial Love Given...
Eventually then, given his witness to Christian believers in that city following Paul’s trials, Peter joined the apostle Paul in sacrificial love. His message to the church is recorded in history and, thanks to subtlety of this gospel writer… the great meaning of his death comes to us in scripture today. We need to hear, live and witness by it… for it defines the church of Christ. It tells about the divine power of God’s love…
“Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ ” (1 Peter 1:13-16)
Thus it is that we in the modern church need to pay close attention to the conversation between Jesus and Paul. Surely that disciple did not “get” the message before the Ascension and Pentecost. He should thus not be held higher than everyone else, but only regarded as gifted of wisdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore scripture warns that we need cease holding up human idols within our church communities. While some persons are gifted in differing talents, we are reminded here that all Christians walk as both sinners and saints. As sinners we yet transgress the Law of God, and as saints we take heart in that we have been saved by grace through Christ Jesus. Therefore, brothers and sisters, let us be called into our future through the faith which comes to us by grace alone, through Christ alone. We know by this faith that our love for one another may be expressed in highest form… even to that of a divine, sacrificial love. This is the love taught to the church by Jesus Christ. We need to hear these nuances! For in this the ignorant shall be made wise. The Spirit teaches that we are descended from blessed Peter, and thus Jesus has shown us the way that we are to go.