3rd Sunday of Easter April 18, 2010
“Yes” or “No”
A father was irritated to see his only son becoming more and more effeminate. One time he asked him, “What are you, a boy or a girl?” The son replied, “A girl.” The father was furious. He grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to the bathroom and dunked his head into the bathtub filled with water. After a minute, he pulled him out of the water and asked again, “What are you, a boy or a girl?” And again the answer came, “A girl.” Once more, he goes under water, and this time for three agonizing minutes. Pulling him out afterwards, the father again asked, “So, are you still a girl?” The son, all wet and half-conscious, replied in a weak voice, “Not anymore. I am now a mermaid!”
There are many questions which are easy because they are answerable by a “yes” or “no”. Interestingly, these are the questions that many people find so difficult to answer. Most probably because a “yes” could entail commitment and responsibility that one is not ready or willing to give; and a “no” may offend somebody. This was the case of Peter in the Gospel this Sunday.
Jesus confronted Peter with a question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” It is a question that is answerable by a “yes” or “no”. Peter quickly replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” There seemed to be no problem here. But in reality, Peter was avoiding the question. His answer was not the one being asked by the question. This may not be evident if we simply rely on the English translation of the Gospel. We need to go back to the original language.
The issue here is about love. In Greek, the original language of the Gospel, there are three words for the word love. The first is “eros” – it is the sensual or erotic love; it is based primarily on emotions and physical attraction, and it ordinarily leads to marriage. The second is “philia” – it refers to admiration and devotion for somebody or something that is likeable, as in love of parents, or a hero, and love for a certain science or art or hobby. This is not anymore based on emotions and physical attraction but on the ideals of the mind. The third word for love is “agape” – a self-sacrificing and unconditional love that is extended to a person who is not likeable or who does not deserve to be loved. This is the love that is based on the will – it is a decision to love, no matter what happens. It drives a person to extreme heights of heroic self-sacrifice. This is the love that Jesus had for us sinners and it led him to the cross: “There is no greater love than for a man to offer his life for his friends.” And he gave us the command: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
In the Gospel today, Jesus asked Peter, using the word “agape” – “Do you love me with the same self-sacrificial and unconditional love that I have shown you? Are you ready to die for me?” But Peter did not answer properly. He responded using the word “philia” – “Yes, Lord, you know that I admire and like you so much.” It was a yes, but not to “agape”. His threefold denial of Jesus must still be haunting him, and he was too aware of his inability to live up to the level of “agape” love. The second question of Jesus still used the word “agape”, and again Peter responded with “philia”. The third question of Jesus was different. Knowing the heart of Peter, Jesus used the word “philia” – a clear acknowledgement of Peter’s limitation but also an unconditional acceptance of his imperfect love. It is as if Jesus was saying to Peter, “Yes, I know how weak you are and you cannot yet love me as I have loved you, but it is enough for now. Just do your job: Feed my lambs. Take care of them with the best love you can muster.”
Church History tells us that, indeed, Peter rapidly grew in maturity and perfection in his love. The grace of God enabled him to fulfill his ministry as the Rock of the Church. In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter showed his firm conviction and complete love and dedication to the Lord when he boldly proclaimed to the Roman authorities: “We must obey God rather than men.” Eventually, he capped his sterling ministry and public witness by offering his life on the cross. He was martyred by Emperor Nero by being crucified upside down.
At this moment, Jesus turns to us, and asks each one of us: “Do you love me?” Most likely we will answer, “Yes. Lord, you know I like you, I admire you, I enjoy being with you.” But his question is more demanding: “Do you have agape love for me? Are you willing to sacrifice for me? Are you ready to risk your life and everything for me?”
In all honesty, let us examine ourselves in the concrete life situation. Let me mention just a few examples. We all know that Sunday is the Day of the Lord. But when there are too many things to do on that day (outing, shopping, and attending to visitors and the like), for many of us, the activity that would most likely be dropped from our schedule is Sunday Mass. When we are hard up in our finances, the first that would be cut in our budget is our church contribution – ahead of our cigarettes, movies, lotto, and beer. When we consider the time we spend on our activities, our time for prayer and reading the Bible is just a very small percentage compared with the hours we spend in front of the TV, on the phone or computer. And when it comes to activities we enjoy doing, being with the Lord in prayer and silence may not be in our list. When our life, our job or the welfare of our family is at stake, will we still be able to say like Peter, “We must obey God rather than men”?
So, when the Lord will ask us today, “Do you have agape love for me?” what would be our response? As Jesus strengthened Peter with his graces and made him a powerful and courageous witness of the faith, may we, too, be empowered by the grace of the Eucharist to truly love the Lord until the very end. Amen!
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
New York, NY 10002