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Along the Sea of Galilee some 2,000 years ago, Peter was stunned when the Risen Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?” It was the word for “love” that got to him. Jesus didn’t speak of ordinary human affection. Another Greek word, phileo, describes that kind of love. Jesus instead uses the word agape, which describes a total, self-giving, sacrificial love.
And that is what’s so troubling for Peter. After Peter just denied Christ three times, he painful knows he is incapable of agape love. He is sad that the best he can offer is only the imperfect, human love of phileo.
And we often feel the same.
We know we don’t love as well as we should. Our love falls short. But the good news is God wants to do in us what he did in St. Peter. In a beautiful play on words, John’s Gospel chapter 21 shows how Jesus will lower himself to Peter’s level and accept Peter’s broken, imperfect gift of phileo love and transform it into agape. It doesn’t happen all at once. But from this point forward, Peter is a changed man. He will go on to lead like Christ, serve like Christ, teach like Christ and even suffer like Christ. Like his Master, Peter will be handed over to the Romans and stretched out on a cross as he is crucified upside down in Nero’s circus. At this climactic moment, as Peter gives the heroic witness of his martyrdom, he lives agape love in a most profound way.
The same Jesus who transformed Peter’s phileo love into agape will do the same in our hearts—if we follow him faithfully as a disciple.