Unconditional Love

There is a fascinating scene towards the end of St. John’s Gospel. Jesus meets his disciples by the Sea of Galilee, and serves them breakfast after guiding them to an enormous catch of fish. After breakfast, he calls out Peter, the disciple who had denied him three times in the court of the High Priest the evening of Maunday Thursday. He poses a question to him (John 21:15): “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” To which Peter replies: “Yes, Lord. You know that I love you.” The identical words are repeated for a second time by both parties. Finally, Jesus asks the question once again, and Peter, exasperated by this time, says “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you”, and is told once again to “Take care of my sheep.”

What does not appear in most English translations of this story is that there is a subtle and meaningful change in the words that Jesus uses, and this could well be what caused Peter to become so upset.

What is translated into ‘Love’ in English can be one of four different words in the original Greek. Almost always, when Divine and Christian love is referred to, the word used is ‘agape’, which is most closely rendered as ‘caring’, involving not simply a feeling, but rather a behaviour. That is the word with which Jesus addresses Peter. Peter, however, replies using the word ‘philia’, which could be rendered ‘You are my friend’. So when Jesus, the third time, instead of ‘Do you care?’ asks ‘Are you my friend?’ we can understand why Peter gets upset!

God’s love, Divine love, is Covenant love. It is caring that will continue regardless of whether we respond to it or not, even though in the latter case, the caring may involve the same type of discipline that a caring father gives to a disobedient child. Human love is at a lower level. Contract love (philia) is for our advantage as much as that of another—“You be nice to me, and I will be nice to you, but if you will not, then our relationship is at an end”, or as a lawyer would define it, “Termination of Contract by Breach.” How many marriages in our modern world are failing, because what should have been a Covenant has been treated as a Contract!

In St. Luke’s Gospel (6:32-35), Jesus is perfectly clear: “If you love only the people who love you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners love those who love them! … No! Love your enemies and do good to them; lend and expect nothing back. You will then have a great reward, and be sons of the Most High God…”

On the human level, that is a very tall order, and all of us likely fall short at times. But that is precisely what this season of Pentecost is all about. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, “to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13) is the key by which we are empowered to follow this higher and harder way, the door to the Kingdom of Heaven is opened for us, our life with God and our life with our neighbours moves from Contract to Covenant, and the Kingdom of Heaven, as a result of God’s faithfulness, becomes His precious gift to us.

– Anglican Messenger, September 2010*