A Sermon Preached on June 16, 2012 by The Rev’d Greta Getlein
Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento California
Ordination to the Transitional Deaconate
Gospel Text John 21:15-19
“Again he asked him, Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter answers, “Yes Lord, I love you.”
I got curious about the repetition in this passage, and so spent some quality time last week with my Greek New Testament, a lexicon, and concordance. The first two times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” the Greek verb is agape; the third time, he uses the verb phileo. In our modern time we might understand those verbs to mean Christian love (agape), and brotherly love (phileo), both translated in today’s text as “love.” But a careful look at these two verbs indicates that they actually have what I think is a critical difference.
Agape love is better defined as affection or benevolence; that is, love as a matter of principle or will. We might understand this as charity or compulsive kindness; a love that involves our judgment and a deliberate assent of the will. Agape. But phileo, denotes personal affection; love as a matter of sentiment or feeling; a matter, that is, of the heart. So. Agape, a love that is from the head; a principled thing. Phileo, a love that is from the heart; a feeling thing.
Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?” And Peter said “yes.” He asked him again, “Do you love me?” And he answered “Yes, you know I love you.” “But,” Jesus asks, “do you love me?”
My spouse is a big fan of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, so we have seen it live and watched the movie a lot. And when I hear this passage in John, I am always reminded of one of the scenes from that show. Set in Tsarist Russia in 1905 the story is about a devout Jew named Tevye, his family and village, and a struggle to maintain faithfulness in the face of a changing world; a world that would see his Jewish village dismantled. It is ultimately a love story, the love of a husband and wife for one another, of parents for children, and of faithful Jews for our God.
In the scene that I am reminded of Tevye asks his wife, Golde, if she loves him. You see, theirs was an arranged marriage, as they all were, and love was not guaranteed to be part of the bargain. But their daughter has fallen in love, and wants to marry the young man. To allow such a marriage would require a break with tradition; a tradition in which all marriages must be professionally arranged by a matchmaker. All this gets Tevye thinking about love. And so he asks Golde, “Do you love me?”
At first she puts him off, but he is persistent. “Do you love me?” She replies by listing all the tasks she has done for him over the twenty-five years of their marriage. Undaunted, he asks again, “Do you love me?” She replies, “I’m your wife!” “Yes,” he says, “but, do you love me?” Finally, she thinks about her feelings, about what is stirred in her heart, and admits that, yes, after twenty-five years of living as one, twenty-five years of making decisions, talking things over, after twenty-five years, she does love him.
Jesus asked him a third time “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Is your heart pulled toward me?” It is clear that this is a terribly important question. Do you love Jesus. Not in an “Of course I love you, you’re God!” way, or in a “Look at all the things I’ve done for you!” way, but in a “Yes, God help me, I do” way. This love, Jesus states, requires us to feed and tend his sheep, both out of a sense of moral imperative, agape, and from a deep place of the heart that
compels us to do so, phileo. And as our love deepens, as each task we do in the name of God changes our hearts, deepens our love, we may be pulled, by love, to go where we do not want to go.
I was in El Salvador this past May with three students. On a day devoted to trying to understand their recent civil war we visited the martyrdom site of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church of El Salvador. Time stands still there.
For me, one of the most fascinating things to know about Señor Romero is that he wasn’t a liberation theologian when he was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in February of 1977. No, he was fairly conservative, obedient to the hierarchy, a friend of government and of the wealthy. His appointment was eyed with suspicion among more liberally minded priests. He had a reputation as a good but conservative priest; one not likely to stir the pot.
Then, on March 12, 1977, barely one month after ++Romero’s appointment as Archbishop, his friend and Jesuit priest, Father Grande, was assassinated. You see, Father Grande was a progressive priest, friend of the poor and disenfranchised, and was working hard to help the poor; to empower them to challenge their oppression. He was considered dangerous by the ruling authorities and was killed.
His death had a profound impact on ++Romero. He said, “When I saw him lying there, dead, I thought; if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I must walk the same path.”
A third time, Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?”
++Romero became an outspoken critic of government oppression; speaking out against torture, government sponsored murders, protection of the wealthy, and government abuse of power. The day before he was assassinated, just three years into his ministry as Archbishop, he called on government troops to stop killing, to put down their weapons in obedience to the highest law of all, the law of God.
Later in our trip we met an Episcopal priest who had been in El Salvador for forty years. During the events leading up to the civil war he tended his church, kept it going. Preached against oppression but was careful to not openly criticize the authorities. He was a good priest.
It wasn’t until a thousand people sought refuge at his church compound that he realized he needed to do more. “It wasn’t enough,” he said, “to be a good priest.” And so, he went outside to tend his new flock; to feed a thousand sheep. His life was threatened time and again, and he spent two months in jail for helping those whom Jesus had laid at his feet to care for.
Jesus asked him again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Both Señor Romero and the Episcopal priest we met were changed by what they witnessed. Before this they were good priests. Just like Peter they loved Jesus. They did everything right according to the ways of the church. According to what they had learned. But Jesus called Peter and calls us to be more. To stand on the outside of enough. To dare to move mountains. To allow ourselves to be led, by love, to places we may not want to go.
There is another thing about the Episcopal Church in El Salvador. In the churches we visited, the ones that actually had walls and sanctuaries, there was something quite striking about the images of Jesus we found there; the images that hung on the wall behind or near the altar. Each church had a beautiful tile mosaic, created by Father Luis – the priest who fed one thousand people in his parking lot, the priest who heard Jesus ask, again, “Do you love me?” Each mosaic depicts Jesus as very much alive. His eyes are open, he is smiling, he is feeding the people with his very real, very alive, love. What a different image that is to have at the altar than the empty cross or the image of the crucifixion. This is Jesus on the beach, frying fish, loving Peter. And you. And me.
Our story is also a love story. A story of love between us and our God.
Janine and Steven, today you will make a promise to serve God’s people, especially the poor, the lonely, the sick, and the weak. Through your love you will show them the love of God. Through your love you will feed them with the living bread. Through your love they may come to know grace. Through your love, which is the love of the triune God, they will be changed. And so will you.
This work of loving requires that you also receive that love. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in the doing of love – the charitable works, the benevolent love, the tasks of doing and being church – that we forget the feeling of love; the heart led, compelling love, that brings us to our knees in thanksgiving and awe, and moves us to tears in our service and our concern for this broken world. This love is made manifest in the bread and wine, in prayer, in scripture, and in fellowship. It is there that you will be filled. It is there that you will taste a love that is alive, that is working in you.
Jesus fed his disciples. And then he compelled them to love.
As we are fed, so will we feed. As we are loved, so will we love. And when we are called to go where we do not wish to go – even if it’s just to a church in a part of the world we don’t want be in; even if it’s just one more trip to rehab with the same person who has fallen off the wagon again – when Jesus asks us, yet again, “Do you love me?” We can still whisper, “Yes, God help me, I do.”
A Sermon Preached on June 16, 2012 by The Rev’d Greta Getlein