“Simon, do you love me?”
This is one of my favorite scenes in the Gospel. John 21:1-19 records the full story of Jesus appearing to the apostles on the Sea of Tiberias after His resurrection. As we talked about earlier this week, John is the first to realize that Jesus is speaking to them from the shore, when He instructs them to cast their net over the right side of the boat while they are fishing.
It’s a strange thing. This is how Jesus met Simon, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, in the first place. He was standing on the seashore while they were struggling to catch fish. He told them to cast the net once more and filled it so full they couldn’t pull it into the boat. Here they are again, on the same shore, fishing once again, taking the same directions from the same man, and receiving the same unbelievable result.
When the apostles reach the shore and Jesus prepares some of their fish for breakfast, the conversation that unfolds is one we all have with Jesus at some time or another in our lives.
“Simon, do you love me?”
The original Greek text of the Gospel contains a critical element that is lost when we read this passage in English. As we all know, Jesus asks, “Simon, do you love me?” three times: once for each time Simon denied Him on Holy Thursday night. What we lose in the English translation is the difference in each of the three times Jesus asks His question.
“Simon, do you agape me?” is His first inquiry. Jesus wants to know if Simon loves Him self-sacrificially, fully, and completely. He wants to know if Simon can truly deny himself and take up his own cross.
Simon’s response is, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.” Phileo is the word for brotherly and affectionate love. It entails deep attachment, but not sacrifice.
Jesus asks His question again with the word agape, and Simon’s response is, again, phileo. So, a third time, Jesus asks him:
“Simon, do you phileo me?”
Do you phileo me?
That question hits me like a ton of bricks. Twice Jesus asks Simon to step up, to rise to His standards, to take the responsibility He is asking for. He tells Simon to feed His lambs and His sheep. He wants Simon to be prepared for what’s ahead of him, and so He asks the critical question: can you love me with your whole self?
Simon can’t. He can’t love Christ with agape love. He can’t give his all. Not yet. Instead of changing His mind or taking away the responsibility of feeding the lambs and the sheep, Jesus finally says, okay. When Jesus asks, “Simon, do you phileo me?” what He really means is, you’re not where I want you to be, but it’s okay. I accept you anyway.
None of us are where we should be. We’re called to strive for perfection, but not to hide from God until we are perfect. Jesus demands agape love, self-sacrifice, self-denial, full and complete giving of ourselves. But He doesn’t say to go away, leave His sight, and not come back until we’re there. He sees what we can give, what we can do, and meets us where we are. He tells us the same thing every day that He told Simon when they first met, and that He tells him now on the Shore of Tiberias:
“Follow Me.” (John 21:19).