John 21:1-19
Reaching for a Higher Love by Rev. Paul D. Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.

At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias.  He revealed himself in this way.  Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee's sons, and two others of his disciples.  Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing."  they said to him, "We also will come with you."  So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.  When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to them, "Children, have you caught anything to eat?"  They answered him, "No."  So he said to them, "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something."  So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.  So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord."  When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.  The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish. 

When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.  Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you just caught,"  So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish.  Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.  Jesus said to them, "Come, have breakfast."  And none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they realized it was the Lord.  Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.  This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.

When the had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"  Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."  He then said to Simon Peter a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"  Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."  Jesus said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"  Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, "Do you love me?"  and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."  Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.  Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch our your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."  He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.  And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me."

Our Lord asks St. Peter, "Do you love me?" (Jn 21:17).  This seems like an odd question, since no apostle showed his love more clearly than St. Peter.  Love for Our Lord practically burst from his heart, prompting his exuberant words and bold actions.  We may question Peter's prudence or timing, but we cannot doubt his love.  Still Our Lord asks the question not just once, but three times: "Do you love me?"

We can best understand the ensuing exchange between Christ and Peter as the rehabilitation of the apostle after his threefold denial of Our Lord.  The night of Our Lord's arrest Peter learned that his love for Christ went, in a sense, beyond his own capacity.  He did not have it within him to love Our Lord as he wanted.  His spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak.  Now Our Lord asks Peter this question three times - so that Peter's threefold profession of love can heal the wounds of his threefold denial.

But there is another, deeper significance to the threefold question and answer.  By this exchange Our Lord teaches Peter about love.  The lesson hinges on something not evident in the English: Christ and Peter use two different words for "love."  Christ uses agape, which indicated the highest love, the uniquely Christian love characterized by self-sacrifice and revealed on the cross.  Peter, however, uses philia, which describes a noble but lesser love - the love of friendship, a natural love.

Thus Our Lord asks Peter one time if he love Him with agape - that highest, self-sacrificing love.  And Peter humbly responds that, yes, he loves the Lord . . . but with philia, a lesser love.  A second time Our Lord asks for agape.  And again Peter replies that what he can give is the natural love of friendship.  Then, when He asks the third time, Our Lord changes His request.  He asks no longer for agape but for the lesser love of philia.  The "Peter was distressed" by the third question because Our Lord lowered His request from the highest love (agape) to the lesser (philia).

Now, instead of criticizing Peter, let us appreciate his honesty.  Our Lords asks for the highest love man has ever encountered, a love that comes only from above.  Peter desires to give that love, but he knows from bitter experience that he cannot.  He has tried and failed.  In this regard he represents all of us, who desire to love God as He deserves but who discover that it is beyond our capacity.  Our spirit is willing (perhaps), but our flesh is weak.  If Christ were to ask us, "Do you love me?" our response would be much like Peter's: "Yes, Lord  . . . but not as I should."

The scene does not end there, however.  having brought Peter to an awareness of his insufficiency, Our Lord then foretells his martyrdom - that moment when Peter will in fact display the highest love: "Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go" (Jn 21:18).  In effect, Our Lord tells Peter that, although he may not at that moment have the highest love, he will someday.  "Give me the love you can," He seems to say.   "And I will transform it."

This exchange should console us as well.  Our Lord does not cast us off because our love, like Peter's, is not yet perfect.  He simply asks that we give all that we can - His grace will accomplish the rest.  In the end, the highest love - agape - is not something that we produce from our own hearts.  Rather, we give God the raw material of our love and allow Him to transform it.  This is simple the ordinary working of His grace.  We give what we can - "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you" - and trust that He will raise it to what it needs to be.

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