Our American English allows us to say a number of words which have different meanings.
A person may say “I love my spouse.” Again he may say “I love steak.” Or perhaps, “I love my Mercedes.” The word, love, is used in three different ways. Surely they mean something different in each sentence. We tend to use some words without examining what we mean by them.
Occasionally the non-verbal clues in our behavior will affirm what we intend to say or, perhaps more often, contribute to our sending “mixed signals” when we speak to another person. If you say something like “I love you” but those words are accompanied by an angry or judgmental tone, your spouse may wonder if you mean it! One of an old African adages says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In fact words may cut deeply.
The last chapter of the Gospel of John includes a glimpse into Jesus using words to examine Peter’s failure at the cross and to reinstate him as a leader of the Apostles. After breakfast Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, I love you,” but the word he chose was one describing attraction not devotion. When Jesus asked Peter a second time, “Do you love me?” Peter replied with a word that conveyed affection not commitment. The third time Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?” Peter was upset at the penetration of Jesus’ words. Here Jesus tells him to “feed my sheep.” And then Peter hears the two words Jesus first spoke to him years before, “Follow Me.” Peter is called back from his return to fishing, and a new call reminds Peter he now has a new mission in life.
A linguist enjoys reading this story in the original language because the words used are specific and obvious. The translation of several meanings using “love” fails to expose the fullness of the encounter between these two men.
While understanding the Aramaic and the Greek when reading the New Testament is enjoyable and illuminating, even the English conveys the significant encounter between Peter and Jesus. The dynamic transformation in Peter’s life supports the new call and commitment he received.
Last Sunday we celebrated the resurrection. For some, it was a reminder of the need for a renewed encounter of our spiritual growth. Like Peter, we are tempted to slip back into old ways and forget the love that drew us into our relationship with Jesus.
It is a difficult question for each of us to answer honestly, “Do you love me?”
No one really knows what is deep in each of our hearts, but this is a question that may carry eternal significance. He does not ask, what have you done for me? Peter remembers boasting that he would never abandon Jesus. He knew his failure and his shameful denial in the courtyard at Jesus trial. Jesus did not ask Peter if he was ashamed of his behavior. What he asked was at the core of his relationship to Peter.
Think about how you will answer when He asks, “Do you love me?”