He’s hunched over the table across from me, studying for his algebra final. If he passes, his time in eighth grade math counts for high school credit. If he does better than passing, he keeps his A for the quarter.
I have his study packet and recite equations. He scratches numbers and symbols and x and y into empty spaces on lined paper, tight-gripping a dull pencil I wish he’d walk downstairs and sharpen.
We get stumped on one and both try to show our work to come up with what we already know is the right answer. The old test has already been graded. I write the numbers on my tablet, where between math problems I’m working out my own equation.
We seek like terms to simplify the algebraic expression.
And yet in my case I’m finding it’s the like terms themselves that are that have made the expression such a riddle to simplify.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
It wasn’t very long ago we watched Peter — after much up-puffing and his “I will go to prison or death” speech — pretend not to know Jesus while soldiers nearly thrashed the life out of Him.
Dust of sifted wheat still between my fingers and under my nails, I see Peter through the cynic’s eye. Peter held such promise. At least he had the courage to take a swipe at one of the guards in the garden, and had he run off in naked terror like one of his companions, he’d not have been in the courtyard at all.
But even Peter, even after Jesus prayed for him not to, fell flat. He collapsed in a heap of cowardly muck as soon as the first guy tried to connect him with the mass of mortal and divine bleeding all over the pavers across the way.
Even after Jesus prayed.
And if I can’t stand straight after Jesus prays, when can I stand at all?
I Phileō You from my Toes
We see this encounter with Jesus, the Living, Resurrected One, and somehow we want to believe Peter gets a little comeuppance. Yes, the Lord would put him back into service, but not before a little vinegar and Tabasco.
And here are these like terms, two words that look and sound the same to our English-speaking eyes and ears but have each their own place in the Greek-speaking language of love.
To agapaō, we understand, is something more otherworldly. It’s unconditional, swells out from the goodness of the lover, not pricked by the merits of the one loved.
It is an act of the will, to love in this way.
It’s as though he cannot help himself.
And since we see these terms in this oddest of exchanges, where the Lord asks about one thing and Peter answers with clearly another — and nobody seems to find it odd in the moment — we are left to presume that Peter’s phileō is somehow other than, less than, what Jesus wanted.
And since I’m still finding fault with Peter long after Jesus wrapped forgiveness around his heaving shoulders, it’s easy for me to suppose that Jesus loved Peter while Peter just liked the Lord. That’s how I’ve always been preached the distinction.
Jesus asks him again.
“Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” (John 21:16)
When Jesus asks the third time, Peter is hurt. Whether he’s hurt because Jesus asked over and over, or he’s hurt that Jesus changed terms — it’s somewhere out there beyond my reach. But this time, Jesus doesn’t ask Do you agapaō Me?
He asks, Do you phileō Me?
Just as Peter’s been saying all along.
Loving from the Heart
When God declared His love for Jesus, He loved Him agapaō style: The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. (John 3:35)
But then again, He also loved Him the phileō way: For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. (John 5:20)
Peter, as it turns out, loved Jesus in the pattern God set, the same way that He loves us.
When Jesus echoed God’s call to His people to love, the call was far reaching. This was no one-dimensional love. The command had depth and breadth: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
I’m scribbling these words around searching out a way to simplify the expression. And I wonder it has less to do with Peter coming up short, liking Jesus with a cheap knock-off of real love and more to do with getting our whole self involved in the act of loving — with our hearts, souls, minds and strength.
Peter was loving with his heart, just as he’d been told to do. And it seems, perhaps, that Jesus embraced that love that rushed from the very tippy toes of His disciple.