By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp
Homily for 3rd Sunday of Easter - on the Gospel
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I Love You, Lord; Help My Lack of Love

Acts 5:27-32,40-41 Revelation 5:11-14 John 21:1-19

Some people refer to the gospel story we just heard, Jesus’ conversation with Peter by the Sea of Tiberias, as Peter’s Conversion. Others call it Peter’s Confession. Peter’s Confession is appropriate whether we understand confession to mean a declaration of faith or an admission of guilt. It is easy to see Jesus triple question to Peter “Do you love me?” and Peter’s triple answer in the affirmative as Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus. What is not so easy to see is how this dialogue represents Peter’s confession of guilt. To see the penitential aspect of what is going on here we need to read the story in the original Greek.

Did you ever wonder why Jesus had to ask Peter three good times if he loved him? We can see here a correspondence with Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. But that is not all. In English, when Jesus asks “Do you love me?” and Peter responds, “Yes, I love you,” it all sounds right. But in Greek we find that Peter is not exactly responding to the very question Jesus is asking him.

In the Greek Bible, there are three different words translated by the one English word love. There is eros, which means sensual or erotic love, the kind of love that leads to marriage. Erotic love lies in senses and the emotions that find the object of love attractive. Then there is philia, meaning love of the likeable, the admiration and devotion we have for a worthy person or thing, such as love for a hero, love of parents, and love of art. Likeable love dwells in the mind that judges the object of love worthy of it. Finally there is agape, which means self-sacrificing and unconditional love, even for a person who may not deserve it and when there is nothing tangible to be gained. Agape love is in the will. It is a decision. An everyday example I can think of that reflects agape love is the love for a cat. Dogs have a way of returning affection and being useful to the owner, but cats are something else!

You know the joke about the difference between a dog and a cat. A dog looks at his owner who feeds him, protects him, and cares for him, and says to himself, “He must be a god.” A cat looks at his owner who feeds him, protects him, and cares for him, and says to himself, “I must be a god.” This is not a propaganda against cats. On the contrary, it is a compliment to cat lovers for their selfless and unconditional love for these undeserving creatures. The clearest example of the self-sacrificing and unconditional love we call agape is found, however, not in the cat-human relationship, but in the love that Jesus has for us, which made him give up his life for us undeserving sinners.

Back to the gospel story. Jesus asks Peter, “Agapas me? Do you have agape love for me?” meaning “Do you love me in such a manner as to sacrifice your life for me.” Peter knows that he has not lived up to this standard of love. He knows that he disowned Jesus in order to save his head. So what does Peter answer? He answers, “Philô se. Yes, Lord, I have philia love for you,” meaning, “Yes, Lord, you know how deeply I like and admire you.” You see why it is a confession of failure? Peter is saying to Jesus, “Yes, I like and admire you, but no, I have not been able to love you with a self-sacrificing love as you demand.” So Jesus asks him a second time whether he has agape love for him and Peter again replies that he has only philia love for him. Finally, unwilling to embarrass him any further, Jesus then asks him “Do you have philia love for me?” And Peter answers “Yes, I have philia love for you.” End of the interrogation! Jesus accepts Peter the way he is. Even his philia love is good enough.

The Peter we see here is not the loud-mouthed, boastful man who thought he was better than the other disciples but a wiser, humbler man who would not claim more than he can deliver. Peter’s confession here can be likened to that of the father of the possessed boy who confessed to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). What Peter is saying is “I love you, Lord; help my lack of love.”

In our worship services we often sing hymns that profess our love for Jesus. Think of “O, How I Love Jesus” or “O, the Love of the Lord Is the Essence.” Peter challenges us today to realise that hymns like these only tell half of the story. The other half is that there is a part of us that does not love God, that denies the Lord when our life, our future or our well-being is at stake. Peter’s example invites us to bring this negative side of us to God for healing. So today, let us join Peter in his confession: “I love you, Lord; help my lack of love.”

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