Do You Love Me?
Tend my Sheep
By: Fr Anthony St Shenouda
“So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?’” (Jn 21:15-17)
After Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to His disciples not only to confirm his resurrection to them but also to assure them of his forgiveness for betraying Him. During one of these apparitions Jesus asked Peter a question. Jesus’ question comes few days after Peter denied Him three times at the courtyard of the high priest. Jesus asks “do you love me?” St Peter answered “You know that I love you.”
In the English translation of the Bible the same word for ‘love’ is used for the question and answer, yet in the original Greek, Christ in His question uses the word ‘Agape’ which can be more accurately translated to be ‘affectionate love’. In St. Peter’s reply he could not bring himself to use such a big word. To use the word Agape is to betray Jesus again since he knows he is weak and will fail again. It was enough for Peter to use the word ‘philo’ which may translate to ‘I will be your friend.’ I may not have the same affectionate love that I should have for my savior (and my track record proves that) yet it does not mean that I do not love you.
The way the dialogue is going you can guess that the most obvious reply would be “Ok Peter, I forgive you.” To our surprise, we read a very different response. Jesus replied “Feed My Lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, “Feed my sheep.” This is a call to serve rather than words of forgiveness. I find it a very helpful response for many who are called to the service at any scale. Many youth decline service because they feel they are not spiritually up to scratch or that they are too sinful to be involved in service. Here Jesus gives all of us hope, not only to forgive us our sins but to be called with those who serve him. You will never be good enough to serve the Lord but because God’s immense love he is happy to use even our weakness to serve Him. In this point Fr Tadros Malaty makes a great correlation between repentance and Love:
“The Lord did not ask him [St Peter] about his repentance for having denied Him three times. He was satisfied to ask about Peters love for Him. Repentance is essentially the practice of loving God. This is what the Lord requires of every sincere repentant. This is why He praised the repentant adulterous woman. He told Simon the Pharisee: ‘…her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much,’ (Lk 7:47).”
This is again made clear in Jesus third question to Peter, rather then using the same word He used in the last two questions; that is ‘Agape’ He chose rather to come down to the level of St. Peter and asks him “do you want to be my friend?” To paraphrase Jesus words to Peter “If Agape is a big word for you now, it’s ok. I am willing to come down to whever you are spiritually and by My Grace I will lift you up.” Again in Peter’s case Jesus did not say “fair enough, go and work on your spirituality and when you are ready I will call you again” but rather called him to service a third time “feed My sheep.”
The other contemplation on this dialogue of love is that Jesus’ only prerequisite for his service was not teaching skills, writing abilities or certain characteristics in our personalities, the only condition Jesus gave was our love for Him, no matter how little this love is. God is able to work with whatever little we have. Consequently, Peter the uneducated fisherman converted five thousand men in one speech; he talked with authority to the chief priests.
This encounter of love with Christ had a lasting effect on the way that St Peter did his ministry. We can see this in his first epistle where he admonishes those who want to serve, to “above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins,” making the relationship between Love and forgiveness of sins. Then after you have that Love, you can serve by being “hospitable to one another”, or “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another” and when you speak “speak as the oracles of God” when you ministers, “do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Pe 4:8-11).