Embracing Our Imperfection

April 12th, 2007 • Category: Gospel of John
by Pastor Jeff

Today’s scripture: John 21:15-19 (NRSV) (The Message)

As you read, consider: What might God be saying to me? Summarize your thoughts in a sentence or two.

My thoughts (Jeff Miner):

Today’s Scripture passage is an excellent example of how meaning can be lost in translation. What we are reading in English was originally written in ancient Greek. In ancient Greek, there were several different words for “love” — two of which are used in today’s passage.

“Phileo” refers to the kind of love we have for our good friends. It roughly corresponds to how we might feel when we say, “I’m very fond of you.” It is the root word from which we get Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.

“Agape” is a word that was rarely used in ancient Greek until Christians grabbed on to it and infused it with a whole new level of meaning. In the New Testament, “agape” is used to describe perfect love — the way God loves us — sacrificial love.

With this as background, let’s revisit the dialogue in today’s reading. In verse 15, Jesus says, “Simon son of John, do you ‘agape’ me?” In other words, “Do you love me with a love so great you would sacrifice for me?” Remember, just a few days earlier, Simon Peter had denied ever knowing Jesus, so as to save his own neck. Given that, Peter surely knew it would be hypocritical to claim now to be willing to sacrifice for Jesus.

So Peter responds evasively. He says, “Lord, you know that I ‘phileo’ you.” Undeterred, Jesus asks the same question again in verse 16, still using the word “agape.” Peter responds a second time with “phileo.” So, finally, in verse 17, Jesus changes his question. This time Jesus says, “Simon son of John, do you ‘phileo’ me?” This time Peter seems to break down. My paraphrase of Peter’s final response, in verse 17, is as follows:

Lord, you know everything. You know that I can’t claim to love you enough to sacrifice for you. I proved that just a few days ago. But you also know that, although my feelings for you have not yet have reached the “agape” level, I do love you deeply.

This seems to be the point of honest self-awareness Jesus hoped to push Peter to. The questioning stops, and Jesus simply says, “Then feed my sheep.” It is as if Jesus is saying:

Even though your love for me is imperfect, I still want and need you. I want you to take a leading role in feeding my sheep. So stop wallowing in guilt, get back on your feet, dust yourself off, and get back in the game!

Peter must have felt enormous relief. Jesus had looked right through him, saw his imperfection, and still wanted him anyway. The application to us is obvious. Many times have we behaved in a way that, in effect, denied Jesus. Consumed by guilt, we slump into spiritual despair.

Stop it! Maybe your imperfection is news to you, but it’s not to God. The glorious message of today’s Scripture is that God wants us, loves us, and can use us in spite of ourselves.

When Peter stopped being paralyzed by imperfection, he seems to have finally freed himself to grow to the point where he was actually able to reach a place of genuine sacrificial love for Jesus. According to Christians tradition, Peter would eventually be crucified upside down by the Romans because he refused to deny Jesus. Think about it! He who denied ever knowing Jesus at the time of the crucifixion ends up himself being crucified decades later because he refused to deny knowing Jesus.

Step by step, patiently, slowly over time, by engaging his pain rather than running from it, by accepting God’s forgiveness, by being patient with himself, Peter was able to become like Jesus, living the “agape” he had so lavishly received. But achieving that took time.

Thought for the day: Like Peter, we are on a halting journey of spiritual progress. Sometimes it seems like one step forward, two steps backward. But God doesn’t give up on us, so we must not give up on ourselves.

We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the guidelines on the How to Pray page.

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