In today's readings we move from the glorious acclamation of all created beings crying out, "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever" (Rev 5:12), to a somewhat vexing conversation between the resurrected Lord and St. Peter that took place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the two met for the first time at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. In other words, from one reading to the other we move from the transcendent to the immanent, from the eternal to the existential, we might even say, in a sense, we move from from the abstract to the concrete.
Jesus asking Peter three times if he (Peter) loved him (the Lord) is meant to automatically refer us back to the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus as Christ's passion started to grow intense. Without a doubt, the Lord offered Peter the chance to repent by expressing his contrition for his three-fold denial. While Peter does not let the opportunity pass him by (we know he is sorry for his denials), if we pay close attention to this part of their dialogue, we see that Peter did not yet fully repent, his life was not yet completely turned around and oriented towards the reign of God.
In St. John's narrative the first two times the Lord asked Peter if he loved him he used the Greek word agapas, which is a form of the word agápe. While Peter responded affirmatively to both queries, it seems he was holding something back, which holding back is indicated by his use of the word philéo each of the three times he responded. It is the properly conjugated form of the Greek verb philía. On this basis one might argue that the love Peter expressed fell short of the love for which Jesus asked.
Philía is the love of friendship, or brotherly love. Because it begins with the root philía, Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love. It is a strong love, far stronger than the English word "like." Agápe, which, of the four Koine Greek words for love, each describing a different dimension of love (it is after all a many splendored thing), was rarely used in antiquity, that is, at the time the New Testament was being written. It was because it was a word without a lot of baggae that Christian writers adopted it to describe "love grounded in and shaped by faith" (Deus caritas est par 7). So, the contrast between philía and agápe in our Gospel reading for today is perhaps best understood as the difference between an all-too-human love with all of its limitations and conditions, which still puts self first, and divine love, which is boundless, condition-less and selfless, even unto death.
The third time Jesus asked Peter the only question that really matters, he switched to the word phileis, which is the correct form of the verb philía, the word with which Peter responded the first two times. I believe this shows how tenderly Christ looked on Peter. His response to Peter was patient, kind, and gentle. Because he is perfect, the Lord did not seek to coerce Peter into professing a love he did not yet feel, or possess, and perhaps didn't yet fully grasp. Even if Christ succeeded in convincing Peter to utter the word he longed to hear, it would've been just that- a word, one that did not correspond to the apostle's heart.
Our reading from Acts provides us with a concrete display, not of defiance of worldly power, but of agápe, of love that is fearless: "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). The fearlessness with which, as Christians, we are to love is not borne from our ability to inflict damage, or physically defend ourselves, or even to always win the argument. We are to be fearless because Christ conquered death and, through the waters of baptism, has delivered us into the promised land. This is why our Psalm-response today is: "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me." Note that we did not sing- "you will rescue me." Christ's rescue mission is accomplished. Living in the light of that fact is how we love the Lord the way we should.
What I think our Gospel reading clearly seeks to communicate is that even after encountering our resurrected Lord for the third time, Peter's love for Christ was not yet perfect. Like the Lord himself (Heb 2:10), Peter's love needed to be perfected through suffering. Hence the words Christ spoke to Peter to end their conversation:
"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me" (John 21:18-19)More than anything else Peter had witnessed, including the resurrection, what perfected the Prince of Apostles in love was suffering. His ultimate witness, which in Greek is martyria, was his own crucifixion in Rome. I think we can take Peter's request to be crucified upside down, a request he made because he did not deem himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord, as his perfect response to Jesus' question "Do you love me?" where love is agápe.
My dear friends, to be holy means nothing other than to love perfectly. Experience, the circumstances in which you find yourself all day every day, is how the Lord seeks to perfect you in love. This is the pattern of Christian life, this is what Jesus meant when he said, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:23-24).