Many people who start their journey with Jesus do so with joy and excitement, but then the ‘hard’ starts. For some it is so hard (i.e., both life and His teaching) that they no longer walk with Him, (see John 6:66). Others begin to feel unworthy so they respond by trying to gut it out, resorting to legalism (i.e., doing the Christian life in their own strength, aka Behavioral Christianity), or fake it, resorting to the classic hypocrisy. (Their audience becomes the church; this is why there are a lot of ‘them’ there.)
But there is a third group. This third group knows they cannot gut it out, and they definitely will not fake it. I call these the danglers. They are caught between the “is” and the “ought”— suspended between the reality of what “is” what they “ought” to be. They hang suspended because they have a healthy and honest sense of their inability to live the Christian Life in their own strength, but haven’t, as yet, come to the Life Jesus offers. Though they still continue their walk with Jesus, they have a hidden hope that somehow, somewhere, and at sometime Truth will break through and they will truly live “the yoke is easy and burden is light” Life Jesus’ promised.
To me, at the first, the apostle Peter appears to be a dangler. He has an honest and healthy sense of who is, especially in light of his later hat trick of denials. This honest assessment is first observed at his first encountered with Jesus just after the “big catch”. In Luke 5:8, Simon keenly observes, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” But in His Grace, Jesus sees someone Simon has yet to see: “Peter, the rock”. So Simon Peter begins his walk with Jesus.
Much later, after the resurrection, Peter takes yet another walk with Jesus, and again, we can sense the humility as Peter gets up from the fire and walks side by side with the Master along the beach. Here we come to a very familiar exchanged between Jesus and this Simon, now called Peter: “Do you Love Me?”
Much ado is made over the two different Greek words for love in this passage, and rightfully so. The first two Loves’ Jesus says are agapao, the high, sacrificial, selfless, other-serving Love. In response to these two questions of Jesus, Simon Peter uses phileo, the friendship, warm, loyal, deeply invested love. It is at this point many begin to take a rather sad view of phileo love. As C.S. Lewis notes in his book, The Four Loves, “… very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all…. To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” Some have so discounted Peter’s phileo love comment to Jesus, it is as if they make Jesus say, “Peter, since you only phileo Me, you cannot service Me; Come back when you agapao Love Me, and I will then reconsider your loyal service.”
Aren’t you glad our Lord didn’t say this to Peter? Instead, Jesus says, (my paraphrase) “Good for you, Peter. You phileo Me. This is a good place to start your service. And until you grow to agapao me, feed my lambs and take care of my sheep” (cf. John 21:17).
But we know that Peter doesn’t quite see this (even as perhaps some of us do not). Because in the third exchange, Jesus does use the word, phileo, as if to say, “Do you even phileo Me, Peter?” Do you agree with me that our Good Shepherd wasn’t chastising Peter for a having a ‘small love,’ but rather was getting a baseline from which to measure Peter’s growth in Love? I think this because of the prophecy of Peter’s Life seems to indicate that one day Peter will agapao Jesus (see John 21:17-19).
Yes, in the beginning, we may “only” phileo the Lord. We have a strong loyalty and deep affection for Him. We yearn to be with Him, His People, and together we hear His voice and feast on His Words. Ah, but to lay down our Life for Him, well, maybe….
Yet, as with Peter, we will (and do) grow into that agapao Love, where one day we, too, may lay down our Life for the Good Shepherd. Did you notice? Growing in our Love on our walk with Jesus starts where we are. Jesus took a walk with Peter to confirm his ‘baseline-love,’ and he wants to continue His walk with each of us and monitor our Love-growth, as well.