Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

1 May 2022

Dear Friends

The last time we read about St Peter near at a charcoal fire was on Good Friday at the trial of Our Lord. On that occasion it was dark and cold. St Peter hoped to warm his hands at the fire. Before he knew it, on three occasions, he denied knowing Our Lord. In today’s Gospel, at a different charcoal fire, Our Lord asked St Peter: “do you love me?” The question was repeated three times, as many times as St Peter denied Our Lord.

In Greek, the language of the New Testament, there is more to consider in this exchange. Greek has four words to describe different types of love. Agape describes unconditional love. It is most often used in the Scripture to describe the Love God has for us. Phileo, on the other hand, is used to describe the love that exists between friends and family. In the Gospel today, St John uses these two words in the dialogue between Our Lord and St Peter to show something deeper than a reparation for the latter’s denial. “Do you agape me?” said Our Lord. “Yes Lord, I phileo you.” said St Peter.

Perhaps the charcoal fire reminded St Peter of his denial and the promise he made only a day earlier saying, “even if all fall away on account of You, I never will” (Mtt 26:33). And this was not the first time St Peter promised unconditional love: “I am ready to go with You even to prison and to death” (Lk 22:33); and, “Lord, why can’t I follow You now? I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37). Whatever the reason, St Peter seems circumspect, reluctant to promise to love Jesus with a love that knows know limits while the charcoal fire reminds him of his denial. This same dynamic took place a again when “Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love [agape] Me?” “Yes, Lord,” he answered, “You know I love [phileo] You”. Then on the third asking of the question Our Lord said this: “Simon son of John, do you love [phileo] Me?…Lord, You know all things,” he replied. “You know I love [phileo] You.”

What are we to make of this dialogue? The first two forms of the question recall all the times St Peter promised to love the Lord with an agape love. The fire reminds St Peter of his failure to love this way. By using “phileo” in the third asking of the question Our Lord affirms Peter’s response is true. It is also true love – “phileo”. What will Our Lord do with this love? He commands Peter to care for the flock that is the Church.

The first reading today transports us forward in time. We read of St Peter fearlessly preaching the Gospel and risking his life for the Lord – this seems to be the love that is agape? It is as if Our Lord has done to St Peter what he did with the loaves and fishes he once received to feed 5000. He receives what is offered, insufficient for the task. He blesses, breaks, and transforms by His grace.

We can think of the many brides and grooms who, when they exchange vows, promise the world to each other only to find themselves a few years later struggling to love. The same is true for us priests who at our ordination promise to serve the Lord without reserve and then struggle. Like St Peter we experience the limitations of our faculties – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41).

Our Lord desires to transform us also. Like St Peter, our failures reveal our need for God who desires to save us from ourselves. Our weak and insufficient love, our stumbling good will, He receives, blesses, breaks on the cross that is our vocation, and transforms.

Let us not be weighed down by our sinfulness or any failed efforts to do good. Instead, we offer ourselves to God in the confessional and receive Him who offers himself to us from the altar.