Easter 3, Year C
Reaffirmations of Baptism
April 18, 2010
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20); John 21:1-19
‘Coming to our senses’
Today’s Gospel calls to my mind two songs. ‘What is love?’ by Howard Jones (1983) – “What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?” And ‘Do you love me?’ by Nick Cave (1993) – “Do you love me? Like I love you?” The first is a song of romantic bewilderment, the second a desperate and threatening song. The Gospel tone is neither of bewilderment nor despair. “Simon, ben-John, do you love me?” “You know everything, Rabbi. You know that I am your friend.” Famously, this text from John 21 makes use of two different Greek words for “love”: agape or unconditional love, and phileo or friendship. Our Inclusive Bible translation makes that plain. What will we make of it today?
There is a long tradition of interpreting the words in hierarchical fashion – agape as superior to phileo (with eros, desire, often a distant third). But there’s also, and increasingly of late, strong criticism of this. Might there be different aspects to love, and might these be understood in a fashion other than hierarchical? Might not agape and phileo (and eros) belong together? Is it not the case that we learn unconditional love as we learn to be friends? The tone of today’s Gospel is personal, earthy. Peter is being called to a friendship he has professed – and betrayed.
When Jesus says, “Simon ben-John, do you love me?”, Simon Peter hears the call to friendship: “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.” Jesus asks three times – and the third time confirms the love that Peter, from the bottom of his heart, is responding to: “Simon ben-John, do you love me as a friend would?” “You know everything, Rabbi. You know that I am your friend.”
Interwoven with this question-and-answer Jesus charges Peter with pastoral responsibilities: “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, “Feed my sheep”. That is, share with others what you have learned of loving friendship – what you have learned about yourself as a friend to others – what you have learned about genuine selfhood: the friend you can become, the friend you have become now that you’ve left behind game-playing fantasy and bravado. Leave all that, the Saviour says. “Follow me.”
The personal tone of the Gospel speaks not of bewilderment or despair, but of vocation – hearing one’s name in the Spirit of Love – hearing one’s name in the Spirit of unconditional love and friendship. And vocation is about saving one’s soul. It’s a coming to one’s senses. Coming home. It may be dreadful, awe-full, but anything else would be worse – an invention, a game. Peter, today, is in the truth. As is Saul, called to a dreadful and awe-full realization about the One he persecutes: the One he persecutes (with self-righteous and religious fervour) is the Only Begotten of God who calls him by a new name, Paul; who calls him (his sense of sight restored) to his senses as a friend to martyrs and Gentiles; who calls him home to inner-strength and peace.
Peter, today, is in the truth. As is Paul. As is Julie. As is Melissa. As is Miriam.
A story. Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel was the greatest rabbi of his age in Europe, the man who, in his house in Prague, created the Golem, the animated form of a human, to which he have life by putting under its tongue a slip of paper bearing the unutterable name of God. One night, Rabbi Yehuda had a dream: he dreamed that he had died and was brought before the throne. And the angel who stands before the throne said to him, “Who are you?” “I am Rabbi Yehuda of Prague, the maker of the Golem,” he replied. “Tell me, my lord, if my name is written in the book of the names of those who will have a share in the kingdom.” “Wait here,” said the angel. “I shall read the names of all those who have died today that are written in the book.” And he read the names, thousands of them, strange names to the ears of Rabbi Yehuda; as the angel read, the rabbi saw the spirits of those whose names had been called fly into the glory that sat above the throne.
At last he finished reading, and Rabbi Yehuda’s name had not been called, and he wept bitterly and cried out against the angel. The angel said, “I have called your name.” Rabbi Yehuda said, “I did not hear it.” And the angel said, “In the book are written the names of all souls who have ever lived on the earth, for every soul is an inheritor of the kingdom. But many come here who have never heard their true names on the lips of human or angel. They have lived believing that they know their names; and so when they are called to their share in the kingdom, they do not hear their names as their own. They do not recogise that it is for them that the gates of the kingdom are opened. So they must wait here until they hear their names and know them. Perhaps in their lifetime one person has once called them by their right name: here they shall stay until they have remembered. Perhaps no one has ever called them by their right name: here they shall stay till they are silent enough to hear the God of the Universe Godself calling them.”
At this, Rabbi Yehuda woke and, rising from his bed with tears, he covered his head and lay prostrate on the ground, and prayed, “God of the Universe! Grant me once before I die to hear my own true name on the lips of my friends.”
Let us wait/meet in the Silence of God, the One in whom your solitude and mine, your truth and mine, are at home …
Story from Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness, Cowley, Lanham, 1995.