Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Agape Love

By the time John writes his gospel the word agape has been developed by the NT authors to best describe the love of God. Unlike the other love’s His is rooted in His own nature. It is self-giving and sometimes described as the love of choice. In other words God’s love is not motivated by what is in us but by what is in Him. He is Love – 1John 4.8. To be born again means we too share in the Divine nature. We too have the possibility to love as He does. John goes so far as to say that this is proof that we are truly born of God, 1John 4.7.

But John also indicates that God’s love – agape love is something we grow into. And he does this not by giving us principles or theology but by telling a story. It is none other than the epilogue to his gospel, a gospel that is in many ways complete with 20 chapters. But as is common to John he includes details not found in any of the other gospel writers. Unlike the synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke), John’s gospel is more reflective. He is less concerned with what Jesus did and more concerned to show who Jesus was. Nowhere is this more profound than in chapter 21 of his gospel.

It has an interesting beginning. Jesus has already appeared to His disciples on two occasions. Once on the day of His resurrection where He commissioned and breathed on them to receive the Spirit, John 20.21-23 – a prophetic act foreshadowing the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. The second time He appeared about 8 days later where he confronts Thomas for his unbelief. And here John’s gospel reaches its climax with the declaration of Thomas, “My Lord and my God” and Jesus response, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”, John 20.28-29. The goal of John writing is to get people to believe in who Jesus is – even if they have never met Him!

But now we come to this quirky chapter 21. I call it quirky because despite these two appearances of Jesus, Peter goes back to his old trade and six of the other disciples’ follow him. They fish all night and catch nothing. How annoying! The word ‘nothing’ carries special significance in John. They are told by Jesus Himself that without Him they can do nothing, John 15.5; nothing of value, nothing of significance and nothing that will last. The book opens with a declaration, “All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made”, John 1.3. No part of creation came into being without receiving His touch. It exists because of Him. And so do we!

And into this scene where they have nothing walks Jesus – but they don’t recognise Him, John 21.4. His first question is, “Children, do you have any food?” But they have nothing! So He tells them to cast the net on the right side with the promise that they will find some. They gain a great catch and John declares to Peter, “It is the Lord”, Jon 21.7. At which point Peter swims to shore to be with Jesus while the others bring in the catch. Now here is the interesting thing. Jesus has prepared a fire and already laid out fish and bread. He didn’t need there fish – He had his own! When all has been brought to shore He gives an invitation, “Come and eat breakfast”. That’s quirky.

This is the third time Jesus appears to his disciples. And He appears in the most ordinary way doing the most ordinary thing – making breakfast. The miraculous is not absent from the story. They catch a huge number of fish, all by following His instructions. It harks back to the first time Peter met Jesus in Luke 5.1-11. There was a miracle catch there too, but on that occasion the nets began to break. The response from Peter is telling of the conviction that came over him, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord”, Luke 5.8. Now instead of wanting Jesus to depart, Peter dives into the water to be the first to be with Him. It says something about his heart.

It is interesting the word for ‘mending’ nets used in Luke is found is several places. It is the Greek word Katartizo meaning, mend, restore or equip. We find it in Gal 6.1 for restoring fallen saints. We see it Eph 4.11 for training believers in maturity and discipleship. The inference is that Jesus takes us through a process that keeps our ‘nets’ intact. Despite the great catch of John 21, the nets did not break. The whole episode can be seen as the way Jesus is going to mend this disciple. The process will bring him to a place of restoration. Fit for service, able to take the strain of ministry – catching men.

The command of scripture is for us to love God with all our heart, mind and strength; with our whole being. Yet few of us truly know what that means. Like Peter, we can boast of being further in the journey than we really are. Then reality hits and we are less sure. We fail and we must face our humanity and lack of true self knowledge. It’s a sobering time. Yet so much of Peter’s journey was punctuated with incidents where he thought he could do more.

In Matt 14.22-31 we have the story of Jesus walking on the water. At the command of Jesus Peter joins him. He is doing so well. He is the only one who dares to ask, who dares to get out of the boat. But then he notices the wind and the waves and his mind takes over. Faith shrinks and he sinks. Yet Jesus responds to his cry for help and saves him with a mild rebuke – “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt” Matt 14.31. He does great and then blows it. But he doesn’t stop trying.

In Matt 16.13-20 we have the famous declaration of Peter about Jesus. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Peter is hearing from Heaven, according to Jesus. Men could not have told him this. Further, he is given the keys to the Kingdom. Imagine how important he must have felt. Important enough to rebuke Jesus a few verses later when He begins to tell about His impending death in Jerusalem. And now the one who hears from heaven tells Jesus this is never going to happen. At this point we hear one of the sternest rebukes in scripture, “Get behind Me satan, you are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God but the things of men”, Matt 16.23. In a few moments we see him go from receiving high praise to stern rebuke; from hearing from Heaven to hearing from hell.

In Matt 17.1-9 we have the transfiguration story. It all begins with Jesus inviting Peter, James and John to a prayer meeting, (Luke 9.28-29 adds this detail), but it’s up a mountain. By the time they get to the top the disciples are exhausted and fall asleep. In the mean time Jesus is transfigured so that His garment glistens as white as the sun and Moses and Elijah appear to him and talk about His impending suffering – the very thing they had anticipated in their lifetime. Peter wakes up and says the first thing that comes into his head, "Lord it is good for us to be here; if you wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah", Matt 17.4-5. While he is still speaking Heaven speaks from a bright cloud that overshadows them. "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" Peter's great idea adds nothing to the purpose of God. It's irrelevant. God in effect says, "Shut up and listen to My Son. I delight in Him!"

In Matt 17.24-27 we have the story of paying the temple tax. Peter comes under fire from the temple tax collectors who want to know if Jesus pays it. This is not part of the giving required in the Old Testament. True to form Peter says, “Yes” without thinking – and he didn’t ask Jesus! When he comes into the house, Jesus asks a question about who Kings expect to pay taxes, their sons or strangers. The answer is obvious and Jesus makes His point. But then He sends Peter on a little fishing expedition. It is an astonishing story. A coin in the first fish he catches pays the tax for him and Jesus. Imagine the embarrassment. A professional fisherman sent to fish with a line instead of a net. Imagine someone asking him what he is doing – “Paying taxes for me and Jesus!” Jumping in with his mouth first and now having to collect the money from a fish to pay the tax! Jesus must have had a smile on His face when He told him to do that! My point is that time and time again Peter jumps in – mouth first.

In Matt 18.21-22 we have Peter’s question in response to Jesus’ teaching about how we are to handle personal offences. "How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" There’s a nice Biblical number. But again Jesus challenges the framework he is thinking in – "I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven". Total and complete forgiveness is what is required – no limits! On top of all this in Matt 26.40 Peter falls asleep instead of watching with Jesus. Jesus speaks directly to him, “What? Could you not watch with me one hour? Clearly he expected more. Clearly Peter thought he had more to give. Over and over we see him starting well and then triping over his own feet.

Fianlly we come to Peter’s denial of Jesus. When the test comes, he buckles. But John shows us that in an extraordinary interaction over a simple breakfast something profound will happen to Peter. He is still conscious of his threefold denial, Matt 26.75, a denial that took place despite protests on his part of undying loyalty, Matt 26.33-35. And here in this quite mundane and ordinary moment Jesus asks the question, that for Him is the real issue, “Do you love (agape) Me?” John 21.15. But the question is loaded. For Jesus chooses the word agape. The word best used to describe selfless love. Peter responds in the affirmative adding, “You know I (Phileo) love you”. It’s not that friendship love has not value. It does. It’s great. But it’s rooted in a common like or interest. God’s love goes further.

Despite Peter’s response Jesus says, “Feed My Lambs”. Peter’s call is reaffirmed. His failure is not a disqualification to ministry or serving Jesus. He is to care for the new believers – the lambs. But then the question comes again. And again Peter must answer. So he chooses the safe word Phileo again. For he knows Jesus knows his heart. There is no need to claim undying loyalty or boast beyond where he is. Again Jesus commissions him, “Tend my sheep”. But now Jesus asks the question again, only this time he uses Peter’s word, “Do you love (phileo) me?” At this Peter is grieved. Hearing his own words must have pierced him. No longer is he the one with all the answers, “Lord, you know all things...” It is not simply that Jesus knows Peter’s heart, He know all things!

Finally Peter is beginning to know what Jesus has known all along. His love for Jesus is incomplete, imperfect, not yet total – but wholehearted to the degree it can be at this part of his journey in life. And Jesus accepts his love. It’s enough. And for the third time He commissions him, “Feed my Sheep”. But then Jesus gives Peter a prophecy about his death. Why here? Why now? To die as a martyr for Jesus in the way Peter is recorded to have done requires great love. History says he was crucified upside down, not feeling worthy to be crucified in the same way Jesus was. In effect Jesus is giving Peter hope. Let me attempt to read between the lines and paraphrase.

Peter, you promised me loyal, undying love. A love that would let you die alongside me if required, even if others forsook Me. But your boast was empty. I knew it. I even told you before it happened. But now you know it too. You thought your love was bigger than it is. Now you know exactly where you are in your love for Me. You do love me – at a certain level. I’ll take that. It’s enough. I still believe in you. I still commission you. Keep following Me and one day you will die in way that will prove to all around your love is now mature, seasoned. It’s now agape love – God’s love worked into your life through years of humble following and obedience. Now here is all you have to do to get there. Follow Me.

What an amazing restoration. What an amazing promise. What amazing love? And yet Peter just can’t resist the temptation to say something else. Turning to John he asks Jesus, “What about this man?” You would have thought that by now he would have learned to shut up. I want to shout at the text, “Don’t say it, shut up, keep quiet man”. But he can’t help it. It’s where he is at! And Jesus graciously points him back to the real issue. Let me try another paraphrase: It’s none of your business what happens to John. That’s between Me and him. You follow Me. And in those last three words we have the real crunch of the passage. If we want to love Jesus more, if we want to be used more, then we have to keep following Him.

Often we are distracted with what God is doing in the life of someone else. It’s really none of our business. How God uses others is His business and theirs. Our responsibility is to follow Him. My prayer for us is that we will stay close to Jesus. When Peter betrayed Jesus the scripture records that he followed Him from a distance, Matt 26.58. Our following needs to be close. Don’t allow anything to hinder or come between that walk. Not the failings of others. Not even your own past failures. Learn from them. Appreciate where you truly are in the journey and move on. God was not surprised or taken off guard by Peter and He isn't by you either. Trust in the restoring power of the love (agape) of God to keep and transform you. Over time you will become what you truly desire – a wholehearted lover of God, 2Tim 3.1-3.