The words of the risen Jesus to his Apostles indicate two things. First, they describe the fact that the Eleven really did experience life with Jesus. They heard his words, saw his miracles, walked the roads of Israel with him. They witnessed all this firsthand and so could speak with conviction about events at which they were present. Peter, James, John and the others did not need to speculate or invent explanations about what had happened. As witnesses, they could simply say: “Yes, that is what took place, I saw it myself.”
But “you are witnesses” was not just a look into the past. Those words were also a commission for the future. Jesus is sending them to evangelize, to announce the world changing truth of the death and resurrection of their Master - as are we, at the end of every Mass. Many people could speak about the words and deeds of Jesus, and of his suffering and death, even if they were not in that inner circle of the Twelve. But above all else, the Apostles are witnesses of the Resurrection, a gift given only to a few. As I quoted Pope Benedict in my Easter remarks: “We do not simply remember that Jesus was; we rejoice that he is.”
We have not had the same experiences as the Apostles, but we too are called to be witnesses … disciples of Jesus who spend time with him in prayer and service; to observe what he is still doing in the world today in the lives of people; and to announce, by word and action, that he is indeed alive in our midst. Like the Eleven, our discipleship is most effective when it is not speculation or explanations; when we can say: “Yes, that is what is taking place, I see it myself.” Our First Communion celebrations give us a beautiful glimpse into the joyful presence of the Risen One who comes anew into the lives of those we love in our families and parishes.
Sounds simple enough; but even the Apostles stumbled along with the way of witness. Somewhat hidden in the translation of Sunday’s familiar Gospel is the gentle compassion of Jesus in asking Peter: “Do you love me?” New Testament Greek used several different terms that are often translated into English as the single word “love.” Eros is the attraction to another based on enjoyment and pleasure. Eros asks: “what makes me feel good?” Philia is the affection we have for those we like, those close to us, those with whom we feel we are kindred spirits – the love that is friendship. Agape is the most perfect, selfless, and highest love, the love that is willing even to sacrifice one’s own advantage and convenience for the sake of another.
This is what we call charity.
So when Jesus asks Simon Peter: “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape – Simon, do you love with the kind of selfless love I showed on the Cross?” Simon Peter answers:
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” – but uses the word philein. In simplified other words, he says: “You know that I like you a lot.” So Jesus repeats the question about agape, and he again responds with philia. The third time, Jesus himself changes the verb: “Simon, do you at least like me?” (Ministry & Life Perspectives Continued) Now Peter is hurt, St. John tells us … not only because of the three questions, but perhaps also because Jesus has revealed to him how fragile his witness really was. Peter is humbled to recognize his own weakness. But his mission does not change: “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus will empower Simon to witness to Christ’s love, and he can succeed precisely because he knows he cannot rely on his own strength, goodness, or wisdom. He becomes Peter, the Rock, only through Jesus. Jesus still humbles his best disciples, those who would witness to him. He accepts us as we are, but desires to lead us to be more like himself. Jesus humbles us, not to humiliate us, but to empower us; not to pull us down but to lift us up. We too become strong only when we are weak, as Paul too discovered.
You, dear reader, are also witnesses of these things. When it seems Jesus is asking too much for our frail faith, we can remember the compassionate condescension of Jesus … do you at least like me? Yes, Lord, you know that … help me come to love more fully as you do.
What will Jesus show you of himself this week, and how will you say: “Yes, that is what is taking place, I see it myself.”