Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 21:15-25) transports me back a dozen years or so to the stage of Owen Theatre, where SART is presenting a 25th anniversary show of Fiddler on the Roof, with Earl Leininger reprising his classic role as Tevye and Ida Ginn playing his wife, Golde. So many of the songs stick in my mind from this musical – If I Were a Rich Man, Sunrise Sunset, Matchmaker, but my favorite song, and my favorite scene, is where Tevye tells Golde he’s given Perchik permission to become engaged to their daughter, Hodel. She responds with incredulity – What? He’s poor! He has nothing, absolutely nothing! And Tevye explains that he likes the boy, and what’s more, Hodel loves him. It’s a new world, Love. Golde. . . And the music begins with Tevye singing to his wife – Do you love me? (Golde) Do I what? (Tevye) Do you love me? (Golde) Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you’re worn out, go inside, go lie down! Maybe it’s indigestion. (Tevye) Golde I’m asking you a question… Do you love me? (Golde) You’re a fool. (Tevye) I know… But do you love me? (Golde) Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow, after twenty-five years, why talk about love right now? (Tevye) Golde, The first time I met you was on our wedding day, I was scared. (Golde) I was shy. (Tevye) I was nervous. (Golde) So was I. (Tevye) But my father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other, and now I’m asking, Golde, do you love me? (Golde) I’m your wife. (Tevye) I know… But do you love me? (Golde) Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought him, starved with him, twenty-five years my bed is his, if that’s not love, what is? (Tevye) Then you love me? (Golde) I suppose I do. (Tevye) And I suppose I love you too. (Both) It doesn’t change a thing but even so, after twenty-five years it’s nice to know.
Jesus seems to have had a Tevye moment with his disciple Peter here in the final scene of the book of John. Three times he asks Peter, Do you love me? and doesn’t get a satisfactory answer. The dialogue gets lost in translation, as the Greek uses two different words for love. Jesus asks Peter the first and the second time, do you love (agape) me? (Agape is the kind of sacrificial love Jesus demonstrated.) And Peter answers, Lord, you know I love (phileo) you. And then Jesus switches gears the third time and asks, So, Peter, you love (phileo) me? And Peter says again, yes, Lord, I love (phileo) you. Each of the questions and responses ends with the same command from the Lord – feed my sheep. Do the work. I can imagine how Golde would have interpreted that command to take care of the lambs – washing clothes, cooking, bearing and raising children, living together, fighting and struggling and sharing a bed. It’s the work of relationship. For Jesus, I wonder if he had a dream that Peter would be able to base this work of feeding the sheep, forming relationships with a community of faith, on the idealistic presence of agape love, the kind of sacrificial love that cost him his life on the cross. If he had such a dream, Peter dashed it, learning the hard lessons of the limits of his love from his denials. All he could honestly claim was phileo – an attraction. It’s the Greek word that forms some of our English words – philosophy (an affinity for wisdom), philanthropy (a benevolent endearment for humanity), and it even applies to some negative words, necrophilia (a morbid attraction to corpses) and pedophilia (a sexual attraction to children). So what exactly was Peter claiming here? An attraction to Jesus. An affinity for Christ. A benevolent endearment toward the Savior. But that’s as far as it went.
Peter’s honest response to Jesus, and Jesus willingness to trust the work of building the community of faith and tending to the relationships of that community to Peter and his limited love, reminds me of another theatrical performance, this time on the big screen. Jack Nicholson is playing the obsessive compulsive character Melvin, going to see his psychiatrist. As he walks through the doctor’s crowded waiting room, he addresses the waiting patients and ask, What if this is as good as it gets? After far more than 25 years of humanity’s relationship with Jesus, more like 2,000 years, what if feeding the sheep on the basis of an endeared attraction to Jesus is as good as it gets? The church, to be honest, is not filled with sacrificial agape love. Every once in a blue moon a Saint Francis stumbles along, but not many of us really want to live the itinerant homeless life of Jesus, trusting ourselves to the care of our surrounding community as we cradle the suffering poor in our arms. But, as the song says, there is a wondrous attraction to that old rugged cross, an attraction to that dearest and best savior who was slain for a world of lost sinners. And miracle of miracles, like Jack Nicholson’s Melvin learning to care for Helen Hunt’s Carol, we learn to do the work of love. Like Tevye and Golde, we learn to be in love. Like Peter, we learn to feed the sheep. There’s a lot of struggle and fighting along the way, but after 2,000 years, it is nice to know that we at least love (phileo) one another.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.