"Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" Jesus wasn't repeating himself with the redundancy of an impatient child or the desperation of an insecure friend. He was having an important one-on-one with the man he said would build his church -- a man who denied knowing Jesus when the heat was on. Jesus was restoring their relationship and reinstating Peter to the mission for which he called him in the first place.
To understand this conversation in John 21:13-15, we have to look into some of the original language. That means I'm going to dive into a little Greek.
[Insert collective eye roll.]
The English language doesn't do this story any good at all. After all, we use the same word "love" for pizza, football, our family, God, and snow cones. Scripture highlights three distinct kinds of love: "Eros" (erotic love or desire), "Phileo" (affections or feelings for another; impulsive and brotherly), and "Agapeo" (the kind of love that comes from God. Agapeo (Agape from here on out), is THE characteristic word of the Christian faith. This kind of love is not impulsive, feelings-based, conditional on return, or naturally induced. It comes from God, and is perfect. It is the kind of love God has for us; it is also the kind of love God wants from us.
Here's why this is important: Jesus was asking Peter about AGAPE love, and kept answering with PHILEO. Peter couldn't quite commit to this higher love. It's a bit like the guy who musters up enough courage to finally say to his girl, "I love you" only to have her respond, "Oh, I like you a lot, too."
And Peter knew it hurt when Jesus rephrased his question the third time: Peter, do you love me like a BROTHER? Jesus made it personal. "Phileo" love is fickle, dependent upon feelings and circumstances. It has its limits and contingencies built in. It's dependent upon mutuality -- if it's not returned, it stops. It's the best attempt at love this world has to offer. And it's unsatisfying and disappointing. Jesus was working at repairing this broken friendship.
But there was something else going on here, too. Three times, Jesus instructed Peter to take care of his people. "Do you love me? Then take care of my people." If we love (agape) Jesus, we will take care of his church.
He's not talking about a selfish, conditional, flaky, feelings-based kind of love. He wants to know if the LOVE of GOD is in us. He's not interested in the affection for one another that gives us good vibes and makes us feel good all the time, but he wants in us the love that comes from God and IS good and DOES good -- in spite of how we feel.
It's the kind of love God gives us himself.
The AGAPE love from God is the only kind of love that can move us beyond how we feel about people. Eros can't do that; phileo can't do that. Both are conditional. Agape love transforms us. How else is it possible to love each other in spite of our differences? How else is it possible to turn the other cheek? How else is it possible to find the strength to help someone after weeks of long and exhausting days? How else is it possible to forgive those who have wronged us? How else is it possible to love our enemies?
Living the live he's called us to is impossible without the love of God in us.
"Do you love me?" How we answer that question impacts everything.