It may seem little more than a literary device designed by the evangelists to create atmosphere, that after his resurrection, Jesus usually appears at dawn or dusk, when the light plays tricks on our sight and we need to concentrate in order to see clearly. But far from being a literary device, this feature of the post-resurrection appearances is central to John’s understanding that seeing the risen Christ isn’t so much a matter of simple observation as a complex interplay of knowledge and faith, insight and love: more recognition than cognition. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in this account of Jesus’ third appearance, tagged on to the end of John as a kind of coda, when, just as the light begins to dawn, the disciples discern in the distance a familiar, but as yet unknown figure, calling to them from the shore of the sea of Tiberias.
The first clue to the point of this passage is that it’s “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who recognised Jesus and was able unequivocally to say, “It is the Lord!” That act of recognition, tantamount to a confession of faith, then provides the setting for Peter’s threefold profession of love, clearly and intentionally echoing his previous threefold denial of Jesus, in this extraordinary exchange between Jesus and Peter, which forms the climax of John’s entire gospel. Throughout his gospel, John has employed all manner of metaphor and symbolism, but now, it all falls away, as he ends his gospel with this heart rending encounter between Jesus and Peter. Sitting next to Simon Peter on the shingle shore of the lake, in the half light of dawn, Jesus asks him three times: “Simon Peter, do you love me?” Remember, this is the same man who only days earlier had saved his own skin by three times adamantly denying all knowledge of Jesus, let alone love for him. But what makes this dialogue even more extraordinary – and it’s concealed in the English translation – is the deliberate choice of words for “love”.
The first two times that Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape, the Christian-coined word for charity and good will. “Do you love me?” But when he asks him the third time, causing genuine distress to Peter, he uses the word for the personal love of friendship, philia. And it’s that word Peter repeats when, each time more insistently, he replies: “You know I love you”. What’s extraordinary is that Jesus is not, as it might appear, testing Peter. Rather, he’s seeking reassurance from him; specifically, seeking reassurance that his love for Peter, who had previously denied him, is reciprocated.
Jesus’ question amounts to this: “Do you still love me; are we still friends?” And Peter’s insistent reply amounts to: “How could I not love you?” What’s astonishing is that this is God seeking reassurance from Peter. Now, however trivialised that question, “Do you love me?” can sometimes be in popular culture, no question carries more weight or renders us more vulnerable. And yet here, Jesus, God made man, asks this question of Peter and if, as John clearly intends, we are all identified with Peter, both in his denial and in his profession of love, then this question is being asked and this reassurance is being sought of us, too.
That John makes this the climax and conclusion of his whole gospel leaves us in no doubt that this what the Good News of our salvation, the Gospel, turns on. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the incarnation of the Son of God, the point of Christianity and the existence of the Church, the sacraments, the life of grace, all turn on that one question: and it’s a question nobody can answer for us. But what is it to love God? Is it a matter of the will or the heart? How like and unlike the love we experience among ourselves, is it? And how do we know whether or not we do genuinely love God?
It’s sometimes been thought that love for God on the part of human beings is impossible, because we’re incapable of loving without hoping for something in return and all such motives sully love. Only God can love perfectly. Our response can only be faith and commitment to duty. This impossibly austere view is difficult if not impossible to reconcile with the outpouring of intense emotion of saints such as St Francis of Assisi, St John of the Cross and St Therese of Lisieux. Their whole lives were suffused with love for God: they wept and laughed and danced for love of him.
But to think of loving God as a determined act of will, a doggedly grim duty, misses the indispensable role of attraction and desire in everything human. We’re constituted the kind of creatures we are by desire: we’re moved to act always with an end in view, something towards which we’re drawn and attracted. The will is our capacity to be attracted to and by the good. And God entered into our world as a human being precisely so that we could relate to him as human beings: he draws us to himself, in other words, by attracting us. We love God because he’s is loveable, infinitely loveable, and because we see in him what we desire most. To love God is first and foremost to desire him and to want the perfect, lasting happiness for which every human heart longs and which can be had only in him.
Every experience of desiring is an echo, sometimes faint, at other times overpowering, of that one desire at the very core of our being, the desire for God, that makes us the kind of creatures we are. God and the happiness which is to be found in him alone is what we’re made for: and nothing else, nothing else, will satisfy us. God made us that way and, as the great St Augustine so memorably said: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.” Or, as the Dominican, Simon Tugwell, once said, less majestically, but no less memorably, we human beings are made for God as eggs (with apologies to vegetarians) are made for bacon.