How to Agape Love
The primary vocation of every person is to love, to strive for an agape love that extends beyond a philia love. The Catholic encyclical entitled Deus Caritas Est: God Is Love by Benedict XVI offers definitions for these different Greek words for “love.” According to Benedict, philia refers to “the love of friendship.” The more profound word for love, agape, refers to “love grounded in and shaped by faith.” Benedict calls agape love the “typically Christian” type of love. This type of love, this utter perfection of love, may seem illusory, overwhelming, unattainable; for this reason, God gives us another vocation, a secondary vocation, to guide our fulfillment of this primary vocation. This relationship between the primary and secondary vocations is made especially evident in the life of the disciple Peter.
The disciple Peter, like so many of us, struggles to differentiate between philia and agape love in the following passage from John:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep’ (Jn 21:15-17, NASB).”
Unfortunately, much of Peter’s conflict in differentiating between the two definitions of “love” is lost in the English translation that The New American Standard Bible provides. In order to recover this conflict, we must consider the original Greek text. According to Fr. Timothy Matkin in his article “Lost in Translation,” the original Greek text of the passage does, in fact, employ the two different Greek words for “love”: philia and agape.
The first time that Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” the word for love is agape. Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” using philia as the word for love. Jesus again asks using agape and Peter again responds using philia the second time. The third time that Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus changes his word for “love” to philia, which is the same word that Peter again responds with when he says, “Lord you know everything; you know that I love you.” The passage notes that Peter is “distressed” when Jesus questions him the third time. This distress arises, in part, due to the repetitive nature of Jesus’ questions. More significantly, though, Peter is distressed because Jesus has suddenly changed his word for “love,” making Peter aware that there is a distinction between philia love and agape love. Peter realizes that Jesus, verbally at least, lowers his standards, or at least meets Peter where he is at, a point at which he cannot yet verbally proclaim his agape love.
In helping him distinguish the two types of love, Jesus also foreshadows Peter’s secondary vocation, which is that of the priesthood. By asking Peter to tend and feed his sheep, Jesus hints that Peter’s role in the Church will be as the first priest, the first Pope, the shepherd of the sheep, God’s people. Jesus confirms Peter’s secondary vocation to the priesthood elsewhere in Scripture when he says:
“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).
Jesus’ asking Peter to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep” in response to Peter’s inability to verbally declare agape love for Jesus is not a random list of requests. Rather, the list of requests is Jesus’ attempt to bring Peter to declare agape love through obedience towards him and his commands: if he can’t say he agape loves Jesus, perhaps he can show he does through faithful devotion to his life-long work. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that obedience, specifically the keeping of God’s commandments, is God’s love language. Jesus says to his apostles, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). The original Greek text shows that the word for “love” in this verse is agape. Obedience, as God’s love language, is the way in which He best receives our love for Him, and therefore, is the way in which we should strive to express our love for Him. Reciprocally, obedience is also the way in which God communicates His love for us. Jesus says to his apostles, “If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:14).
Peter’s feeding and tending of Jesus’ sheep represents both Peter’s obedience to Jesus and Peter’s acknowledgement of his own secondary vocation. Considered together, these demonstrate Peter’s fulfillment of his primary vocation to agape love, even though he is incapable of verbalizing this fulfillment. According to Jesus’ statement, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves [agape] me,” Peter does indeed attain agape love (Jn 14:21). By acknowledging his secondary vocation to the priesthood through obedience towards Jesus’ requests, Peter also demonstrates an understanding that his secondary vocation offers guidance for, even a means to, achieving agape love.
Fulfilling our primary vocation to love, an endeavor so seemingly illusory, overwhelming, unattainable, becomes much more tangible, manageable, and attainable when we, like Peter, come to view our secondary vocations as means to fulfilling this primary vocation. Our respective secondary vocations are numerous and varied. Our secondary vocations might refer to our states in life, whether the priesthood, religious life, Holy Matrimony, or chaste single life. Our secondary vocations might also refer to our professional callings, whether in medicine, law, engineering, education, business, entertainment, or any other field. We can obey God, and thus love Him, therefore fulfilling our primary vocation, by objectively fulfilling our secondary vocations. Still, it helps that we are aware of, even if we do not fully understand, the centrality of love, agape love, in our lives and in our relationship with God. For it is out of love that God provides us with our secondary vocations, and it is for the (ultimate) purpose of love that we carry out our secondary vocations. Fulfilling the secondary vocations that God calls us to is also proof of a certain degree of obedience to God’s commandments for our lives. We should be mindful, always, that we carry out our particular secondary vocations not out of our own wanting or choosing, but rather because it is God’s will for our lives. When we keep this obedience and a yearning to love in our hearts and minds, the complexity of fulfilling our primary vocation to agape love decreases. With these two things in mind, we are prepared to love God and all of our neighbors, at which point we proceed to carry out our secondary vocations. We intend to obey, to love, and then we do whatever it is we are called to do. That is how we agape love.
1 Benedict XVI. Deus Caritas Est: God Is Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006. Print. P. 14-15.
2 Benedict XVI, p. 23.
3 Benedict XVI, p. 24.
4 The terms “primary” and “secondary” vocation come from Jones, Scott. A Ten-Lesson Study on Vocational Preparation. Christian Union, 2012. Print.
5 Matkin, Timothy. “Lost in Translation.” Forward In Christ Magazine, March 7, 2011. Web.
6 Matkin, “Lost in Translation.”
7 Due credit to Pastor Adam Mabry of Aletheia Church for pointing this out in Part 22 (Jn 14:16-16:7) of the sermon series That You May Believe on The Gospel of John.
Marina Spinelli ’18 is a life sciences concentrator living in Eliot House and a is a staff writer for the Ichthus.
Image credit: Claremont Design Team – The Claremont Ekklesia, Spring 2015.Tags: Benedict XVI, faith, God, language, love, obedience, Timothy Matkin, vocation