Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Phileo Kind of Love - Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

“Simon, do you love me?”

For us, the word “love” can mean many things: I can love the Cardinals, I can love a hamburger after Lent, I can love my mom—all the same word, but very different levels of intensity. Underneath the English translation of the text here, there is the Greek. And for the Greeks, this word, “love,” has many forms.

So, for example, Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” The Greek word for love here is “agape.” (pronounced ah-GAH-peh or AH-gah-peh). Agape is the highest kind of love; it’s a divine love; a love that is a total gift of self—a love even unto death. Agape. So, Peter: do you agape me—do you love me even unto death?

Peter responds by saying, “Lord, you know that I love you.”

But Peter doesn’t use the word agape. He uses another Greek word:“phileo"—from which we get Philadelphia—the City of Brotherly Love. So, what Peter is saying is,“Lord, I don’t love you unto death, but I do love you with a brotherly love.”

*          *          *

Admittedly, this sounds kind of sterile to us. That’s because “brotherly love” has been quite sterilized in our culture….

During this past week, for example, I went to Denver and spent several days with my brother. It was a great week and, at the end when we said our goodbyes at the airport, I gave my brother a hug and I told him that I loved him. But, as guys, it’s hard to do that with any deep vulnerable affection. After all, we’re Gerbers. We’re competitive. And, on top of it all, I was annoying when I was younger—and I still am. So, to cut through all of that and say “I love you” without qualification… well, that’s very difficult.  So the temptation is to do the “guy hug” (which is more of a double pat on the back) and to say “I love you……. man.”

And, even then, we feel the need to chop down a tree and reaffirm our masculinity somehow.

The term “Phileo” is not sterile like that. It’s from the Greeks—it’s amorous and affectionate. It denotes a kind of admiration and a longing to imitate. It’s excited to see the other—such that when Peter sees the Lord, Peter immediately jumps overboard to run to the one he phileos. There is deep friendship there.

And perhaps that’s another word that we Americans have made so sterile: that word, friendship. Friendship isn’t just knowing one’s status; it isn’t just an observation of what’s on the surface. True friendship involves a deep knowledge of the life and heart of another: their hopes, their struggles, their fears, their history, and so on. Friends really know each other—the good and the bad—and because of that, conversations are deeper and more honest, more accountable… but also more exciting, more energizing… there is an eagerness to be with the friend. This is phileo.

So, when Peter says that he loves Jesus with a brotherly love, phileo, he is saying: Jesus, you excite me, I know you, I want to imitate you, and I love you like that. So, it’s a pretty good love.

*          *          *

In my life, I can point to a particular moment when I knew what this word meant. It was on my priestly ordination morning. I was getting ready in the sacristy there at the Cathedral Basilica. A good friend of mine, Ray, was also getting ready—not to be ordained, but to be one of the altar servers. Now, Ray and I have known each other since high school. We’ve been through so much together—even a few years at the seminary. He knows all of my strengths and my weaknesses and I know his. We know each other’s histories and we know each other’s favorite one-liners—even being able to finish them before the other gets through. So when I saw him in the sacristy (and he’s 6’6”—or 5’18” as he likes to say)—when I saw him and knew we were sharing this moment and all that we had gone through… I threw myself into his arms and hugged him, told him this was all so beautiful, and I began to joyfully weep.

Yes, I can say that I love him.

And maybe that’s odd to hear: a man saying that he loves another man. As a society, we balk at such expression. On the one hand, it’s because we are part of a puritanical culture that does not allow for expressions of passion. Such expression is seen as messy and, let’s face it, effeminate. But, really, there is a good and quite beautiful masculine expression of affection and passion that we must discover as a culture. It is desperately needed because it is this deeper friendship that moves men to band together with their brothers and to fight together and for one another. And, let’s be serious: there’s a fight out there that needs the best fight we as men can give.

On the other hand, our culture balks at expressions of phileo, especially between men, because our culture has made everything sexual. “I love him” is immediately interpreted to have sexual overtones. In other words, Phileo is being radically replaced by eros. Eros is another Greek word for love; but from it we get the word “erotic.” In our culture, a man cannot say “I love him” without someone doing a double-take, thinking that there is something sexual there. That’s because in our over-sexualized culture, phileo is always being seen through the lens of eros. 

I cannot overstate the incredible damage this is doing to men and to teenagers especially.

For teenagers, the removal of phileo for eros results in much confusion. For example, in high school, a guy discovers another guy who is really interesting, inspiring, and so on. There is excitement and eagerness to see him. The guy is experiencing phileo. But the world is shoving eros at him. So he starts to wonder: Am I … gay?

For men, the loss of phileo is damaging because there deepens the distance and therefore the isolation between us. No one really knows another. When we hang out, we shoot the breeze, drink a beer, watch some tv or sports, and when questions like “So, how’s the family doing?” we simply respond, “Oh, you know, things are fine.” Even so-called accountability partners often fail to go deeper. We don’t want to go deeper because our culture says it's effeminate or it's sexual. Strangely, we are told that this kind of avoidance is the manly thing to do—but, really, it’s quite impotent.

*          *          *

Jesus, the man’s man, is asking Peter the deep, deep question: “Do you love me?”

There’s nothing sexual about it. Indeed, it is quintessentially masculine.

How so? Because tending the sheep is dependent upon the answer. Tending the sheep means fighting against the wolves. And if Peter doesn’t realize how much he loves Jesus—the passion, the affection—then Peter will never know the fight that is in him nor face the fight that is before him.

And so Jesus asks again: “Peter, do you love me?”

*          *          *

But phileo is not enough. Jesus is asking: Do you agape me?

Peter has already expressed that he loves Jesus as a friend, a good friend, a friend that excites him and inspires him to jump out of boats and so on. But, agape? No.

So, Peter responds a second time: “Lord, I phileo you.”

Strangely, Jesus asks for a third and final time: “Peter, do you love me?” But, with this final time, Jesus does not use the word agape. Rather, He uses the word phileo—“Peter, do you phileo me?” Why does Jesus ask differently this final time?

Because Jesus knows that Peter is still struggling to go deeper in his love. So, Jesus comes down to Peter’s level. This is why Peter is distressed by this third question; perhaps Peter is discouraged at his own weakness: “Lord, you know everything…. you know how much I struggle to love you more than that… Don’t you remember my three-fold denial? You know that the highest I can give is just phileo….”

Yes, Jesus knows. He knows that our hearts can be weak or even cold or mired in the eros. He knows that we struggle to love Him purely and perfectly and as much as we know we should.

But, nevertheless, He looks at Peter and says: someday, “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands…”—which means that Peter will one day be crucified—someday, Peter, you will love me with agape.

So, I know you struggle to love to the end, Peter. But someday you will. Someday, you won’t be afraid of the Cross and you won’t deny me, but you will have a perfect love, a love that will go to the Cross. Someday you will have agape.

Until then, Jesus tells him: “Follow me.”

This is our lesson: keep following me, says the Lord, and your love will be raised up. Keep following Jesus and He will purify and strengthen your love. You will know phileo. And then agape. For Him and for others.

And more, you will see that He is excited about you. His heart jumps when He sees you and He can’t wait to be with you. He phileos you. And more, He agapes you—He loves you totally, to the end, to the Cross, forever and ever.

And so we pray: Lord Jesus, purify our love. Raise our love and perfect it. Help us to receive your love and to go deeper in it. Help us to love others: to discover phileo and to move to agape. For we long to love you as you love us—with a love that bears all things and which never fails.....


  1. John 21 is one of my favorite passages in all the gospels, for exactly the reasons you explain. Strangely, though, Biblical scholars (even the Fathers of the Church) almost unanimously agree there's no meaning to the different word choices (agape vs phileo), other than perhaps to avoid monotony. But I find that hard to believe. There's so much there, all hidden behind that English word "love."

    1. Totally agree. After all, the word "monotonous" is not one that I usually attribute to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Gerber, for this beautiful and enlightening homily. I have heard about the different types of love, but your description clarified it for me. I really enjoyed the meaning behind the third "Peter, do you love me?" I pray each day that my love for Jesus grows with every beat of my heart. Now I hope in Jesus' love that He accepts me on my level and continues to pull me up to His! God bless you!