The risen Jesus asks Peter 3 times, “Do you love me?” using two different words for love and indicating three answers in action to the question. There is a famous sermon noting that Peter is again at a charcoal fire as he was when he denied being a follower of Jesus three times, and the cock then crowed.
The three answers indicated by Jesus are not clear from the English, and this is a good example of the importance of the Greek and the Greeks. The question asked of Peter- and hence of the Church- by the charcoal fire is first “Do you love me” agopos moi-” and “more than these“? The apostles are gathered on the shore of the sea of Tiberius, and have just recognized that the man who told them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. As are the churches, the apostles were characterized by an unreflective self love or self promotion, even including the young John and James, a sort of natural ambition, as when John and James asked if they could sit at his right hand when he comes into his kingdom (Mark 10:35). Agape is the word used for Christian love of the neighbor, while philos is friendship, and both have broader meanings- neither of which are eros, which is yet another kind of love, the longing of an emptiness to be filled. Agape, rarely used by the ancient Greeks, is rather an overflowing fullness, while friendship is somehow both and yet neither. Peter tries to answer: “you know I love (philo) you.” The answer is if you love me, feed my lambs. Second, Jesus asks Peter, as if to say, “But do you love (agapos) me? dropping off the “more than these? Jesus asks, that is, “Do you agapos moi, as well as philos moi? and “Do you (even) agapos moi? Peter again answers that he knows he loves (philo) him. The answer is shepherd then my sheep.” And, third, “DO you love (philo) me? That is, “Are you the friend of the risen Jesus? One statement of the highest in the Greek thinkers is “friend of God” (Plato, Symposium 212) and we suggest that that is the same as what is appearing here.
The three kinds of shepherding are: 1) feeding lambs, as with milk, 2) tending sheep, as even in politics, and 3) feeding sheep, as in education in the highest sense, the cultivation of intellects, above imagination, as with meat” or solid food, for the mature. These are three kinds of what the Greeks call practical wisdom or phronesis.
Adam was placed in the garden of the Lord “To till and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). This is the purpose of man, even that from which we are divided. “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” Both are parables of the highest activity of man, to which each has some access. This teaching replaces the more usual teaching of providence, in which man does not participate, but even awaits service as an ungrateful child. The rain falls on the good and evil alike- subject to the same- and no, we do not know why. Some seeds fall among the rocks where there is no soil to root, or among thorns, or on the path to be trodden, and some to be preyed upon. In the gospel of Luke (13:1-7), Jesus explains that those whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices- killed them while at the activity of piety- are as those on whom a tower fell. It does not fall on the worst sinners, and so we know that fortune or what occurs is not the same as the will of God. It is a prayer if the will of God is ever done on earth as it is in heaven, not a thing to be pre-supposed.
The teaching at John 15:15 also distinguishes the friends who are no longer called servants because they know what the master is doing, but friends, philous. Greater love agape has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (phil-on).