Six heart-shaped rocks line the shore at Tabgha on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galiliee. They may have been pulled from an ancient quarry, remnants of old synagogues which traditionally had two heart-shaped columns at the rear corners. Sometime in the fifth to ninth century AD, they were placed in a colonnade commemorating the Apostles and called the Twelve Thrones.
Depending on the height of the Sea when you visit, the “thrones” might be under water or they might be high and dry.
Sometimes, I’ve heard, the tide laps audibly against them like a heart-beat. “Do you love me … do you love me … do you love me?” You can almost hear Jesus asking Peter the question as they sat there on the shore. Three times he asked, and three of those heart-shaped rocks bear Peter’s reply, a smaller heart encased in the larger: “You know that I love you.”
Scholars point out something vital that is missing in our English translation of John 21:15-17: Jesus and Peter use different words for “love.” Twice, Jesus asks if Peter if he loves him using the Greek word agape: total, unconditional, to-the-end love. “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you,” he replies. Phileo is brotherly love. (This exchange reminds me of something girls used to say when a young man used the “L word” prematurely. “I love you in Christ,” she would answer. That was the kiss of death, as far as any kind of romantic commitment went!) There is love and there is love, and Jesus wanted all of Peter’s heart. It would take that kind of love, where he was going, if he was to die for the Lord.
Peter’s previous denial of Christ (Lk 22:54-62) must have weighed on his own heart like a millstone. He couldn’t bring himself to promise total, faithful love. He was too aware of how easy it was to fail. The Lord’s own love goes unspoken, but it can be felt in his persistence. Gently, quietly, he blows on the embers of love that lay buried beneath the rejection. It’s not too late, Peter. Do you love me / will you go the distance with me now? Will you agape me to the end?
The third time, Jesus aims his question at the level of Peter’s heart: “Do you phileo me?” No wonder Peter was grieved (see vs. 17). Not only had Jesus asked a third time, he had lowered his expectation. “You know everything,” Peter answered. You know I denied you. You know that I only phileo you. How miserable he must have been! “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. You’re going to get there. In the end, you will glorify me in your own death (vs 19). Don’t let your regret get in the way of doing what I’ve called you to do!
I stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, looking at the Twelve Thrones. Peter, chief among the apostles, was “Rock” when he spoke what God revealed to him, that Jesus was the Messiah (Mt 16:16). A few verses later, thinking on his own and rebuking Jesus for saying he would suffer and die, Peter the Rock has become a “stumbling block” (vs. 23). Christ built his Church on a man of good intentions who was fallible, weak as we so often are. Why? It is God’s power, not our strength, that carries the day. God’s power, not ours, that accomplishes his will. God’s power, not ours, that defeats evil and enables us to love. Peter – fallible in his own power, infallible in God’s – helps us understand.
“Jesus, do I agape you?” I wonder. “I know I phileo you. YOU know I phileo you. You long for agape, but how often I’ve failed! I’ve ignored you, denied you before neighbors, failed to stand up for your name.”
“Don’t get lost in regrets,” I hear you reply. “Feed my sheep. Do what I’ve given you to do. Move forward, one step at a time, relying on me.”
I see the tiny heart enclosed in the bigger one as not just Peter’s, but my own heart enveloped by the greater heart of Jesus. “If people shut you out – just draw a bigger circle of love around them,” my Grandma used to say. Like Jesus surrounded Peter’s insufficient love with his own, and in the end made the “stumbling block” a Rock for the Church.
© 2015 Sarah Christmyer.
Arlita Winston says
Challenging words. Comforting words. “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, I will sing!”
MAry Hollinshead says
I cried; for sadness as I realized my level of love and for joy that I is ok and that I am in a good place. For the emotions you brought me to are assurance that I am seeking and growing which will help me to help others. Thanks
Cindy Coleman says
Immensely beautiful reflection.
Sharri O says
I had a beautiful, similar experience at Tabgha. Standing on each of the three visible stones, recanting my former denials and accepting that His love and power would overcome my own weakness and enable me to do all that He would call me to do. Thanks for sharing – wonderful story!
Asha Bijay says
Thank you for that beautiful story. It reminds me that Jesus loves me deeply despite my inadequate and imperfect love for him. With his love surrounding me I can dare to love like he did. Amen
mitch carroll says
I too have stood on that shore at Tabgha and on my knees at the edge of the Sea of Galilee with my hands in the water looking for stones to bring home as remembrances. I wish I would have had your wonderful reflection to make that moment standing where Jesus and Peter stood even more powerful. Thank you so much for your insight and guidance for my life On The Way. Blessings to you and your gifts.
Martha W. says
Sarah, what a deep reflection/teaching you have offered me this morning. I do not question your knowledge, but would like to share more deeply with my Bible Study group…Is there a Bible commentary, or other resource I could cite along with your post? I have some who will want to dig deeper. Thanks.
Sarah Christmyer says
Martha, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible has wonderful notes in it, and this person you mention might want to invest in that and also the Catholic Bible Dictionary. Those are two fabulous general resources. Two Catholic Bible commentary series I highly recommend are the Navarre Bible and the new Catholic Commentary on Scripture, which is excellent. CCS recently came out with a volume on John’s gospel. Steve Ray also has a nice study guide/commentary on the gospel of John. I didn’t look at any commentaries in particular when I was writing this piece as it’s information I’ve known for some time. But many commentaries and homilies on that passage mention the different meanings of “love” there and it might even be in the Bible notes.
Jennifer Elwood says
Oh. My. Word. I LOVE this. I was at Tabgha on November 2nd!! I found this because I was looking for information on how these heart shaped stones came to be. Someone on our tour said that a guide had them as columns that fishermen would tether their boats to… I wondered if that was correct. The thought that God made a ‘stumbling block’ a rock for the church… That is a wonderful thought – that God has such agape love for us to use imperfect people to bring Him glory!! I loved too that I didn’t notice these rocks at all – no one on our tour did – until we were walking away from the Sea of Galilee… I was SO consumed with the view of the lake – what Jesus saw has he approached where he knew that Peter would be… And then upon return seeing what Peter would have seen – and finding a path of hearts – a permanent display for Jesus agape love for us – OVERWHELMING.
Sarah Christmyer says
Thanks for sharing that! Wasn’t it wonderful to be actually there? I have never read that fishermen would tether their boats to the columns, but I suppose it’s possible. Blessings on you as you assimilate all the experiences you had on your pilgrimage.