‘Do you love me?’ – A Question for our Primates too - Canon Tunde Popoola reflects

Do you love me?  –  A Question for our Primates too
by Canon AkinTunde Popoola

“So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, 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.”  John 21: 15

Jesus had every reason to question the leader appointed for the band of his disillusioned followers after his death and resurrection. These reasons may include a genuine concern for Simon Peter’s loyalty, concern about his priorities, devotion, and leadership abilities.

This same Simon Peter had boastfully promised never to forsake Christ only to within 24 hours deny knowing him even with vows and curses (departure from the faith?). [1]  This is the same Peter who could boldly say, “Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee,” [2] only to return to the fishing career many miles away from Jerusalem where Luke suggests they were commanded to wait (Acts 1:4). Somehow, he went back to doing his own thing - fishing for fish after being taught to fish for people [3] with half of the remaining disciples (schism?).

This portion of the Gospels have variously been used to show the fragility of human leadership along with God’s determination to restore and strengthen whoever He chooses to lead His people. As the leaders of the Anglican Communion gather in Tanzania for a crucial meeting, this passage readily comes to mind. Can there be a message for these revered leaders who lead millions of believers?  Can the questions of Jesus be in any way relevant to the primates of the Anglican Communion today?

Agape or Phileo

The first two times Jesus Christ asked Peter “Do you love me?”, he used the Greek word for the godly unconditional love, Agape.  Peter, each time could only reply with phileo the Greek word for friendly, affectionate love. After two attempts, Jesus met Peter at his level and asked the third time using Peter’s word phileo.

This could suggest a demand for a greater kind of love - one that obeys, [4] one that gives highest priority to the focus of the love. This is a love that goes beyond the vain attempts to humanly source for necessary food for the followers if it is at a cost of disobedience to the Lord who cares more than any human being.  Toiling all night yielded no food but obedience to the simple command of Jesus yielded more than enough. What more, by the time they came ashore, there was already food on the fire.

But why would Jesus change from his demand of divine love to Peter’s level of friendly love? Was he condescending or trying to show a difference in spiritual maturity?  We might need to consider the instruction that followed each of Peter’s answers.

Bosko or Poimaino

At Peter’s first answer, Jesus told him to feed (bosko), his lambs. The second time, he told him to tend (poimaino) his sheep, only for him to change again at the third answer and say “feed (bosko) my sheep”.

While the difference between lamb and sheep is glaringly that of the young and the mature, one might have expected the tending to be for the weak while the feeding is general.

Bosko talks about feeding, to pasture, graze, keep, nourish. Jesus the good shepherd knows all his flock both young and old require nourishment. He is concerned first about the young, they are still growing and require much more.  They are fragile, babes, trusting candidates of heaven and attention for their upkeep should be a prerequisite of any leader.  The leader must remember not everyone is on the same level as he is. Going fishing may even be permissible since Mark 16:7 suggests they were directed to go to Galilee and what else would a fisherman do while waiting? But was it expedient?  Paul would imply he’d rather not eat meat again than allow that to cause the downfall of a weak Christian. [5]  I had once watched as a mature sheep crossed a motorway and screamed as two younger ones following were hit by an oncoming vehicle. 

Poimaino given as ‘tend’ in many translations speaks about taking care, ruling, determining what is best and providing it,  The art of tending includes watching, pruning, feeding, and dare I say assuming authority and responsibility for those being tended. Jesus used it for the sheep immediately after asking for the lambs to be fed. He seems to be suggesting that a firmer approach is needed for the mature. Do not just feed them but guide them, show them the path to follow, correct the wrong, discipline the stubborn, you are the leader. Let them follow you and not you following them.

It is instructive that Jesus used bosko for the final response.  This now groups all together, young and old, weak and mature all need the loving care of the shepherd.  . “Feed MY sheep.”  In the final analysis the sheep belong to Jesus not the shepherds. They are appointed caretakers and must realize they have to give account to the owner.

So the question “do you agape me?” demands for that unflinching love for the divine above all else, above self, above even consideration for others as was Saul’s excuse for disobedience. [6]  A positive answer requires caring for the affairs of the master. Even if the leader cannot get to the level of the divine agape, Jesus says if he at least phileo him, he should take care of the sheep.

As the Primates consider how best to feed and tend the sheep enfolded in the Anglican communion, minnows like myself will go into prayers that they will hear the question of Jesus same number of times like Simon Peter did. We long to see the highly distracting and unproductive debate dealt with like Jesus dealt with the fishing misadventure. We pray they will leave Tanzania not with another promise to wait until the next meeting but with a determination to obey Christ by going on to bosko the lambs and poimaino the sheep. 

Knowing how highly revered they are, we hope they will have the boldness to assume authority and responsibility for ensuring the weak are fed with the food prescribed by Jesus himself [7] - while the ‘mature’ are disciplined in order not to mislead the others.


  [1]  The account of Simon Peter’s vehement denial of Jesus can be read in Matthew 26: 33-37, 69 – 75 , Mark 14: 66-72

  [2]  Mark 10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.

  [3]  Mark. 1: 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.”

  [4]  John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…. 23   Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

  [5]  1st Corinthians 8:13, Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.

  [6]  1st Samuel 15:21 “….But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.”

  [7]  Matthew 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. All quotations taken from the Revised Standard Version (RSV)  of the Holy Bible