“Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn. 21:17b) ‘Felt hurt’ or, as in some translations, Peter ‘grieved’ is the Greek word (lupeo) that means to be distressed. When Jesus told his disciples he would be killed (Mt. 17:23), for instance, or when at the Last Supper he declared that one of them would betray him (Mt. 26:22) they became “greatly distressed” (lupeo). It can indicate being ‘in heaviness’ or ‘suffering’ as in 1 Peter 1:6: “…you have been (lupeo) in heaviness in various trials.”
It’s odd that Peter is distressed when, in fact, Jesus is reaching out to him, asking him three times to love him. Jesus’ actions are a counterpart to Peter’s earlier three-fold denial, a rather passionate denial, at that, with cursing and swearing in Matthew’s telling: “…Then Peter began to curse and he swore, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:74-75)
Peter’s once ‘bitter weeping’ becomes, in time, a different kind of grief – Peter’s heavy heart as Jesus restores the relationship once broken. When God meets us, face to face, we are undoubtedly, like Peter, not just sorry but profoundly distressed, even to the point of grief.
And it feels so good.
Several days before Christmas 1943, high in the skies over France a young American B-17 pilot named Charles Brown was struggling mightily to get his nearly sacked plane and injured crew back to England. Brown was all of 21 years old, a West Virginia farm boy flying his first combat mission when his “flying fortress” was shot to pieces by swarming fighters. Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead.
In a moment, Brown glanced outside his cockpit and froze. Spencer Luke, his co-pilot, saw the same horrible thing. A German Messerschmitt fighter sat just feet from their wingtip, having closed in ready for the kill.
“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.
“He’s going to destroy us,” Brown added, knowing that that moment was the end of his life. Never again would he see his family and friends. Never again would he breathe the mountain air of his hometown. High above France, alone and frightened, that was how it ends.
But what they saw next was an odd thing. The German fighter pilot didn’t shoot. Instead, he nodded at the pilots. And then did an even more amazing thing.
Second Lt. Franz Stigler was an ace fighter pilot. One more kill and he’d earn the The Knight’s Cross, the highest award for military valor. By late 1943, however, Stigler was no longer motivated by thoughts of glory or pride. Earlier in the war, his older brother, August, a fellow pilot, was shot down and killed. The tide of the war was shifting, and the war in the skies was increasingly difficult. Exhaustion, war fatigue and untold loss were starting to get to Stigler. By war’s end, it should be noted, of the 28,000 pilots who fought for the Luftwaffe only 1,200 survived.
Dark and sinister emotions flooded Stigler. While he stood smoking a cigarette near his plane one afternoon, he heard the roar of Charles Brown’s “flying fortress,” a plane that was wreaking destruction upon the homeland he vowed to protect. Filled with thoughts of revenge, he hopped in his fighter, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in hot pursuit.
Coming upon the American plane, he decided to attack from behind. His hand was on the trigger. Then he hesitated – no one was firing at him. Flying closer to Brown’s B-17, he saw the tail gunner humped over and lying still, his white airman’s collar covered in blood. The American plane was a sorry sight – its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out. Inside, he could see men tending the wounds of other crewmen.
He nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings, and locked eyes with the pilot whose own eyes were wide with horror. Stigler eased his index finger off the trigger. He couldn’t shoot. It would be murder.
In that moment, alone in the skies with the crippled bomber, Stigler single-mindedly changed his mission. He nodded at the American pilot, and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.
“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”
The horror of facing his own death, for Charles Brown, which quickly turned to his salvation is its own shock. Franz Stigler’s turning from vengeance to empathy was an inner-struggle. Setting aside revenge for compassion brings its own heaviness. They saw the other’s humanity. They met on equal terms. The ending was happy but the process was heart-wrenching.
And it’s the kind of sorrow that just feels so good.
Because it’s perhaps the one biblical passage with the single worst translation, across the board, any English version of the seaside conversation between Jesus and Peter about love (John 21:15-19) so utterly fails to convey what’s actually going on. In the Greek of the New Testament, there are multiple words for love. Agape is perfect and selfless love. It’s looking out for the interest of the one who is loved, putting them ahead of self. It’s what we call unconditional love, the love God has for us. There’s a lesser kind of love, as well; the affection we have for a friend or family member, brotherly love. In Greek, philios.
When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, in John 21, the text alternates between different words. You can’t hear this story let alone understand the message, unless you hear it closer to its original tongue. Let’s give it a shot:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know I (philios) love you like a brother.’
… A second time Jesus said to him, ‘Peter, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.
…Jesus said the third time, ‘Peter, do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.’
Peter felt hurt, but it wasn’t remorse.
Peter felt the profound life-altering hurt of being truly, wholly loved. God met Peter, face to face. God comes to our level and loves us. The response when we are so profoundly known and still loved, oddly enough, is a piercing heart-wrenching pain that is, at once, so refreshing. Time and again throughout history — above all, when God became a vulnerable baby born in the utter darkness of the year — God risks everything, God risks God’s own majesty and stoops to our level, to our humanity. God comes to us not in pomp or power, but in humility: along the shoreline for Peter and his fellow fisherfolk; for us, in the context of our own particular circumstances.
God doesn’t expect us to be better or in a different place but where we are, right here, right now. And God asks us, like Jesus asked Peter, to love him in the way we can, putting aside any question of how we should. There’s no judgment here, no brow-beating or submission. There are no power ploys or manipulative games. Just an honest invitation to relationship, as we can, with the One who loves us in all the ways we can’t.
The story Christian people need to re-learn and tell others is that we are moved to follow Christ not because we feel things that are better than an ordinary person does but, rather, because we are perfectly ordinary people who actually let ourselves feel, who are unafraid to be broken by love. Perhaps Pink’s wisdom sums it well. In her song, ‘Try,’ she sings: “Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame / Where there is a flame, someone’s gonna get burned / But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die / You gotta get up and try.”
Peter was broken by love. How much more wonderful for you and me that God, the author and lover of souls, would so love us that we find ourselves weeping and laughing, distressed and refreshed, in heaviness and set free, all at the same time.
Whatever happened to Charles Brown and Franz Stigler, you ask? Brown got married, had two daughters, worked for the State Department and eventually retired to Florida. Shortly after retirement, he began to have nightmares about that incident with the German fighter pilot. Wanting to find him, he asked around at pilot’s reunions. He put out an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling his story and asking if anyone knew anything.
On January 18, 1990, Brown got a letter in the mail. It read:
“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17. Did she make it or not?”
It was Franz Stigler. In 1953, he moved to Vancouver. In the letter, he told Brown he’d be in Florida that summer and, his words, “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”
As the years went on, their acquaintanship became a friendship. One time, the former members of that B-17 crew assembled a reunion and invited Stigler as guest of honor. There, they put on a slide show of all the children and grand-children and great-grand-children who were born, all because Stigler didn’t shoot. Their wives became friends, as well, and Charlie and Franz went on regular fishing outings.
The war cost Stigler nearly everything; as I mentioned earlier, of the 28,000 Luftwaffe pilots, only 1,200 survived the war. They were orphans to their own cause and country; no one to talk to, no one to commiserate with and, as in Franz’s case, not even his own brother remaining. For Stigler, there was nothing redeeming about the war. Nothing except that B-17 he let go. Stigler’s and Brown’s reunion was not only profound but salvific. At long last, after too many generations of others making war, they had the opportunity to write their life’s score. When they did, they let love win.
A love, it should be noted, which broke them both. At one of their earlier meetings, Stigler was asked what he thought of Brown. In heavily accented English, straining to fight back tears, he said: “I love you, Charlie.” Sometime later, Stigler gave a book about German fighter jets to Brown, knowing that both of them were country kids who loved, when they were boys, to read about planes. In the inside cover, Stigler wrote an inscription:
“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, 1943 I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.
The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.
In 2008, they died within months of one another. Stigler was 92. Brown was 87.
Love broke them, permanently, irreparably, wonderfully. Loving and being loved in that way wasn’t easy, I’m sure, and it brought its own hurts and pains, its own heart-heaviness and distress, its own suffering and sorrow.
And, I’m also certain, it must’ve felt so good.
Be willing to be loved, then, like Peter and Charlie and Franz. Be willing to be so broken by love so God is, in fact, re-making you. Be willing to be distressed by God’s love, for surely it means you’ll find yourself in prayer crying pain and joy, all at once. And it’ll feel so very good. Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.