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English Speaking Congregation

May 7, 2006

An afternoon sleep was part of our routine as students at the United Theological College, Bangalore, in the early 60s. Our Principal didn’t seem to approve. Whenever there were overseas dignitaries visiting short-term, they were turned on in the afternoon. As students we developed a system. Most of us attended the first afternoon. Thereafter, we devised informal schedules so that numbers attending didn’t look too bad.

One particular visitor changed the routine – at least for his week. Numbers grew rather than fell. His name I keep forgetting. What he said, I’ve never forgotten.

H e claimed Christianity is unique. Christian love, he said, is found in no other religious tradition: agape or trisk – a word I picked up in California years ago, which I’ll explain later.

Whether his claim was accurate I don’t care. I know; you know; every Christian knows that love lies at the heart of our faith. You can’t read John’s Gospel or the Johannine letters without coming to that conclusion.

But there was something else he said with great histrionic ability, “Love can never be compelled. You can’t grasp someone by the throat, shake them till their head rattles and demand they love you. You can’t command love!”

Sounded and still sounds right to me!

Remember the reading from one John? It spoke of love seven times; but it also spoke of the command to love three times. The writer seems to delight in speaking of God’s “command to love.” But we’ve just agreed – or have we? – that love cannot be commanded. Love is freely given or it’s not love. It may be obedience, but it’s not love.

We can’t be sure whether the Gospel-writer also wrote the Johannine letters. So much sounds the same. Same emphases. Much the same style. But there is one difference.

The Gospel-writer talks about the need to “keep the commandment” – to love – but almost as often talks about “keeping the word.” If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments. [1]“ “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.[2]”

The letter-writer likes the word “command.” He uses it 13 times in this letter; 5 times in just three verses of our reading. I suggest he uses it to express the same idea as the Gospel-writer – not love as a legal command – as we’d normally understand the term – but as a goal, a direction, the motivating force of living as followers of Jesus. Love: mandatory, not an option; of the essence of being Christian, but not something forced on an unwilling Christian.

The letter-writer did know what he was on about, even if demand doesn’t quite sound right: Love is not optional for any follower of Jesus: “Believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another.”

Remember that word “trisk” – a compound: trust and risk; belief and love; believe and love? What the letter-writer is urging on fellow Christians is a mirror of the Ten Commandments: reverence for God and respect for humankind. It’s his equivalent of “Love God; love your neighbour.” His understanding the message of Scripture: in living as followers of Jesus: trust him and risk loving other Christians and all human beings.

How is love a risk? It certainly was for Jesus. We know what happened when he insisted on trisking: Easter is a constant reminder of human disaster and divine victory.

Love is always a trisk.

When we love deeply, we strip off our defences. We’re vulnerable. We’re open to betrayal. If the person we think cares about us and loves us no longer does, they know our weakest points and where we’ll bleed most painfully. But love trisks.

When we try to help other people, it’s not love unless we trisk. We daren’t assess whether the people we help are among “the deserving poor.” When someone comes for a hand-out how can we imagine we’re showing love while we’re busily assessing their story to make sure we’re not being spun a yarn and being taken for suckers? But love trisks.

You know I’m a professional preacher. Professional preachers have a habit of telling others to love – without ever suggesting quite how. I ought to offer some practical suggestions both individual and communal. My isolation at Sia’atoutai leaves me feeling helpless. I can only suggest you think about your situation. Look around you. Really look around you. You’re sure to find many who need your love. Remember love trisks.

Loving means seeing the good in others – however hard that is.  Most of us are well trained in criticising others. Australians are experts. What we are not well trained in is practising genuine care for people we don’t like or can’t stand. Gossip ought to be out. Any ways of hurting that person, knocking then off their perch ought to be out. If we genuinely feel someone is doing something wrong we should discuss that with them quietly and considerately.

If someone criticises us, we can always agree that we can do with improvement, but we have no right to keep criticising others behind their back or holding resentments without talking about that with them.

And if there’s someone you’ve always meant to let know what a great place they’ve had in your life, don’t leave it for their obituary. Call them now. Write a note now. Tell them.

But, yes, you’re right. I’ve only dealt with half of the letter-writer’s advice: Believe in the name of Jesus, and love one another.

I deliberately left the first part of his advice to last – because believing is as vital as loving, in fact, if Christian loving is trisking it’s the first part of deep caring and loving. Later in this letter the writer says it all: we love because he first loved us.

There’s a story from the civil rights struggle in the US. Many Anglo-Americans came from the north to offer their help to the Afro-Americans. But some were very critical of the time spent in churches – the struggle belonged on the streets! One wise old Afro-American silenced these critics. “It’s all very well for you. You come south for two or three weeks. We live with our problems every day of the year. We couldn’t go on without the renewing of our faith. That’s what gives us the strength to go on.”

We love because God first loved us. That’s what we believe. That’s why we trisk, though – or is it because? – we know the possibilities of pain and hurt and betrayal, and we know just how long we may need to go on practising until trisking becomes part of our character, our total response of gratitude for God’s overwhelming love.


[1] E.g. Jn 14:15,21.

[2] Jn 14:23.

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