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Acts 11:1-18 / Psalm 148 / Revelation 21:1-6 / John 13:31-35
Sermon from the Fifth Sunday of Easter

I spent the past week in Alberta, including time with children and grandchildren, which was great! But I spent most of it at a retreat centre west of Calgary, north and west of Cochrane, called King’s Fold. Situated on the steep banks of the Ghost River in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, King’s Fold celebrated its 40th Anniversary last year. Some of you will recall my speaking of it before. I seem to return there, mostly for University Chaplain’s conferences, every few years. Again, some of you will recall my telling the story of my first time there in 1988, on the tenth anniversary. I had the privilege to hear and be on retreat with Henri Nouwen speaking on the book he was completing at that time on the return of the prodigal son. The experience has left a lasting impression on me in various ways, but especially as I “return” to the place of that experience every few years. It’s my own story of prodigal returning, and the impact that it has on me and my faith journey each time.          

It’s like returning to today’s Gospel reading, a reprise from Maundy Thursday as it says in our worship folder, but without retelling all the surrounding circumstances of betrayal and sacrificial service that animate Jesus’ new commandment: to love one another, as Jesus loves you. Returning now after Jesus’ resurrection, in full knowledge of the ultimate depth of that love, to die for you and all of us and all creation. And by God’s astounding grace/love, to rise to new life so that you too may have this new life, today and always, and the power by God’s Spirit to live Jesus’ new commandment, to love one another as Jesus loves you. What has changed, how are we changed by this returning to Jesus’ new commandment to love?           

At King’s Fold we returned to some of the same places that had an impact the first time, and each time: the gathering rooms of learning and conversation, laughter and tears, frustrations and healing, understanding and acceptance, reconnecting to one another and to ourselves and to God and God’s purpose, in university chaplaincy and in the baptismal chaplaincy of all believers and followers of Jesus; the meal times in the dining room that overlooks the river valley and nearby mountain ranges, the hospitality of staff in feeding and caring and praying for us, all but one different on this return trip, but with the same friendly and gracious way that defines the community; to the river walk, down the one side, across the river and up the bank to the upper meadow on the opposite side, with accompanying time for quiet reflection in God’s beautiful creation, and our small selves within that larger truth, but with a role and purpose of God’s making for the common good of all; gathering in the chapel, constructed out of big timbers in a hexagon shape, a concrete floor, stone slab communion table, beautiful acoustics and dedicated to a child of the founders, who struggled courageously with being differently abled in a world dominated by other abilities; and places I intended but did not get to return to this time, the stations of the cross prayer walk through the forest, opening up at the end to three crosses on the hillside where the first time I was profoundly moved by a vision of a woman on the cross, giving her life for the world - was it a female Jesus or recognition of this sacrifice made by women that has always remained with me; and the hermitage, a small cabin out on the river bank for silent retreats, where I spent an afternoon on that first visit reading and reflecting on ministry and God’s calling, in those my first years of pastoral ministry.          

All of it asking the question, what does it mean to return? To return, but differently, because of what has happened in between, the life and deaths and circumstances that have changed us and others and continue to change the places we return to. How are you, how are we and how we live, changed?          

In the continuing readings from the book of Acts in the season of Easter, we see how the followers of Jesus and their mission and ministry are changing through the risen life in Christ Jesus. Peter’s strange vision of animals, none of them unclean, prepare him for receiving Gentile Christians who desire and receive the same Holy Spirit as they received. And on his return to Jerusalem, first met with criticism, but after carefully recounting all that had happened and remembering Jesus’ words, Peter says to the church leaders, “If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”          

It is difficult for us to imagine the momentus change this marks for the Christian community, and for the world, even us. This recognition that God’s Holy Spirit is for all, changes and will challenge the church of Christ in every time, tragically losing our way again and again in exclusion and even persecution and death, but God’s returning us to the openness of God’s Spirit again and again through the risen life of Christ Jesus and the new commandment to love one another, as Jesus loves.        

In the beginning of chapter 13 in the gospel of John, we read that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and return to God and that Judas was to betray him, and he gets up and washes the disciples’ feet, giving them an example and command to do the same for one another because no one is greater than anyone else. And in the face of betrayal, but also seeing the glory of God about to be revealed in Jesus and his departure from this world, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  

I recall returning a previous time to King’s Fold in fear for a colleague, diagnosed with advanced cancer, sharing stories of his chemo treatment regimen, the fatigue and exhaustion, but also the hope in his being buoyed up by the prayers of so many. Returning this time years later and longer than he was anticipated to live, to his continuing health and recovery, knowing the chance of cancer returning is always present, but so also the gift and glory of new life everyday is a gift of love beyond words. Is this what returning with the risen Jesus and the command to love one another means, the chance for new life in everything, for everyone, every day?  

We know not everything is restored in this life. I walked up on the second day to the site of a small retreat cabin on the far side of the river. The Eagle’s Nest was for solitary retreats, a tiny single room cabin with a bed, a desk and chair, and a wood stove. Sadly, it burned down some years ago, people unable to get water to it from the river far below. What remains are the wood shed that was a short distance away and the small square concrete footings, the stove, and remnants of melted glass. But the view from the high river bank is still there, and a wooden deck chair for sitting and taking it all in, and for remembering, and with the risen Jesus, trusting in God’s resurrection power, to bring love and life out of ashes and loss.  

My spouse and her mom and brother returned to Sundre, Alberta this weekend on the anniversary of her Dad’s death, to scatter his remaining ashes on the banks of the Red Deer river where they had spent many summers with their grandchildren and dear friends and family. It is a sad time of returning to the great loss of last year, and that continues, as I know loss and grief are present and continue also for many of you, and for so many in our world. But could returning and trusting in Jesus’ words and acts of love hold the promise and possibility of new life, in love for one another and all others, as Jesus loves? That changes everything.  

By every example of Jesus, Jesus’ followers, and our own experiences of returning, this love is not easy and will continue to challenge and change us. And so we return here, and many other places and times of worship and reflection and renewal, trusting in the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to fill us and this world, with the love Jesus commands and that holds the hope of new life, today and forever. A resurrection hope proclaimed in the Revelation of John, “See the home of God is among mortals, God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, God will be with them; and will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…. See I am making all things new.” Let it be so, in us and this world, in love, through the risen Christ Jesus, in all our relations. Amen.