It’s the 36th day of Easter. Is the risen life of Christ that we continue to celebrate giving new life and hope to you?
I pray that in these ongoing pandemic days, in the individual and collective sufferings and challenges to health and wellbeing - physical, mental, spiritual, relational, the risen life of Christ Jesus is present in love and friendship and joy!
I confess an envy of the Quakers. A Protestant denomination originally from the UK known for silence in worship, waiting together for the Spirit’s leading anyone in the community to speak. As much as I appreciate this practise, it is their historic name that causes me envy – the Religious Society of Friends. Or simply the Society of Friends, or just, “Friends.”
Friends of Jesus, as Jesus says he chose us to be. Not servants who don’t know what is happening. But friends - with Jesus making known to us, all Jesus has learned from God. Friends…it is a clear and straightforward invitation in Jesus’ words in the Gospel. To be Jesus’ friends. To be friends.
And so also Jesus’ words that describe the good work of friends. “To love one another as I have loved you.” The same words Jesus spoke and demonstrated earlier with his disciples/friends, bending down, and washing their feet. This being chosen to be friends, this loving others as God/Jesus loves us. Now we know, this is the risen life in Jesus the Christ. This is new life for us, for all, for all creation.
I had a chance to talk to one of my closest friends a couple of weeks ago. We live a province apart, and have since seminary days, so talking on the phone, with the occasional text message in between, is our way of staying in touch. Sometimes it can be months. But when we talk, there are no apologies, just an immediate connection and conversation, with gracious ease and genuine care, checking in about family and community, a chance for honesty and a little complaining, and lots of good humour. We laugh, and it is good. And all of it, the friendship, the love, is life-giving. Friends, who love one another, as Jesus loves us. That’s clear enough. But who are our friends?
Peter may not have expected to have a Roman Centurion for a friend. We were first introduced on Easter Sunday in the book of Acts. Cornelius, a person who worships and honours God and shows love and care for the Jewish people, has a vision. A person in dazzling clothes telling him to invite Peter to visit him. Cornelius sends servants to find and ask Peter to come to him. At the same time, Peter also has a strange vision of animals, none of which are profane to God. When servants of Cornelius find Peter and convey Cornelius’ request that Peter come to visit him, though Jews were not to be with Gentiles, at the urging of the Spirit, Peter agrees and returns with them, acknowledging what he learned from his own vision “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” When Peter arrives, Cornelius bows down and worships him. Peter stops him with the words, “Stand up, I am only a mortal.” Cornelius explains his vision to Peter, and the reason for asking Peter to come and be with him and his household. Peter finds many have assembled, and as Cornelius asks, Peter proclaims to them the story of the crucified and risen Christ Jesus. And this is where our reading begins today, in a Pentecost-like scene with the Holy Spirit falling upon all who hear the word. And those with Peter are astonished at the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon these Gentiles, who now speak in tongues or ecstatic prayer and extoll God. And Peter responds, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And they are baptized in the name of Christ Jesus! And Peter and those with him remain for several days. Who could have imagined, Jews and Gentiles, a follower of Jesus who was arrested and crucified by the Romans, and a Roman Centurion, a commander of the oppressing power’s armies, who tortured and publicly executed Jesus, now both filled with the Holy Spirit, now both baptized, now friends?
Like last Sunday’s story from the book of Acts, of the Ethiopian Eunuch whom Phillip joins on the road and shares with him the good news about Jesus and he asks and is baptized, the Spirit moves where she wills, encountering people in an ever-widening circle of God’s people, the friends of Jesus. There is no limit, no boundary to whom God calls into this friendship, into this loving one another as God/Jesus loves all.
I hope many of you have seen the latest issue of the Canada Lutheran and the cover story, “Queerly Beloved – a decade of LGBTQ2SIA+ inclusion in the ELCIC.” The article is a collaborative effort with reflections by seven people from various ministry settings connected to the ELCIC, from Our Saviour’s Lutheran in Prince George, to Campus Ministries in Waterloo, Toronto, and Calgary. Among the contributors is Shuby Bhattarai, (they/them/theirs) a queer transgendered person who follows a Hindu faith tradition who discovered the Faith and Spirituality Centre at the University of Calgary. They first attended a drumming circle and Simple Supper offered by Lutheran Campus Ministry with Pastor Margaret Propp. They write: “I wasn’t sure if I would be a fish out of water taking part in events put on by Campus Ministry – but the people I met leading the programs were kind, supportive, and I found I could still relate to spiritual things when they were brought up. There were personal moments of intercultural exchanges between my background of Hinduism and their Christian beliefs. I loved them. Once, they took time to listen to me and began incorporating asking people to share their pronouns in our sharing circles. This was a touching moment for me, knowing they were always striving for inclusivity. They affirmed me and my identity. All were always welcome.” Finn Boehm (he/him/his) connected to the Thirdspace community in Waterloo writes, “I am a child of God. This is me. How could this possibly be wrong? Everyone is made perfectly in God’s image and I was made trans. I started going to Thirdspace as a young adult after I had started transitioning. I felt more confident that I would be safe and accepted there because of their clear messages. Since attending Thirdspace I have felt welcomed and affirmed by both Pastor Anne Anderson and the congregation as a whole. In 2019 I had a renaming ceremony during service. It felt official, that this religion that I had grown up in was saying ‘we see you, we in this building acknowledge you as a child of God.’ I had been baptized and confirmed under a different name, but now I, as Finn, as my true self, have been welcomed.” Others, like Pastor Ralph Carl Wushke (he/him/his) in Toronto, who’s reinstatement as a pastor of the ELCIC we celebrated as part of our Reconciling in Christ Sunday in 2020 after his being removed from the roster for being a gay man decades before, writes of this baptismal identity and promise in God’s Spirit, “For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming Christians, God’s embrace in baptismal water is irrevocable.” Forever friends of Jesus. Forever friends, in an ever-widening circle of God’s love in the wild working of the Holy Spirit who moves where they will. And we have seen as a church that to be ever-reforming in God’s grace, how this circle of God’s love and friendship needs to continue widening, to truly welcome and include all people, Queer, Trans, Black and Indigenous and other people of colour, of different abilities and cultures, to see the earth and its climate as friend and home to be protected, and more, more open, more inclusive, to truly be communities of friends, loving one another as God/Jesus loves. To quote Peter again, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Jesus defines this friendship, this loving one another, as a willingness to give up one’s life for one’s friends. These are words Jesus remained faithful to, unto death. These are words God remains faithful to, raising Jesus from death to new life for the life of the world. That our loving one another, that our friendship includes our willingness to give our lives, to give up that which we cling to for life, including my privilege, my power, my prejudice, my comfort, my conditioning in white supremacy and colonialism, in structural and systemic racism, that there be no barriers to God’s mothering love and the working of God’s wild and Holy Spirit, in ever-widening care and compassion for everyone! This is what friendship with Jesus means, life-giving, life-affirming friendship in all its diversity, wonder and joy complete that Jesus promised! Friends! – let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.