Receive the Breath of LIfe

Easter 2      April 3, 2016

John 20:19-29

There are many advantages to the way we read Scripture in church, as short discrete passages. It helps us concentrate on a single Bible story or passage, to listen and digest it and look at it in detail in Bible study and sermons. But there is at least one big disadvantage: by chopping the Bible up the way we do, and spreading it out from one week to the next, we can sometimes lose the sense of how the whole story hangs together.

Take today’s gospel reading for example. Last week was Easter, and we heard about the empty tomb and the risen Christ. This week, we move on to the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the upper room, and then to doubting Thomas. Often Thomas takes up our attention – I preached on him this time last year. But this year it is the first part of the passage that speaks to me, how Jesus appears to the disciples, speaks peace to them, and breathes the Holy Spirit on them.

And what struck me is that we are really coming to this story a week too late. We separate it from Jesus’s appearing to Mary in the garden, but really the two stories go together. John’s gospel moves from the garden to the upper room without a break; this is the evening of that same first day when he rose from the dead. The point is that this story, and specifically the giving of the Holy Spirit and the sending out of the disciples, are not a separate story, not a sequel, but – at least as John tells the story – an integral part of the one resurrection story.

It is evening. The disciples are gathered behind locked doors. They are gathered in fear. And no wonder they are afraid – it is scarcely 48 hours since Jesus died, and they know that the mob is still restless, and that the same authorities who crucified Jesus wouldn’t bat an eye about rounding up a few of his followers for torture and execution. He comes with words of peace: three times in this passage he greets them with the words “Peace be with you”. Clearly not just an empty formula, these are words of compassion and comfort, words that want to reach out to them and soothe the fear and the sickness and the pain in their hearts.

And then comes the most wonderful and surprising gesture: he breathes on them. No doubt they are confused when they see and hear him suddenly appear behind a locked door. Is he a vision? Is he a ghost? Is he real at all? What more convincing sign could there be that he lives, than to feel his warm breath breathing upon him?. Our breath is, after all, the very essence of life. When we die we breathe our last, as Jesus did upon the cross. And now that breath, that warm breath that somehow, miraculously, has returned to his cold stiff body, he breathes on them. Seeing him, hearing him, that could all be an illusion – but feeling his living breath, that is to experience him as fully and undeniably alive, and to share in that new life.

Like so much in the Bible, this gesture is laden with deep echos. Apparently John uses a rare Greek word here to say he “breathed on” them, one that appears only two other times in the Bible. In the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used in the creation story, when God forms the dirt and breathes upon it, and so creates humankind. And again, in that powerful vision in Ezekiel of the valley of the dry bones, when the prophet is told to prophesy to the winds, that they might breathe on the bones and turn them back into living beings. Well, as I said last week, there are seldom coincidences in the Bible. When John uses this word a third time, it carries the echos of these earlier passages. Jesus breathes upon the disciples just as God breathed upon the dirt, creating them anew as part of the new creation. And just as the winds breathed upon the dry bones in Ezekiel, so the breath Jesus breathes upon them is the very life-giving power of the resurrection.

“Receive the Holy Spirit”. And you will remember that whenever the Bible talks about spirit, or breath, or wind, in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, these three things are one and the same, named by a single word. This is the promised Holy Spirit, the Comforter whom Jesus predicted would come to strengthen and equip the disciples when he was no longer with them. And at the same time, this Holy Spirit is the very breath of life, that brought earth to life in the beginning, that will bring resurrected life to the dry bones of Ezekiel’s prophesy, that brought Jesus’s battered corpse to life as the firstborn of God’s new, resurrected creation.

We all know the story of Pentecost in Luke’s telling: how, 50 days after Easter, when Jesus had ascended to the Father, a great wind and tongues of fire descended upon the disciples, giving birth to the church. It is what we will celebrate in several weeks. But today, let us notice that John tells the story very differently. For John, the gift of the Spirit comes on the same day, it is an integral part of the resurrection story. And the Spirit that the disciples receive is the very essence of life itself, fresh and warm and exultant from having conquered death. And with the gift of the spirit, comes also the commissioning of the disciples to go to the world: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

So I wonder: what does John’s particular vision of the unity of Easter and Pentecost, resurrection and Holy Spirit, have to say to us as a church? What would it mean for us to live as a church so completely out of the Easter gospel?

The story began with the disciples crouching behind locked doors. It has been suggested that this is an appropriate image for the church today – not this congregation more than others, but in general. We live our faith behind closed doors tucked away in our church that most of the town doesn’t even know exists, out of fear – fear of offending, fear of being rejected. Is it a fair caricature of who we are? I don’t know, but it may be important to ask the question, to try the image on for size and see how well it fits.

John suggests that our calling as church is not to remain behind closed doors. “As the Father sent me, so I send you”. We have a mission in this world, and it is the same mission that Jesus himself had – to go out into the world as ambassadors of God’s love for the world.

What is our message? Not to tell others what they have to think, or believe, or do; not to scold or judge; not to sell our own version of God’s salvation plan. But to do what Jesus did, when he came into the world, what he is doing to the very end, even as he reappears among his disciples. To speak peace. To bring his greeting of “Peace be with you”, not just as a casual greeting – but to speak peace to those who are broken-hearted, who are grieving, who are hopeless, who are lonely and feeling unloved. And there is plenty of that to go around, not very far from our doors.

But Jesus does not just burden the disciples with another task; and his call to us to speak his peace to the world is not just more work. Surely he knows how tired we are; surely he knows how hard we work just to keep this place running, and we are not getting any younger, as I am often told. Jesus does not just send his disciples, he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. And John makes it clear that this is the gift of the very energy of life, an energy that has proved strong enough to wake the dead. What would it mean for our faith to live directly out of that Spirit of life, to allow ourselves to be energized and inspired by the Easter gospel?

A couple of weeks ago we gathered for the second of our visioning evenings as a parish. We were a relatively small group, about a dozen. And what we did for the evening was mainly to share a bit of our own faith; to speak of the ways that our lives had been touched by the Spirit of God. It was a good and moving conversation. And it was a conversation that gave us hope and energy, because it reminded us in very concrete ways that we do not do the work of being a church merely out of our own energy reserves – first and foremost we are here because we have found something that gives us energy and hope and comfort. It is so important to remind ourselves of that again and again. As we listen anew to Jesuss call to go to the world with his message of peace, let us not make the mistake of thinking we go out of duty. We go in the power of the Spirit that breathed life into the primordial clay of Genesis, that breathed life into Jesus’s murdered corpse, that can breathe life even into the dry bones of our tired lives. Let us receive the gift of God’s Spirit, let us remind ourselves of all the ways our faith gives us hope and comfort and inspiration, let us hear Jesus’s words of peace spoken to our own hearts, and then know we have the ability and strength and privilege of speaking peace to others.