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Breath

John 20:19-29
David A. Davis
April 15, 2018
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Jesus’ breath, the breath of the Risen Christ in the 20th chapter of the gospel of John comes with just a bit of baggage. Bible baggage. In the creation narrative, the second one in Genesis, chapter two, you can’t miss the breath. “The Lord God formed man (Adam) from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living being” (v. 7). Breath. Breath of God. Breath of life.

It is breath that gives life in the valley of the dry bones. The first scripture lesson this morning, Ezekiel 37: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (5-6). “‘Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live’… I prophesied as the Lord commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (10). Breath. In Hebrew: wind, spirit. Breath of God. Spirit of God. Wind of God. Breath of life. When John records that Jesus breathed on them, his breath has just a bit of a familiar odor to it.

When the Risen Christ tells the disciples to “receive the Holy Spirit” in the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit in John, it ought to strike a familiar chord in the ears of those who had been sitting at his feet. Those who have been sitting at the feet of his teaching in John. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees the Spirit nor knows the Spirit. You know the Spirit because the Spirit abides with you and the Spirit will be in you… I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said unto you” (14:15-17, 25-26).

“Jesus breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Maybe better translated: seize the Holy Spirit. Grasp the Holy Spirit. And the disciples and the readers of John’s Gospel and the church and you and I, we hear the Holy Spirit and it lands so softly in the ear because of his teaching, and because of the all the times and all places we’ve heard his teaching before. Advocate. Counselor. Paraclete. Jesus mentions the Holy Spirit and deep down in your heart, you find yourself whispering, “yes… yes.” It is so striking and so comforting all at once. That amid all of the mystery, and the miracle, and the inexplicable, and the unbelievable of his resurrection, his breath smells so familiar, so darn familiar.

I don’t know about you but when it comes to feeling somebody’s breath, experiencing somebody’s breath in a way that you both smell it and feel it all at once on your face, the preferable list of folks in my life for whom that would be okay, okay for me to feel their breath on my face? It’s not very long. There’s Cathy, my wife, the love of my life, and my kids. No, check that, my kids back when they were babies, not now. When they were so young and precious, scrunching up in my arms, pulling at and twisting the chest hairs before falling asleep, and then their deep sleep breath on my face. There’s nothing like it. A baby’s breath on your face. My kids’ breath, then. Now, not so much. So the list is very, very short. It’s an intimate list.

This Upper Room scene the first Easter night, it has an intimate feel to it. The doors are locked. The disciples are filled with fear. Emotions are running high. Everyone is on edge. And Jesus appears. He breathes peace into the room first. Right off the bat. Peace. That room of tension, fear, grief, unknown. “Peace be with you,” he says to those who were closest to him, those who loved him, those who dropped everything for him, those who deserted him. He shows them his hands, his side, his wounds. And again he speaks of peace. Peace, not once, but twice. The second must have been more of a plea for them to know peace, receive peace, grasp peace. Please, please, peace.

“‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The marks of his suffering and death are still there, etched in his body and, still, he gives life. He offers life. He breathes life. Like God at creation. Like God through the prophet Ezekiel. The breath of God. The breath of life. Nothing more intimate. And with that breath, with that life, comes the Spirit. Holy Spirit. His Spirit. The breath they could smell and feel on their face. It was his.

Some try to figure out John on the Holy Spirit and how it relates to Luke-Acts and the great story of Pentecost. Tongues of fire. Mighty wind. Peter preaching. Thousands gathered. All hearing in their own language. That’s the Holy Spirit. People get tripped up trying to work on a timeline of the coming of the Spirit. How one story relates to the other. How they are the same. How they are different. When the Spirit comes. When the Spirit hasn’t. The Spirit to the disciples. The Spirit to the Church. What is the Spirit here? What is the Spirit there?

The desire to want to parse every detail of scripture in relation to Holy Spirit so it all falls into place is a bit ironic. The attempt to parse Holy Spirit in such a critical, linear, rational way, well, it sort of doesn’t make much sense, does it? To try to impose logic on a narrative that includes a dead man rising. To try to clearly define the action, the timing, the imprint of something called spirit. To try to put such a fine point on God’s Spirit, God’s presence, God’s promise. God’s breath. To keep it all so safely intellectual and avoid anything too personal, or intimate. Because, after all, who wants to smell it, or feel it. Holy Spirit. Breath. Jesus breathed on them and said, “take a Spirit, a Holy Spirit, my Spirit. Take it with you and hold onto it.”

And as they can still feel his breath on their face, Jesus brings up forgiveness. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Here’s where you wish one of those disciples, just one, would have asked. Thomas wasn’t there and Judas was already gone. Judas was gone, gone. But it would have only taken one to ask and help everyone since, every one of us since. Jesus on forgiving and retaining sins. If only one would have asked, would have said, “Excuse me?” Because most of the followers of Jesus who have come after have pretty much been trying to figure out what on earth, what in heaven, the Risen Jesus meant.

Students of the Bible point to Matthew’s Gospel for a companion text, for some teaching from Jesus that sort of matches this resurrection couplet on forgiveness. In Matthew, Jesus was talking to the disciples in Caesarea Philippi. It was after Peter told Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (16:16). Jesus called Peter the Rock upon which he would build his church. And then Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (19). Oh, that’s much better, that’s much easier.

The church forebears historically, from pretty much since the earliest of days, pretty much ever since, have thought the keys of the kingdom and binding and loosing, that it all had something to do with forgiving and retaining, that it had something to do with forgiveness of sins. And of course, pretty much since then those same forebears have argued about the lineage of the apostles and who can and cannot forgive sins, and the role of the priest, and the whole concept of penance, repentance, how the forgiveness of sins plays out in the life of faith, in discipleship, in following Jesus.

But instead of launching down the road of doctrine and ecclesiology and the priestly offices of the church vs. the priesthood of all believers…again; instead of trying to figure it all out, isn’t it enough to take note that after Jesus breathed Holy Spirit upon them, the very next thing he mentions is sin and forgiveness? Instead of trying to diagram the sentence and fully understand all that it might mean to forgive and all that it might mean to retain, isn’t it enough to be moved by the notion that the very first concern of Jesus, with his breath still hanging in the air, is an abundance of life defined by forgiveness? Instead of responding to the urge to want a complete and systematic explication of forgiveness and the human condition, isn’t it enough to step back and prayerfully ponder that with the breath of the once crucified and now risen Savior still on their faces the disciples hear him plea for a life of peace and forgiveness?

In the resurrection chapters of the gospel of John—before Jesus shows Thomas his hands and side and says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” before he appears along of the Sea of Galilee while the disciples were fishing and oversees a miraculous catch of fish, before he engages Peter in that soul searching conversation, “Do you love me more than these?”—the Risen Christ sent them with the breath of his life to proclaim the forgiveness of sins.

In the resurrection chapters of the gospel of John, the first breath of salvation is forgiveness and the turning away from sin. Which is all to say that an encounter with the Risen Christ, an intimate relationship with the Risen Christ has everything, absolutely everything, to do with how you live your life, and how I live mine.

From the relationships you hold most dear to the passing encounter with a stranger on the street, from all that you bring to bear on those you love the most, to the way you treat the person pumping your gas or pushing your wheelchair or ringing up your groceries or driving too slowly in front of you. From the spirit of forgiveness and peace that does or doesn’t radiate from you at work or at school or at your dinner table or when you’re at school, to the spirit of forgiveness and peace that does or doesn’t come over you when there is no one else who knows but you and God. It really does matter, all of it matters.

Because there is an intimacy to the gospel of Jesus Christ. His breath on your face, it isn’t always comfortable. But with his breath, his breath of life, his breath of God, Jesus invites you to take a Spirit, grasp a Holy Spirit, receive his Spirit. Take it with you and hold on to it. Today and tomorrow because Mondays can be hard. And each day after that. There’s a lot going on out there. My hunch is that for most of us, maybe all of us, there’s a lot going on in here too. Take his breath with you and hold on to it. Forever.

© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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