Breathe on Me
They gathered together, inside the house.
Inside, they knew each other. Inside, they trusted that they were safe. But out there, on the outside, they couldn’t be sure. Couldn’t trust that the people they saw on the streets were not a danger to them. They were afraid. Afraid of what was out there, because they knew that one act of carelessness could endanger them, even lead to their death. So they gathered together, inside the house, huddled for comfort and safety.
Am I talking about you today? Huddled in your house away from the dangers of a COVID-19 world?
Or am I talking about the disciples of Jesus, huddled together from the dangers outside in a post-Resurrection world?
Of course, the answer is yes.
Let’s start with the disciples. John’s Gospel repeats a phrase as it tells the story of the last week of Christ: “fear of the Jews.” And we hear it again in the passage today. To clarify, the disciples were not being anti-Semitic here. Unfortunately, John’s words about “the Jews” have tragically been used to defend a disgusting anti-Semitism for the last 2,000 years. But that wasn’t what was happening in that room. The disciples were not afraid of Jewish people, as if they were afraid of Jews more than someone of another faith tradition. Of course, they were Jews. Jesus and all his disciples were all Jews. Everyone they knew were Jews. Chances are, they didn’t know anyone of another faith tradition.
What they were afraid of was the Judean religious leaders, the Temple authority structure that opposed Jesus and his message, and his outspokenness, and had him killed for it. After Jesus had been arrested and killed, his disciples were terrified that they were next. If they could kill their leader, the miracle-worker, this man of power, what could the authorities do to them?
And so, they huddled together, John says, “with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.” They were terrified to leave this place, because they didn’t know who on the outside was safe and who wasn’t. Now, we aren’t sure how many of them were there. When we read “the disciples” we usually assume the 12 (now of course down to 11), but in John’s Gospel, that is not always the case. He doesn’t focus only on the 12 as the other Gospels do. So, inside of this house, there may have been several disciples, men and women.
By now, they have heard the report of Mary, that she has met and seen a risen Jesus a few hours earlier. But by then, only Mary has had that experience. And it wasn’t like she walked in the door with the news and everyone put on their Easter bonnets and bowties and started passing around Easter lilies and singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The mood in that house was still anxiety, confusion, skepticism, heightened awareness, and overall, fear. They jumped at every knock at the door. They peeked out the window to see what was happening on the streets below. They were terrified of what was coming around the corner.
Anyone else know the feeling? There is a lot of unease and a lot of fear in many corners of the world right now.
Including the Church world. Church consultants send me a lot of emails, especially in these days. They aren’t travelling around to places, so they email people to talk about the crisis. But there is an undertone to some of these emails that sounds a little terrifying. Folks are starting to ask, “what happens if people don’t come back to church?”
A lot of us, for the first time in our lives, have come to suspect physical closeness. We are hyper aware of people coughing near us, sneezing by us, or even breathing on us. We know that that simple act could endanger us or those we love. So even when the danger has passed, what if some assume it is better to stay inside than face what is beyond those doors? What if there is a continuing fear that leads people to believe that they should never again be in a group of people? What if there is an abiding fear that they should never again give anyone a hug or a handshake? What if there is an irrational fear that stepping foot outside our homes is always going to be dangerous and risky? What if one day we open the doors to the church, and no one shows up? I think that is a part of the fear that leads churches even now to continue to meet in person around the country. Experts have told us that it is unsafe, but some congregations fear that if they stop meeting, they may go somewhere else or just stop coming. Church consultants, and preachers, and church Finance Committee members all over the country are starting to ask, “what if they never come back?”
So like the disciples, they are huddling in their own Zoom rooms, their own email chains, tossing and turning in their own beds, afraid of what is going to happen around the corner. Like the disciples, the mood in some of houses of worship is anxiety, confusion, skepticism, heightened awareness, and overall, fear.
Into this house of fear steps an unexpected Jesus! Before they knew what was happening, the risen Jesus was in their midst, appearing in the face of their fear. A ton of stuff happens in these five short verses here in John. But what I notice most is that Jesus gives the disciples two gifts:
First, he gives them the gift of peace. Do you notice that Jesus says exactly the same words twice: “Peace be with you.” The first time it might be overlooked. That phrase was common in Jesus’ time as a general greeting: “Evening! How are ya? Hey, what’s up?” With a head nod and a smile, Jesus shows up out of thin air and greets the disciples. But then, he says it again. It’s like the first time is common: “Peace…what’s up?” But the second time, he grabs them by their faces, and looks into their eyes and tells them, “Peace. Be. With. You. Get it?” It is a profound gift that he gives them. That even in the middle of what has been the scariest time of their lives, he grants them the gift of peace. “Stop. Take a breath. Know that you are loved and cared for by your Creator. The one who promised you eternal and abiding love has come through on that promise. Even death itself is not enough to keep me from coming to you with this gift. This gift of peace.” That is the first gift that Jesus gives them.
But he isn’t done. There is a second gift that he gives them, immediately afterwards: the gift of power. John tells us that he “breathed on the disciples” and granted them the power of the Holy Spirit. We usually associate the coming of the Holy Spirit with Luke’s version in Acts, but here in John, the coming of the Spirit is intermingled with the story of Easter. Before the sun sets on Resurrection Sunday, Christ has invited his followers to receive the Holy Spirit. The Greek word here means something like “putting a new nature into them” and harkens back to the Hebrew in two Old Testament stories: the story of creation in which God breathed into humanity and gave them life, and the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel where God likewise breathes life into a collection of dry bones. Once again, Christ is breathing into the disciples a new life and a new purpose. No longer are they dry and empty bodies hollowed out by fear: the power of Christ enlivens and repurposes them. Puts a new nature into them.
The final chapter of Rowan Williams’s book Resurrection is titled “The Risen Body.” By this he means two things. Of course, he speaks of the physical resurrected and risen body of Jesus on Easter. But he also means to suggest that the disciples themselves become a risen body. Risen from anxiety into purpose. Risen from confusion into mission. Risen from denial and abandonment to restored relationship. Risen from fear into power.
Even that last verse is full of meaning. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.” In John, sinfulness is less about moral failing and more about blindness to the purpose and grace of God. So, the forgiveness of sins is about taking off those blinders and allowing others to fully experience that grace. In this last verse, Jesus is bestowing upon all the disciples who are gathered this power to tear the blinders off an unseeing world and open their eyes to God’s grace.
For those of us who are recipients of the legacy of the Reformation, this anticipates the idea of the priesthood of all believers, bestowing upon all of us the power to be priests to each other. In the same way, we are all given the gift of power of the Spirit, as Christ breathes into us. He puts a new nature in us! We too are members of the Risen Body, the sisters and brothers of this legacy of love and grace. Our calling and our purpose is inexorably tied to Easter.
Likewise, we are also recipients of the first gift that Jesus gave: the gift of peace. Perhaps that gift is what some of us need most in these troubled times. Together, these twin gifts of Peace and Power are exactly what the disciples needed…and exactly what we need today as well.
Whenever I start to see too much anxiety in the world around me, especially in the Church world, I start asking questions:
- “What shall Easter people be today?”
- “How might the peace of Christ continue to speak into our hearts and into our churches?”
- “How might we continue to be the risen body that Christ has called and sent?”
- “How might we tap into the power of the Spirit given to us?”
And this is the question that is perhaps the most controversial: “What if the people don’t come back to our churches once all of this is over…and that’s okay?” After all, maybe the worst thing that we can do after all of this is come back as pew sitters and holy thumb-twiddlers. Maybe we are learning through all of this is what it means to be church in new and exciting and powerful ways. The fearful saw the Early Church and called it a scattering. The faithful saw the same experience and called it a sending!
Now, I think there will come a day when we can all come back into this space together and hug and handshake and do ministry and sing songs of praise and worship. I don’t think we will ever be “an online church,” conducting all of our ministries and our worship in a virtual way, never in the same building together. I don’t think that is in our future anytime soon. But I think it is right and good to ask in the days ahead, “how will we be church online?” What does all of this mean for our capability to reach beyond the walls of this space to do and be church? How are we now free to be creative and innovative and adaptive? How can we be the Risen Body together? How is this sending a new opportunity to text and Zoom and chat and discuss and pray the blinders off a terrified and unseeing world? We have received these twin gifts of Peace and Power this Easter. What if we use those gifts to see ourselves as a sent people? What if we receive the Spirit and receive a new nature?
Don’t look now, Easter people, but you just got breathed on. The thing that terrifies us in grocery stores and doctor’s offices is exactly the thing that Jesus did to give his disciples power. Perhaps Christ is breathing on us again today, putting a new nature in us, giving us the power to forgive and undo the blindness of sin in this world. Jesus has shown up once again in unexpected ways, and once again, our terror is replaced by purpose. Our confusion is replaced by peace. And our anxious wondering is replaced by the calling to be the Risen Body of Christ in the world today!