A Breathing Faith
I want to take a moment to say what a joy it is for me to be with you this morning. I have been in your midst for only two weeks, and the spirit of this congregation, the spirit within all of you, has made me feel so at home. Getting to know Hamilton and the staff members that serve this church has been amazing. They are all thoughtful, caring, helpful and fun!
I am grateful to each of them, and to you, for welcoming me into the ministry of Federated church. I can’t end without saying that I am especially grateful to Judy Bagley-Bonner, because if I had been ministering with Judy for these past years, I would be begging her not to retire! She’s great!
Judy and I had time last week to get to know each other. She is wise, loving, gracious and helpful, but you already know this. I already miss her, and I know that you do, too. This is a community filled with God’s grace, and God is with us in our comings and goings.
Let us pray…
Holy One, we are a world in need of restoration and courage. Calm us now. Open us to your spirit. Help us trust that you are our creator; fill us with the hope and joy and resilience that comes only from you. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Go, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
The door was locked. The forces outside in the world wielded great power. They had heard the strange testimony from Mary about encountering the risen Christ, but how to make sense of their lives?We find the disciples right on the heels of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, and then suddenly, first Mary’s, then Peter and John’s astonishment at the empty tomb.
As we gather today, Easter morning was one week ago. We celebrated! We sang hymns of Joy! We feasted! But as we return to the gospel story, it’s only a few hours later. It is the same day as the discovery of the empty tomb, and there is still the shock, the confusion, the wondering…. what does this.. mean?
Mary and the disciples have been traumatized. On Friday they watched in agony as their rabbi died. Early Sunday morning they stood in confusion in the dark beside the empty tomb, still out of breath from running there as quickly as they could to see it for themselves. And then the shock – Jesus… came back. To THEM. First to Mary outside of the tomb and then to the disciples locked inside a room for fear of their lives. The disciples are locked in this room and suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus is standing among them – offering them several things all at once. He speaks the common Jewish greeting: “Peace be with you.” He tells them that as the father sends him, so he sends them, to carry on God’s work.
And then, unusually, upon saying those words, Jesus breathes on them. The text does not say that they are feeling the breath of his spoken words. The words have stopped. Jesus isn’t speaking. He is now breathing on them. I’ve tried to imagine this. What did it look like when Jesus breathed on them? What did it feel like? Imagine a person you have loved more the world itself, suddenly standing beside you, talking to you, after you thought they had died. A loss of the ground under our feet would set in. I wonder if we would even hear the words that were said?
But then, Jesus stopped speaking. The sound stopped. It was quiet and in the space of that quiet came his breath, breathing out on them. And then with these words, he then told them why: “receive the Holy Spirit.” What would those words have meant to them: “receive the Holy Spirit?” The word Spirit as used in this context is the Greek word, pneuma. Now pneuma has multiple definitions and overlapping connotations. Pneuma means Spirit. Pneuma means wind. Pneuma can also mean breath. When Jesus breathed on the disciples, the gospel is showing us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus had told his followers more than once that he would send them an advocate, the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God that had been with Jesus throughout his ministry. Jesus has come back to give them a parting gift, an advocate, to strengthen and comfort them. These are the disciples who have just deserted Jesus, who are hiding so that they aren’t recognized as followers of Jesus, fearing they might be killed. They are feeling deserted themselves.
And this is when Jesus shows up. He came back to them. They are afraid, and they are grieving.
He gave them the Spirit he had promised them – the gift of courage and comfort in the midst of their fear. Courage to proclaim Christ’s resurrection. Comfort in knowing that they were not alone, Giving:
Courage to stand up to Roman oppression,
Courage to feed the hungry,
to visit the prisoner,
to love the Samaritan,
to love as God loves,
even, and especially, when it is hard.
Jesus understood that the disciples needed comfort and courage. Jesus had conquered the power of death, and this is Good News. Jesus calls us to follow him, to pick up the work that he started, and this is .…the challenging news. Is it wrong to wonder if it would have been easier for the disciples if Jesus had stayed in the tomb? I mean, it would have been soul-crushing, horrible, traumatic, a travesty of justice, a loss of all spiritual hope. But maybe, also easier? It might have confirmed: power always wins; it’s impossible to make a difference. They could have become fatalists. They could have said, there’s nothing we can do. Horrible, yes, but maybe…easier.
That would be a world where we wouldn’t work to save things because we wouldn’t think that we could make a difference. But that is not what happened. That is not our story. Jesus, crucified, was resurrected. Jesus, somehow, resurrected, came back. Jesus showed himself to his followers, spoke their names, breathed on them. This is our story. Now we know that the power of violence and domination doesn’t ultimately win, now we know that it is possible to make a difference. The world is created for good, and God works for good through us. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into us so that we may gratefully live and act in a world that has been given to us as a sacred trust.
I wonder how we are like the disciples in the locked room, not sure of our fate…. convinced that the forces in the world around us are just too big for us to do anything about? On this Earth day celebration Sunday, I am thinking about the systemic and devastating changes to our climate.
How do we process it? How do we manage our fears? The problem seems so big and entrenched. It is easy to feel fatalistic. It is easy to give up. It frightens us. We struggle to imagine a long-term future that is GOOD for God’s creation. Creation that is God’s gift of unspeakable joy, and we have failed to serve it.
It IS, easier to give up and join the disciples in a locked room—just going about our day to day lives. Giving up would be soul-crushing, horrible, traumatic, a travesty of justice, a loss of all spiritual hope. But maybe, easier? Yet, God did not choose “easier.” God has never promised us that the task of loving the world would be easy. The risen Christ has come back to us, has given us the Spirit that that overcomes the powers of death. The same Spirit that was in Jesus is in us, this same Spirit that breathed our world into being.
In the book of Genesis, we learn that in the beginning, there was nothing but a formless void, and the spirit of God blew like a wind above the face of the deep. God breathed over the waters and life began. Jesus, son of God, incarnated into this world with us, breathed this wind on us all, calling us to pay attention… to this planet that gives us life, calling us to co-create and serve the intricate, interconnectedness of nature, just as the natural world serves us. We are called to fall in love with the earth that sustains us. What we love, we care for; what we love, we fight for.
We came to life animated by the breath of God. We are re-animated by Jesus through the breath of the Holy Spirit. We can be born again into the work of the spirit by walking outside and breathing in the oxygen given to us by the plants….We can look up and see the grandeur of the sky, the universe above us, we can hike through the forest in awe of the trees that are nurturing one another through their root systems. Even the trees are caring for each other. The earth is our home, our nest, our family of life to care for. The prophet Isaiah writes: “God’s Spirit causes the people to Flourish like plants in a well-watered land.” Our flourishing is interdependent with the natural world.
In God, all things flourish. We share the created world with everything in and on the earth, with the wind that God breathed over the waters, with the breath that God breathed into the first human created from dust, with the water, with the plants, with the trees, with the soil, with the sun, moon and stars, and finally, with the countless creatures who inhabit the planet with us.
The good news of Easter, just one week ago, lingers. It is still Easter day for the disciples in the locked room. It can still be Easter day for us. We are faced with the extraordinary mystery of the resurrection, raising Christ to new life, back from the dead. We are grappling with the shock of Jesus standing beside us and telling us to go and do likewise. Telling us to live as he lives, to breathe as he breathes. Theologian John Stendahl describes it like this:“Jesus gives the holy spirit not as words on a page, but breathing it out, breath that is partly the shaped exhalation of speech, but also air for our lungs, life for our lives.”
We’ve been given Life to join God in life giving work. We are called to care for this planet, our home. This earth, our mother, without whom we would not live, move, or have our being. How can we not love HER… and work to resurrect all the life that we can in all the ways that we can? This is our calling. We have been equipped with the love of God in Jesus Christ, and the power and courage and comfort of the Holy Spirit, so that, together, we may help all that lives to flourish. Thanks be to God, Amen.