Breath of the Spirit — Sermon for Pentecost 2014

John 20:19-23

“He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”    John has his own story of how the Spirit fell upon the followers of Jesus.  It’s different from the traditional Pentecost story, but what he does is connect the Holy Spirit with the very essence of life. In fact, there’s a connection between this story and the story of creation in Genesis 2.  In that story, God created the first human being by forming a body from the dust of the ground, and then God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).  The biblical words for breath and Spirit are the same.  So to have breath is to have the Spirit.


We see this connection in the book of Ezekiel, where the “spirit of the Lord” took the prophet to the Valley of Dry Bones.  Then the Lord asked Ezekiel – “can these dry bones live?”  God then told Ezekiel to prophesy to these dry and lifeless bones, saying to them:  “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”  And the bones came to life, with sinews and flesh and skin covering the bones.  Then, comes the breath of God, bringing the body, which is the nation of Judah living in exile back to life – so that they might know that God is the Lord (Ezekiel 37:1-6).
Yes, there is a connection between breath and life.  Cheryl and I were present when the husband of a member of a previous congregation was being taken off a ventilator that was keeping him alive.  As soon as the air stopped flowing, his entire body seemed to deflate.  His chest heaved and then collapsed.  The breath of life was gone, and without breath there is no life.


 In this reading from the Gospel of John, the disciples are huddled together in a safe house.  They’re afraid of the authorities who had arrested and executed Jesus.  At that very moment, Jesus appeared, even though the door was locked.  After he demonstrates that he had risen from the dead, Jesus commissions them.  He sends them on a mission, even as God had sent him on a mission.
It’s at that moment that Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Yes, Jesus breathed onto them the breath of spiritual life, even as God breathed physical life into Adam.   With every breath we take, we breathe in the Spirit of God, who accompanies us and empowers us as we take up the mission to which Jesus has called us.
Sometimes we get too caught up in daily life and forget that we are sustained by the breath of God.  One way of connecting with the Spirit of God is to make use of breath prayers.  Bruce Epperly offers a word of guidance.


 Begin by finding a comfortable position, with your back straight and feet on the floor. Take a few cleansing breaths, letting go of any stress. Then, gently inhale and exhale, experiencing opening to God’s Spirit with each breath. As you inhale, silently repeat the words, “I breathe the Spirit deeply in.” Experience yourself being filled with God’s Spirit from head to toe. As you exhale, let go of any burdens that you may be experiencing. You may choose to say as you exhale, “I breathe the Spirit gratefully out” or “I breathe the Spirit joyfully out” or whatever describes your current personal condition.


When we breathe in the Spirit, we receive power.  When we exhale, we release that power into the world.  In other words, to live in Christ is to breathe in the Spirit.
One of the emphases of John’s gospel is the way in which Jesus and God are connected.  We see this in John 17, where Jesus prays that the disciples might be one even as he is one with the Father.  In another place, Jesus tells the disciples that whoever sees him, has seen the Father (John 12:45).  So, if we are one with Christ, who is one with the Father, then when the world sees us they see God. That doesn’t make us divine beings, but if we are full of the Spirit, then we represent Jesus to the world.
I appreciate what the Roman Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown says about this relationship between us and Jesus, and Jesus and the Father.

    Their mission is to continue the Son’s mission; and this requires that the Son must be present to them during this mission, just as the Father had to be present to the Son during his mission [The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Anchor Bible, Vol 29, Part A), p. 1036].

By living in the Spirit, we continue Jesus’ mission, which is an expression of the mission of God.
We continue that mission when we use the gifts of God given to us by the Spirit of God.  As Paul writes, each of us has been given a “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).  Therefore, each of us has a different role to play in the life of the congregation as it moves out into the world, sharing the love of God with the world so that all might experience the common good.
Yesterday, some of us traveled to Detroit and we did a bit of work with Gospel in Action Detroit andRippling Hope.  Some of us mowed tall grass.  Some painted.  Some worked on a garage door. Some cleaned out a garage.  In doing this, we were being the hands and feet of God.  We didn’t put up a big sign saying that God was at work, but I think people understood.
    The tag line of the Metro Coalition of Congregations, of which we’re members, is: “People of Faith for the Common Good.”  MCC sponsored a Transit Summit on Wednesday at the Detroit Zoo.  We brought together business and community leaders and we invited them to work together to create a world class transit system so that the people of the region could get to work, to school, and to play.  We appealed to their bottom line, but we also brought the “moral imperative.”  I don’t know if everyone heard the message.  The reporters in the room didn’t seem to catch it, but that’s okay.  Time will tell.
    In a couple of weeks we’re sponsoring a concert and photo exhibit that focuses on the lives and concerns of our LGBT brothers and sisters.  We are praying that this event will help us discern how we can be more welcoming to the diversity of human experience that is already in our midst.
In each of these events, we are invited to live in the Spirit and ask the question – what does it mean to be Christ-like? This is a question that we need to ask about the entirety of our lives.  How do we live with the breath of the Spirit energizing our lives and our ministries?
Jesus gives us one more clue.  After he breathes the Spirit upon them, he gives them the ministry of forgiveness:  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Some of us have been exploring the question of forgiveness.  We’ve been discussing a little book by Marjorie Thompson simply entitled: Forgiveness: A Lenten Study. She  writes about the process of forgiveness, which includes honesty and repentance.  But she ends with the act of forgiveness and reconciliation.
One of the texts we studied was Jesus’ statement from the cross:  “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  I think that they did know what they were doing, but Jesus forgave them anyway. That’s not easy to do.  We struggle with forgiveness, even as we hope and pray that God will forgive us.
What’s interesting is that we not only have the ability forgive; we also have the right to retain the sins of others.  Perhaps there are times and places when we shouldn’t extend forgiveness – at least not at that moment.  So, knowing when to forgive and when not to forgive takes great spiritual discernment.
One of the stories that Marjorie Thompson tells is about two men – Gary and Wayne.  Wayne had caused Gary great harm during a motel robbery many years earlier, and was now in prison.  Through a mediator Gary sought to connect with Wayne, and in the course of their conversation, Wayne expressed his deep sorrow for what he had done.  What’s interesting in this story is that we don’t see Gary offering forgiveness, even though he stays in relationship with Wayne. So, maybe reconciliation can happen without there being forgiveness.

It would seem, that if we are to be Pentecost people, living with the Breath of the Spirit, then our mission includes sharing God’s forgiveness and grace, while seeking where possible reconciliation.  This would seem to be a good expression of the Pentecost message.