The Air We Breathe

David Hosey
Kay Spiritual Life Center
April 12, 2015
John 20:19-23; 14:11-21

Image courtesy wordle.net

John 20:19–23 •  It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

John 14:11–14 • Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

[Listen to the audio here]

A few weeks ago, I heard the news that American University had been added to the list of schools under investigation by the Department of Education because of questions about the university’s handling of sexual assault cases. This revelation has re-ignited discussions about how to fight the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s a discussion that we in the United Methodist – Protestant Community have been having, as well. Elle, a member of this community and of the PEERS group on campus, led us in a workshop about consent on our leadership retreat at the end of February. Alex invited members of our men’s group to participate in a workshop on preventing sexual violence just this past week. And tomorrow, I hope you’ll join us in participating in Take Back the Night, right out on the Quad – an opportunity for survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories and to receive support and affirmation.

I’m not going to preach a sermon, tonight, about sexual assault. Not exactly. What I mean is that I’m not going to tell you statistics about sexual assault on campus, or share stories of survivors, or make policy proposals that I think the university should adopt. All of those things are important, and there are people in this community who can speak to them with more knowledge and skill than I.

What I want to talk about, tonight, is the kind of community that I think we are called to be – a kind of community where stories of sexual assault and harassment can be heard and taken seriously, a kind of community that speaks out for truth, justice, and healing, and that empowers others to do the same.

What I want to talk about, in other words, is who we are, in light of the resurrection that Christians proclaim.

And that starts with a group of disciples. Hiding in a locked room. Afraid.

They were afraid because the religious, political, and legal authorities had shown, once again, that their primary concern was protecting their own power and prestige, even at the expense of the innocent or the abused.

They were afraid because even if they could muster the courage to speak about the things they had experienced, they might be called liars or lunatics.

They were afraid because the people who had hurt them were not strangers, but members of their own community, people who they knew and recognized.

They were hiding in a locked room, afraid.

And then something changed, something that would lead them to speak up and to speak out. Something that would transform them into a community that could break the silence and witness to the victory of life over death, of truth over mendacity, of love over violence.

Jesus appeared. And according to our first reading, he said, “Peace to you.” And he showed them the scars that he still carried, the scars of a victim and a survivor, the scars of abuse and violence inflicted on him by the aforementioned alliance of religious, political, and legal authority.

And then – and here’s where things get a bit weird – he breathed on them.

So, ok. Jesus. I know that you’re trying to prove that you’re alive and all that, and not just a weird ghost or hallucination or something.

But, like, the wounds-in-your-hands-and-side thing was sufficient. No need to breathe all over us.

This would be a very odd detail indeed, if we didn’t remember back to the beginning of John’s gospel, where Jesus is presented as the Incarnate Word through whom all things came to exist. For the author of this particular gospel, the risen Christ is identified with the creation of the cosmos.

So then, we go back to the beginning, and we remember the first creation story in the book of Genesis, which we read at the Easter Vigil service a week ago. “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” the text says, “the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters.” That word, “wind,” is a translation of a Hebrew word that can also be translated as “spirit” OR as “breath.”
So in the beginning, there is God, and God’s spirit, God’s breath, is stirring up the waters of creation.

And then, a chapter later, we have another account of creation. In this one, God sculpts the first human out of the earth and breathes life into its nostrils. It’s an intimate act, and maybe a bit uncomfortable for us to imagine – a sort of divine CPR. So in the beginning, there is God’s spirit, God’s breath, animating the clay into a living creature.

And then we skip forward, again, to another passage that we heard at last week’s Easter Vigil. The prophet Ezekiel is taken by God and set down in a valley full of dry, dusty bones. And God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, and to say, “I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again!” And God summons the four winds, and puts breath into the dead bodies, and they live. So in the midst of death and dryness, there is God’s spirit, God’s breath, giving new life and new hope.

And we could skip forward, again, to the letter of Paul to the Romans. The apostle writes that when we are desperate, when we have no idea how to pray, that God’s spirit cries out within us in sighs too deep for words, sighs that resonate with the groaning of all of creation for freedom and liberation. So in the midst of groaning and of confusion, there is God’s spirit, God’s breath, praying for us and through us for the renewal of all creation.

So when Jesus, the Incarnate Word, breathes on those disciples, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” it’s not just a weird little proof that he’s alive. No, he’s doing what the scriptures say that God is always doing: breathing life into that which had no life. Re-creating the disciples as a community of renewed life and renewed hope. Taking dust and dryness and providing the animating force of a living, breathing creature – the body of Christ.

What’s more, when Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit, he’s fulfilling a promise he made to them. It seems like so long ago, so much has happened in those few days – but it was only four days prior, the night before he died, that Jesus sat with his disciples and shared with them the words of our second scripture passage tonight. Promising not to leave them alone, even as he prepares them for his departure, Jesus says that he will ask the Father-Mother-Creator-God to send the disciples the Spirit of Truth. And here he is, in a room they had thought locked, breathing onto them that very Spirit.

Jesus, in our second passage, gives a name for that Spirit. The translation we read tonight calls it the “Companion.” Other translations read “Advocate.” Still others read “Comforter.”

God’s Spirit, God’s breath: an Advocate. A Companion. A Comforter.

The word, in Greek, is parakletos. It means something like, “one who is called along alongside.” For the first century Hellenistic world of which John’s community is a part, it likely had a legal meaning, reflected in the English translation “advocate.” [i] The parakletos was the person who advocated for the accused or the witness in a court of law. They spoke on behalf of that person when that person couldn’t speak; they accompanied them through the process, walking with them through their trial. They offered aid and comfort.

The disciples are in a locked room, terrified that they are to be on trial next, that they will be prosecuted and found guilty of blasphemy and sedition, just as Jesus had been.

And Jesus offers them breath, and spirit – the type of Spirit who is an Advocate, a Companion, and a Comforter.

That’s the spirit that makes Christian community possible.

That’s the breath that animates the body of Christ.

That, my friends, is the air that we breathe.

The Christian community – which is to say, the post-Resurrection community – can only be a living community to the extent that it is breathing in the breath of God, the spirit of God. We are only a Christian community when the air that we breathe is the spirit which advocates for those who feel silenced, accompanies those who are afraid, and comforts those who are afflicted.

That’s not a list of things we “should” be doing as a community. It’s not a legal code for us. It’s not a series of programs. It’s not even a normative guideline, like the Sermon on the Mount or the ethical exhortations of Paul. It’s our identity. It’s who we are, who we are created to be by the spirit, the breath, of the Resurrected Christ.

It’s the air we breathe.

Jesus told the disciples, as they sat together on that fateful night, that he would ask God, and that God would send “another Companion.” That’s what the text says: another Companion. Which raises the question – if the Spirit is “another” Companion, who was the first one? And the Sunday school answer is, in this case, the right one: the first Companion, the first Advocate, the first Comforter, is Jesus. So when Jesus tells the disciples, in that room they had thought to be locked, that he is sending them just as he had been sent, he’s saying: “As I was sent, as an Advocate, a Companion, a Comforter, for all of creation; so, too, are you sent – as a community of advocates, companions, and comforters.” When he tells them that they will “do even greater works than these,” the works he is talking about are works of advocacy, accompaniment, and compassion.

How do we, as Christians, participate in the conversation about sexual assault on campus?

We take a deep breath of the Spirit of God, and we remember who we are: a community of advocates, companions, and comforters. A community in which we speak out for those who feel silenced, accompany those who feel afraid, and comfort those who are afflicted. A community in which stories of struggle are believed, in which people are empowered to speak up and speak out, in which compassion is the guiding principle.

I could go on. How do we, as Christians, participate in conversation about racism?

About police violence?

About workers rights? About environmental degradation? About economic inequality? About bullying? About religious discrimination or bigotry? About political violence? About violence directed against transgender persons? About mental illness, depression, anxiety, suicide?

We take a deep breath, and we remember who we are.

Advocates. Companions. Comforters.

There has been a lot of ink spilled recently about the church in the U.S. “dying.” Almost always, what is meant by this is something like, “Our denomination is shrinking.” Or, “an organization made up of people who look and think like me is having a hard time because our neighborhood has changed and is now made up of people who don’t look or think like me.” Or, “we have less societal power and less material resources than we used to have.”

But the God that we worship is a God of resurrection. Of new life. That God, I believe, continues to breathe God’s spirit, God’s breath, onto us. Wherever communities of advocacy, accompaniment, and compassion are formed, I believe God’s spirit is there, animating and bringing life out of death. And that’s where the church is alive.

Whatever it is that is dying in the church is dying for lack of exposure to its oxygen – to the spirit, the breath, of the resurrected Christ. Whatever it is that is dying in the church is dying for lack of breath. And the only type of breath that we have, the only breath that God offers us, is the Spirit that’s called Advocate, Companion, and Comforter.

That’s the resurrection hope. No. Not hope. Identity. That’s the resurrection identity.

So let’s stop.

And take a breath.

And receive the Spirit of the one who says to us:

“I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these, because I am going to God….As God has sent me, so I am sending you.”

We take a deep breath, and we say – to all those who benefit from locked rooms, who benefit from silence born of fear, who benefit from the collusion of religious, political, and legal authority: take note. Be warned. We’ve caught our breath. The silence is over.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia. Amen.

 


Notes

[i] For an thorough investigation of the word parkletos and its implications, see Sharon H. Ringe, Wisdom’s Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 84ff. My own understanding is deeply indebted to Dr. Ringe.