The Breath of Life
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 20:19-23
What is sin? Many of us, if we attended Sunday School as children, learned the Ten Commandments and they greatly shaped our understanding of sin. It was an interpretation very focused on morals and rules. So, certain words, whether they contained any reference to God or not, were considered “dirty words” or sinful words. I grew up in a part of the country where the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union still put up billboards. So, I was taught that any amount of alcohol for any reason was a sin. And I’m guessing lots of parents have appealed to the “honor your father and mother” commandment when warning their children about cleaning their rooms.
Now, if you grew up learning that sin was about keeping or breaking religious rules, well… that’s not really the gospel understanding of sin, especially in the gospel of John. In the gospel of John, sin is not about a moral infraction, a list of moral or ethical do’s and don’t’s. In John, sin is all about relationship. That’s why I so often tell you that Christianity is not a belief system; it is a relational system. It is all about our relationships with God – and others – through Christ. Through Christ, the intro of John’s gospel tells us, we have all received grace upon grace… or grace stacked on top of grace.[i]
Now “grace” is a churchy word and a somewhat abstract concept. But forgiveness is something we have all lived… or not lived… and we know how it feels.
We know how it feels when someone truly forgives us and we know how it feels when forgiveness is withheld or distorted, twisted into something ugly. Genuine forgiveness changes our lives because it restores relationship and cultivates trust, the foundation of any relationship. Forgiveness, genuine forgiveness, is what grace is all about. Now certainly, when we have hurt someone, we need to change our behavior and make amends as best we can. But, in reality, forgiveness is not something that can ever be earned. If my forgiveness is contingent on your never screwing up again, that’s not forgiveness because you will live in a place of fear and I will live from a place of judgment… both of which destroy rather than restore life. Genuine forgiveness is a free gift. When we’re offered forgiveness, we’re offered life. And when forgiveness is denied or distorted, we are sentenced to death.
Again, the introduction to John’s gospel tells us the reason for Jesus’ coming was to reveal or embody the grace of God and to draw us into the family of God, an experience of living in intimate fellowship with God and others.[ii] Because Jesus and the heavenly Father are one, Jesus can tell his disciples that, if they have seen him, they have seen God the Father.[iii] Jesus came that we might “see” God – the love of God and the grace of God revealed within this world in tangible ways that we human creatures could comprehend. Jesus is a living embodiment of God’s gracious nature. Jesus, because of who he is and what he does, acts as a bridge connecting humanity to God. In fact, Jesus’ first self-revelation in John’s gospel is this very thing; that he is like a ladder connecting heaven and earth.[iv]
So, now that I’ve given us some gospel context, let me hone in a little more precisely on this morning’s scripture passage. It is resurrection evening. Last week, we looked at how the day began with Mary at the tomb encountering Jesus. She was the first to see the resurrected Lord and after leaving the tomb, she goes – as per Jesus’ instructions – to share the good news with the other disciples.[v] But apparently, they don’t put a lot of stock in Mary’s testimony because later that evening, they are hunkered down in a room together behind a locked door because they are afraid; afraid of the very people who turned Jesus over for execution. We might surmise they are fearful of being guilty by association so they are hiding. But a locked door is no obstacle to our resurrected Lord who suddenly appears in the midst of them announcing peace – the opposite of fear. They must have been skeptical because Jesus shows them his hands and side that had been wounded during his crucifixion. (John 19:34 tells of a soldier piercing Jesus’ side with his sword.) So on resurrection evening after showing them his wounds, Jesus pronounces over them his peace and his mission for them. He says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathes on them his Holy Spirit.
Now, none of this should have come as a surprise to them. Jesus had already told them all of this before. On the last night of his life, while dining with his disciples, Jesus uses a metaphor of a grapevine and branches, rather than a ladder, to describe how he connects them directly to God. In the metaphor, God is the owner of the vineyard, Jesus is the vine and the disciples are branches. As branches, they bear fruit for the owner of the vineyard because of their connection to the vine.[vi] This metaphor comes one chapter after Jesus telling them that, if they have seen God, they’ve seen him. Jesus – who he is, how he behaves, everything about him – well, that’s what God is like.[vii] They are one in the same. And that night at dinner, that last night of his life, after that beautiful metaphor of the vine and the branches, Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them into the world just as God the heavenly Father sent him into the world.[viii]
That means that we, like Jesus, are to reveal God to others. People ought to see God when they see us… a pretty impossible order to fill if we try to do it on our own… which is why Jesus gives the gift of his Holy Spirit. The Spirit is Jesus’ on-going presence carried inside of us so that we don’t live through and for ourselves. We live through and for Jesus and, therefore, through and for God. We’re not some sorry branch that someone broke off and stuck in the ground. We are a fruitful branch connected to a living vine. We live within the life of God and that’s why we can reveal God to others. We live within the life of God. We’re not out there somewhere far removed from God, desperately trying to reach God. The gift of Jesus’ Spirit means we have been brought into the holy space of God’s presence. In Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, the same word translates as breath, wind or spirit. So, when Jesus breathes on these disciples, he breathes the breath of God into them. And God’s breath is always a source of life. God’s breath brought the first man, Adam, to life in the garden.[ix] The Spirit is God’s breath of life and God has placed his breath within us that we may breathe it out on others.
That life-giving Spirit of God within us is the foundation and justification for this assignment Jesus confers upon the disciples (which includes us by the way); this assignment of forgiving or retaining people’s sins. You see, we are sent by Jesus into the world to reveal God to others. When we carry Jesus’ Spirit in us and allow the Spirit to live through us, people will see in us the grace and love and forgiveness of God… which is, frankly, irresistible. Now, maybe their beliefs won’t be a perfect match to yours or mine. Sometimes we get a little too caught up with orthodoxy. But, a God of love and forgiveness and grace; who is going to slam the door on that? Conversely, if we are petty, judgmental, and condescending, and we dare to name ourselves as disciples of Jesus, that is exactly what people will think God is about and no one wants that. We’ve got more than enough petty, judgmental, condescending crap in the world. No one is going to sign up for more.
In his book Craddock Stories well-known southern preacher and Professor Fred Craddock related his experience decades ago as a young pastor. He writes,
I remember the first church I served as a student. They had a fund called the Emergency Fund and it had about $100 in it. They told me I could use it at my discretion, provided I dispensed the money according to the conditions. So I said, “What are the conditions?”
The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness or poor management.”
I said, “Well, what else is there?” As far as I know, they still have that money.[x]
Friends, that’s not grace. If we dare to name ourselves Christian, how we engage with others is interpreted as a revelation of God and if that revelation is distorted in ugly ways, people will not want a relationship with God… which takes me back to the beginning of my sermon. Sin is not about moral dos and don’ts. Sin is about relationship: accepting or rejecting a relationship with God; and how people respond to a relationship with God is generally based on what they witness about God through us.
That means that this scripture isn’t about us going around damning others in the name of Jesus. This scripture puts the responsibility on us. Will we breathe the breath of God in a life-giving way or will the ways we interact with others choke the life out of them? We, the Church, are now the locus of Jesus’ ongoing presence and authority here on earth. Folks: our mission, our work in the world, is the same as Jesus’ work. We are to do what Jesus did.
We are how people encounter Jesus today. And how we treat others, how we respond to them, how we live in our communities and how we engage with the world will make all the difference in the world as to whether or not they receive, accept and believe in the God we present to them. Today, WE are how the forgiveness of God is related or conveyed to other people.
Bible scholar and priest Francis Moloney writes of this passage from John’s gospel that Jesus “gifts his disciples with the Spirit that they may be to the world what he has been.”[xi] “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says.
Friends, Jesus promises that all who follow him will be filled with his ongoing presence through the Holy Spirit. Are you allowing that Spirit to communicate the loving, gracious presence of God to others through you? Don’t hold your breath.
In the years immediately following World War II, Murat Yagan spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey where he became friends with an elderly couple. Their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to work in Istanbul.
One day when Murat visited them, the old couple was bursting with pride, eager to show a new tea cupboard their son had shipped from Istanbul. It was a handsome piece of furniture and the woman had already arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. But Murat was puzzled. Why would their son go through such an expense to send them a tea cupboard? And why did it not have any drawers? Finally, just before leaving, he said, “Do you mind if I have a look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned it around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal a fully operative ham radio set.[xii]
Inside that cupboard was a great treasure: the opportunity, the means by which that couple could be connected to their son. But they’d been using it simply to display china.
Friends, Christ has given us a great treasure: his Spirit. Residing within us; through his Holy Spirit we have the opportunity to connect people to the love of God, to embody the grace of God, just as Jesus did. Let’s not waste that opportunity; we can’t neglect that responsibility. Don’t hold your breath; let it out; breathe the breath of God for if you understand who it is that dwells within you, you will not want to miss the opportunity to present Christ to others. As St. Teresa of Avila said centuries ago, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
[i] John 1:16.
[ii] John 1:12, 18
[iii] John 14:9.
[iv] John 1:51
[v] John 20:17-18
[vi] John 15:1-6
[vii] John 14:8-11
[viii] John 17:18
[ix] Genesis 2:7 (Also see Ezekiel 37:1-14)
[x] Craddock Stories by Fred Craddock, ed. Graves and Ward; Chalice Press; p. 48
[xi] Glory not Dishonor: Reading John 13-21 by Francis Moloney, SDB, Fortress Press, pp. 171-172
[xii] Taken from the Center for Action and Contemplation; The Tea Cupboard; March 13, 2017
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