The following sermon was preached on April 24, 2022 at St George’s Transcona’s service for Easter Sunday. You can learn more about St George’s and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Today’s gospel passage opens with the description of some very anxious individuals.

The story begins on the evening of Easter Sunday.  Jesus has risen, some of the disciples have seen him but they are still filled with fear, doubts, and anxious thoughts.

They are so scared, in fact, that they are hiding in a locked room terrified that there are people preparing crosses for them at that very moment.

It is easy for us to judge the disciples at this point in the story because we know how it all turns out. But try to put yourself in their position for a moment.  Imagine living through the events we commemorate during Holy Week with no real certainty of how things will turn out. Imagine living through those events with a strong sense that if the leaders of the day could crucify Jesus, then surely they would have no problem killing you as well.

I’d like to believe I’d be courageous and steadfast but the truth is I’d probably be anxiously locked in that room with the rest of the group. And like Thomas, I would need to see Jesus with my own eyes and touch him with my own hands.

John tells us, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” (19)

Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t say that they heard a knock at the door and when they opened it Jesus was there. It says that the disciples were in a locked room because they were afraid and Jesus just.. appeared. One minute Jesus was absent and in the next “poof” he’s standing in front of them.

It’s fair to imagine that the tired, beleaguered, anxious disciples can now add shocked to the list of emotions they are experiencing.  This kind of shock would be enough to take your breath away.

Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “ (19b-22)

One of my favourite definitions of a priest’s role is that they are to seek to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world. This is exactly what Jesus embodies in this moment.  When he says, “Peace be with you,” I imagine the subtext is “calm down, I am really here and all is well.”

Peace be with you.

John tells us that Jesus’ presence fills the disciples with joy – Jesus’ presence transforms their fear and anxiety into joy and peace.

Jesus’ presence transformed their fear and anxiety into joy and peace, but it wasn’t a permanent transformation.  Some of these disciples had seen Jesus on Easter Sunday, but they were still fearful enough to be hiding in a locked room.  Jesus appears to them in that locked room and tells them to be at peace, but eight days later, they are still hiding out in that room. (26)

A single encounter with Jesus can change a life forever, and I have no doubt that these disciples were changed by all of these events. But an encounter with Jesus doesn’t erase our humanity and so doubt and fear can easily creep back in. This is one of the reasons that spiritual disciplines like prayer and meeting for worship are so important – they continually call us back to Jesus.

Why does Jesus breathe on the disciples? Doesn’t that seem like a rather odd thing to do?

I find the intimacy of this astonishing – breathtaking even. In some Christian traditions, people have modeled this behavior in their worship practices by breathing on each other. Can you imagine if instead of a handshake we breathed peace on one another during worship?

I couldn’t imagine this before COVID, and I definitely can’t imagine it now!

It’s an amazingly intimate action. Jesus, who had drawn his last breath in the presence of John and the female disciples, Jesus whose lifeless breathless body was laid in a tomb for several days, has been brought back to life.  Jesus who breathed his last on the cross is now alive and breathing again. And this resurrected living and breathing Jesus comes and breathes on the disciples.

Breathing is something we spend an inordinate amount of time doing- we breathe approximately 23 000 times a day.

Breathing is something we spend a lot of time doing but very little time thinking about.  Maybe we think about it more now that we are living with COVID, but certainly we don’t think about breathing as often as we actually need to breathe.

Some Christians even get anxious if we begin to talk about breathing because it seems like a new age or un-Christian thing to focus on.

And yet breathing is a major focus in the scriptures. If you want to engage in an interesting exercise this week, do a search and go through all of the passages in Scripture that talk about breath or breathing -you’ll have more than enough material to keep you busy all week.

It is, however, a tricky assignment because it is difficult to accurately count all the references to breath in the Bible.  The Greek word for breath is “pneuma.”  Our English word “pneumonia” – a sickness that affects your ability to breathe – comes from the same root word.

Pneuma can also mean wind or spirit.  The same is also true in Hebrew.

The same Hebrew word (ruach) means wind, breath, and spirit.

Now it may sound confusing to have one word that can mean three different things, but the ideas of wind, breath, and spirit were also interconnected and interchangeable. They didn’t draw clear distinctions between these ideas like we do today.

In our passage, pneuma is translated as “receive the Holy spirit”, but when John wrote those words he knew that the people he was writing to would hear all of the possible meanings in that one word. (22)

They would hear, “Receive the holy spirit” and “Receive the holy wind,” and “Receive the holy breath.” The concepts of breath, wind and Holy Spirit were that closely linked for John’s original audience.

Later in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit will come in a windstorm. (Acts 2:1)

God breathing into the world is a powerful, important image. God breathes life in creation as recorded in Genesis, and God breathes and resurrects life in Ezekiel. The Holy Breath, the Holy Wind, the Holy Spirit. The breath that comes to the breathless. And here again in John, breathing is the way new life comes. This time it’s Jesus breathing into the disciples so that they receive the Holy Spirit.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us.”

When we breathe – a largely unconscious action -, we are at the most basic level acknowledging the life-giving presence of God with us. God who is as near to us as our next breath. Every breath we take is an opportunity to connect us with God. Every breath we take can be a prayer.

Breathing may seem like a ridiculous focus for prayer. Yet scripture presents breath as the fundamental metaphor for the spirit of God.

For a number of years during Advent, I engaged in a prayer practice that required me to stop, breathe and acknowledge God’s presence every time I find myself waiting. Waiting in line at the grocery store, at a stop light, waiting for a computer program to load. Advent is a season of waiting, and I always find plenty of opportunities to engage in this practice throughout the season.

Although that Advent exercise is over, I am still trying to incorporate an awareness of breathing in my prayer life. There are a lot of different ways to do this and time won’t allow us to get into them, but I am trying to remember that God is breath, that God gives breath and is breath, to remember that God breathes through me, sustains me with breath, and that I somehow am participating in that sustaining with God.

How many of you have houses that aren’t as dry as you’d like them to be today?

Me too.

Last night I heard the drip drip drip of water coming from the ceiling and instantly I sprang into full panic mode.  My whole body tensed up and I began running around and my mind launched into full on anxiety thinking: How much damage will this cause? Is the whole roof leaking? Where are the other leaks? Is the house going to fall down? I can’t handle this! How will I pay for this!

And then suddenly I stopped, sat down, and made myself breath deeply. I sat like that for only maybe 30 seconds or so but it was enough to calm me down and help me regroup.

I will be OK.  This may be hard but I can handle it.  Now go get the towels and the recycling bin and get to work.

I am sure that that pause, that time of deep breathing actually meant I was not only able to respond to the situation more effectively, but also my response was faster and more efficient than my initial reactivity.

Another important thing to realize about today’s gospel story is that Jesus breathes on the disciples together – as a group. The Spirit is given to the community of believers.  I think each of these people has the choice to consent – to believe or not believe, but the gift is given to everyone at once. This is not happening in isolation, this is part of a bigger picture. The Holy Spirit isn’t just being given to Jesus’ favourite disciple or a select few, Jesus breathes the Spirit into all of them.

The same is true today. In today’s gospel text,  in the Book of Acts, and in our present day the Holy Spirit is given to all of us together, not just select individuals.

How do we collectively breathe in the Holy Spirit? Maybe it’s a process that happens when two or three or thirty are gathered together in Jesus’ name. Maybe even as we’ve been sitting here we are breathing in the Holy Spirit, maybe the Spirit is filling our lungs with life at this very moment. Jesus permeating every particle of us. Jesus being incorporated into us, being transformed into energy. Jesus coming out of our very fingertips. Maybe we’ve been doing this all along without even realizing it.

Here’s another important thing to remember. Have you ever tried to hold your breath? You can be successful for a short period of time, but eventually your body takes over and you have exhale.

We can’t simply breathe in God’s presence. We also need to breath God back out again. We can’t keep this all for ourselves but rather breathing out God’s love to everyone we meet needs to become a natural as breathing in God’s love.

I’m not sure where your growth edge is on this. Some of us find it easier to show love to others than to accept that God also loves us. Some of us try to hold God’s love in – afraid that if we share it with others there might not be enough for us.

Ultimately health and balance come from doing both. From breathing God’s love in and out with equal measure. Breathing deeply, without fear that we will ever run out of air. Trusting that in God’s economy there is always more than enough.

Let’s pray:

Lord hear us breathing together.

We are breathing in your peace.

Lord, hear us breathing together.

Help us to breathe out your peace this week.