Breathe on us, Breath of God- Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter

Breathe on us, Breath of God

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Psalm 133 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

John 20:19-31 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 and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

“He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'”

A seeker went off to consult a famous guru so he could make progress on his spiritual journey. When he found the guru in a remote mountain area, the guru asked “What do you seek?” The young man replied, “I seek oneness with God.” The guru took him over to a stream, had him kneel beside it, then pushed the young man’s face into the water. He held him there for a while in a surprisingly strong grip, then let him up and asked him again, “What do you seek?” “I seek God!” the young man sputtered. The guru pushed his head under again, longer this time. Again the question: “What do you seek?” “I seek God!” the young man said, signs of desperation and anger beginning to break through the facade of pious respect.

Another time under the water – this time the young man was flailing in the final stages of drowning before the guru let him up. The man was terrified – his composure totally gone – wild-eyed, gasping and choking and urgently sucking air into his lungs. “The guru asked once again, as serenely as before: “What do you seek?” “AIR!” the young man screamed!

The guru said peacefully, “When you realize you need God as much as you need air, you will have found him.”

Breathing is essential for life. It’s how we get oxygen into our bloodstream, and it’s how we expel carbon dioxide. It’s a constant rhythm of drawing life in and letting go of what we no longer need. Meditation leaders as well as Yoga instructors and voice teachers will teach their students to “Breathe!” We “Take a breather” when we need rejuvenation from some task. The language of breath and breathing is central to our concept of life in general and spiritual life in particular.

We begin each service with a prayer for the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” Inspiration literally means, to breathe in or to breathe into. It’s ironic because I think we are often oblivious to that Spirit as we enter worship – agitated, distracted, anxious, our minds like a tree full of chattering squirrels. When we’re that tense, we don’t breathe deeply, and when we’re that tense, we are not as open to inspiration in a spiritual sense. I often feel we should just spend some time breathing quietly and deeply, as people often do in meditation – to settle and become still enough to be aware of God’s presence (or even our own) – so we have the capacity to participate in a potential encounter with the Spirit.

Who knew that taking a deep breath could be construed as “sacramental”?! The greatest spiritual teachers always reveal how simple, ordinary and accessible the realm of the spirit is, rather than making it seem esoteric and exclusive. So instead of looking for those rare, elite, mountain-top experiences, you begin to become aware that every moment is a God-moment. John’s Gospel is very sacramental; it is a book that makes us aware of the many signs that accompanied Jesus’ ministry – signs like light, water, bread and wine. In turn those signs – things that are basic aspects of life — have become sacramental signs that remain as reminders to the faithful, keeping us aware of God’s presence in the everyday and ordinary things, not way off somewhere remote but close by, as present and necessary and life-giving as the air we breathe. Breathe in and not only are you physically rejuvenated but you are also reassured of the constant presence of God in Christ. The gesture was more than pure genius – it was inspired!

Jesus’ promise of the Spirit is a significant and unique aspect of John’s Gospel. Jesus promises not to leave the disciples orphaned – HE will come to them (John 14:18). Clearly, from John’s Gospel, Jesus understood it as his spirit that would be with them. The wind has been known as the “Breath of God” in many religious traditions. In today’s Gospel, Jesus breathes his risen life, his spirit, into the disciples. He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. God indeed is the one who “makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” This scene is certainly reminiscent of Pentecost: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” John must have known about the Pentecost event, but clearly, he saw the giving of the Spirit as originating with Jesus and not as an isolated event.

John’s interpretation of what transpired following the Crucifixion makes the point that there is a powerful experiential aspect involved in coming to know Christ – that it’s not just through words or concepts, but by engaging the risen Christ personally, intimately, breathing him in, as it were. The good news is that by virtue of this symbolic gesture our breath becomes a sign of the constant presence of God – the continuous animating, inspiring, and integrating activity of the Spirit. As the hymn says, “Breathe on me, breath of God.” The incident in today’s Gospel is highly symbolic. Jesus breathed into them, and they were transformed. The transforming influence of the Spirit is obvious in the lives of the disciples, who go from being intimidated and immobilized to agents of transformation, like superheroes discovering their true powers.

“The doors were shut due to fear …” Every now and then Christians get themselves into the same predicament. In the late 1950’s Pope John XXIII spoke of opening the windows of the Roman Catholic Church to let in “some fresh air,” because the atmosphere had been closed and stifling for too long. Good Pope John (as he was called) knew that the breath or wind of the Holy Spirit had to be given much more access to the institution. The result was Vatican II, which brought about enormous changes to the Church.

We saw the movie “Doubt” last week. The title connects us with (Doubting) Thomas’ initial reaction in today’s Gospel, which is John’s acknowledgement of the difficulty of belief, and how inspiration has the power (like our breath) to by-pass our heads and our egos in order to move us at a deeper level, and stir us to new life.

An interesting but subtle feature of the movie is the role of the wind. The wind seems symbolic of those radical changes troubling the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s and even now. The battle between tradition and progress is symbolized by the two main characters, Father Boyle and Sister Aloysius. Representing extremes in the Church, they become locked in a complex struggle, which is about morality (she suspects Fr. Boyle is a sexual predator); it’s about homosexuality; it’s about tradition holding out against modernist tendencies; it’s about church hierarchy and institutionalism; it’s about power issues between men and women.

Like so many Christians, their focus is almost entirely on the institution and on the differences between them – Father Boyle wants the institution to change; Sister Aloysius wants the institution to remain as it was. Throughout the movie the wind is like another character, an invisible but powerful character, with a life of its own. The wind (Spirit) makes its presence felt by blowing papers about, mixing things up, breaking things down, inconveniencing the people – causing them to struggle, and making them aware of a greater power at work. The scene where the wind is blowing the dead leaves around points effectively not only to the change of seasons going on in their lives, but to the paradigm shift happening in the Church and in the world. A scene stealer! Oscar-worthy performance! The human characters can’t help but notice it, but they are so preoccupied with their conflict that they seem oblivious to its meaning, as we often are to the influence and presence of the Spirit.

For Sister Aloysius it likely represents “an ill wind that blows no good.” For Father Boyle, it might represent an echo from folk singer Bob Dylan: “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Throughout the movie, the wind is present as a constant symbol of the mysterious power of God to stir things up, to shake, to rearrange, to remind people that there are always other powers at work than their own, obliging them look, if only occasionally, beyond their papers and their arguments and their carefully secured rooms.

The Spirit, the wind/breath of God, creates a chaos that the scripture makes clear is well beyond our control. For all our sense of order and propriety, we can’t control the wind. Growing up in Regina, I knew (and sometimes hated) its power – struggling to ride my bike against it; having things blow away; being obliged to walk at a 45 degree angle. The most sensible, carefully crafted hairdo could look crazy in seconds in that wind. When I was serving in a parish in Regina, an old lady once told me she hoped that one Sunday I might have at least one hair out of place. She said it in good humour, and I think she was trying to tell me that it’s not good to be too poised, presentable and impervious, that sometimes we are more accessible to other people, and to God, when we are more vulnerable and human. I think it was her way of telling me to be more open to the Spirit, and less concerned about how people view me. (Ironically, her comment made me, for a time, more conscious of my image!)

“The Spirit blows wherever it wants – you can’t control it – you can hear the sound of it but you can’t tell where it came from or predict where it’s going . . .” That’s the thing about air: like light, it doesn’t need much room to get in. It moves through our barricades – through our locked doors – as the Spirit of the living Christ got through to those early followers and gave them power to become sons of God, daughters of God. Consistent with his entire ministry, the ministry of the Spirit has to do with empowerment, transformation, the creation of a new way of relating to God and a new way of being human together.

Jesus is portrayed as coming right through locked doors and walls in order to inspire and empower the frightened disciples. It is an important reminder and corrective when the Church tends to shut itself off from the life of the world, and becomes insular rather than outward-looking, uninvolved and irrelevant to the world around. Obviously, the Spirit of Jesus does not intend it to be that way. He comes to them and they are transformed, and the rest is history as they say, as these early Christians overcame the oppression of Rome and the restrictions of their own religious background, and established Christianity as a radically new way of being.

Christ is as near to us as our breath! I find just thinking and meditating about this passage causes me to breathe with a different intent — a different sense of meaning and purpose. Perhaps if we breathed with a different intention – with a sense of hope and expectation, of taking something new in – of each breath representing a new beginning, a new possibility . . . And perhaps if we breathed out with a sense of offering our inspiration, our spirit, our joy, to a world gasping for life . . . Perhaps then, we would have found God, or God would have finally found us, and perhaps, the great festival of Pentecost, which is coming in a few weeks, would make a lot more sense. In this Easter season I live in hope that the inspiration of the Spirit will become the air we breathe.

rhgr+

Breathe on us, Breath of God

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Psalm 133 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

John 20:19-31 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 and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

“He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'”

A seeker went off to consult a famous guru so he could make progress on his spiritual journey. When he found the guru in a remote mountain area, the guru asked “What do you seek?” The young man replied, “I seek oneness with God.” The guru took him over to a stream, had him kneel beside it, then pushed the young man’s face into the water. He held him there for a while in a surprisingly strong grip, then let him up and asked him again, “What do you seek?” “I seek God!” the young man sputtered. The guru pushed his head under again, longer this time. Again the question: “What do you seek?” “I seek God!” the young man said, signs of desperation and anger beginning to break through the facade of pious respect.

Another time under the water – this time the young man was flailing in the final stages of drowning before the guru let him up. The man was terrified – his composure totally gone – wild-eyed, gasping and choking and urgently sucking air into his lungs. “The guru asked once again, as serenely as before: “What do you seek?” “AIR!” the young man screamed!

The guru said peacefully, “When you realize you need God as much as you need air, you will have found him.”

Breathing is essential for life. It’s how we get oxygen into our bloodstream, and it’s how we expel carbon dioxide. It’s a constant rhythm of drawing life in and letting go of what we no longer need. Meditation leaders as well as Yoga instructors and voice teachers will teach their students to “Breathe!” We “Take a breather” when we need rejuvenation from some task. The language of breath and breathing is central to our concept of life in general and spiritual life in particular.

We begin each service with a prayer for the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” Inspiration literally means, to breathe in or to breathe into. It’s ironic because I think we are often oblivious to that Spirit as we enter worship – agitated, distracted, anxious, our minds like a tree full of chattering squirrels. When we’re that tense, we don’t breathe deeply, and when we’re that tense, we are not as open to inspiration in a spiritual sense. I often feel we should just spend some time breathing quietly and deeply, as people often do in meditation – to settle and become still enough to be aware of God’s presence (or even our own) – so we have the capacity to participate in a potential encounter with the Spirit.

Who knew that taking a deep breath could be construed as “sacramental”?! The greatest spiritual teachers always reveal how simple, ordinary and accessible the realm of the spirit is, rather than making it seem esoteric and exclusive. So instead of looking for those rare, elite, mountain-top experiences, you begin to become aware that every moment is a God-moment. John’s Gospel is very sacramental; it is a book that makes us aware of the many signs that accompanied Jesus’ ministry – signs like light, water, bread and wine. In turn those signs – things that are basic aspects of life — have become sacramental signs that remain as reminders to the faithful, keeping us aware of God’s presence in the everyday and ordinary things, not way off somewhere remote but close by, as present and necessary and life-giving as the air we breathe. Breathe in and not only are you physically rejuvenated but you are also reassured of the constant presence of God in Christ. The gesture was more than pure genius – it was inspired!

Jesus’ promise of the Spirit is a significant and unique aspect of John’s Gospel. Jesus promises not to leave the disciples orphaned – HE will come to them (John 14:18). Clearly, from John’s Gospel, Jesus understood it as his spirit that would be with them. The wind has been known as the “Breath of God” in many religious traditions. In today’s Gospel, Jesus breathes his risen life, his spirit, into the disciples. He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. God indeed is the one who “makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” This scene is certainly reminiscent of Pentecost: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” John must have known about the Pentecost event, but clearly, he saw the giving of the Spirit as originating with Jesus and not as an isolated event.

John’s interpretation of what transpired following the Crucifixion makes the point that there is a powerful experiential aspect involved in coming to know Christ – that it’s not just through words or concepts, but by engaging the risen Christ personally, intimately, breathing him in, as it were. The good news is that by virtue of this symbolic gesture our breath becomes a sign of the constant presence of God – the continuous animating, inspiring, and integrating activity of the Spirit. As the hymn says, “Breathe on me, breath of God.” The incident in today’s Gospel is highly symbolic. Jesus breathed into them, and they were transformed. The transforming influence of the Spirit is obvious in the lives of the disciples, who go from being intimidated and immobilized to agents of transformation, like superheroes discovering their true powers.

“The doors were shut due to fear …” Every now and then Christians get themselves into the same predicament. In the late 1950’s Pope John XXIII spoke of opening the windows of the Roman Catholic Church to let in “some fresh air,” because the atmosphere had been closed and stifling for too long. Good Pope John (as he was called) knew that the breath or wind of the Holy Spirit had to be given much more access to the institution. The result was Vatican II, which brought about enormous changes to the Church.

We saw the movie “Doubt” last week. The title connects us with (Doubting) Thomas’ initial reaction in today’s Gospel, which is John’s acknowledgement of the difficulty of belief, and how inspiration has the power (like our breath) to by-pass our heads and our egos in order to move us at a deeper level, and stir us to new life.

An interesting but subtle feature of the movie is the role of the wind. The wind seems symbolic of those radical changes troubling the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s and even now. The battle between tradition and progress is symbolized by the two main characters, Father Boyle and Sister Aloysius. Representing extremes in the Church, they become locked in a complex struggle, which is about morality (she suspects Fr. Boyle is a sexual predator); it’s about homosexuality; it’s about tradition holding out against modernist tendencies; it’s about church hierarchy and institutionalism; it’s about power issues between men and women.

Like so many Christians, their focus is almost entirely on the institution and on the differences between them – Father Boyle wants the institution to change; Sister Aloysius wants the institution to remain as it was. Throughout the movie the wind is like another character, an invisible but powerful character, with a life of its own. The wind (Spirit) makes its presence felt by blowing papers about, mixing things up, breaking things down, inconveniencing the people – causing them to struggle, and making them aware of a greater power at work. The scene where the wind is blowing the dead leaves around points effectively not only to the change of seasons going on in their lives, but to the paradigm shift happening in the Church and in the world. A scene stealer! Oscar-worthy performance! The human characters can’t help but notice it, but they are so preoccupied with their conflict that they seem oblivious to its meaning, as we often are to the influence and presence of the Spirit.

For Sister Aloysius it likely represents “an ill wind that blows no good.” For Father Boyle, it might represent an echo from folk singer Bob Dylan: “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Throughout the movie, the wind is present as a constant symbol of the mysterious power of God to stir things up, to shake, to rearrange, to remind people that there are always other powers at work than their own, obliging them look, if only occasionally, beyond their papers and their arguments and their carefully secured rooms.

The Spirit, the wind/breath of God, creates a chaos that the scripture makes clear is well beyond our control. For all our sense of order and propriety, we can’t control the wind. Growing up in Regina, I knew (and sometimes hated) its power – struggling to ride my bike against it; having things blow away; being obliged to walk at a 45 degree angle. The most sensible, carefully crafted hairdo could look crazy in seconds in that wind. When I was serving in a parish in Regina, an old lady once told me she hoped that one Sunday I might have at least one hair out of place. She said it in good humour, and I think she was trying to tell me that it’s not good to be too poised, presentable and impervious, that sometimes we are more accessible to other people, and to God, when we are more vulnerable and human. I think it was her way of telling me to be more open to the Spirit, and less concerned about how people view me. (Ironically, her comment made me, for a time, more conscious of my image!)

“The Spirit blows wherever it wants – you can’t control it – you can hear the sound of it but you can’t tell where it came from or predict where it’s going . . .” That’s the thing about air: like light, it doesn’t need much room to get in. It moves through our barricades – through our locked doors – as the Spirit of the living Christ got through to those early followers and gave them power to become sons of God, daughters of God. Consistent with his entire ministry, the ministry of the Spirit has to do with empowerment, transformation, the creation of a new way of relating to God and a new way of being human together.

Jesus is portrayed as coming right through locked doors and walls in order to inspire and empower the frightened disciples. It is an important reminder and corrective when the Church tends to shut itself off from the life of the world, and becomes insular rather than outward-looking, uninvolved and irrelevant to the world around. Obviously, the Spirit of Jesus does not intend it to be that way. He comes to them and they are transformed, and the rest is history as they say, as these early Christians overcame the oppression of Rome and the restrictions of their own religious background, and established Christianity as a radically new way of being.

Christ is as near to us as our breath! I find just thinking and meditating about this passage causes me to breathe with a different intent — a different sense of meaning and purpose. Perhaps if we breathed with a different intention – with a sense of hope and expectation, of taking something new in – of each breath representing a new beginning, a new possibility . . . And perhaps if we breathed out with a sense of offering our inspiration, our spirit, our joy, to a world gasping for life . . . Perhaps then, we would have found God, or God would have finally found us, and perhaps, the great festival of Pentecost, which is coming in a few weeks, would make a lot more sense. In this Easter season I live in hope that the inspiration of the Spirit will become the air we breathe.

rhgr+

Breathe on us, Breath of God

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Psalm 133 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

John 20:19-31 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 and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

“He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'”

A seeker went off to consult a famous guru so he could make progress on his spiritual journey. When he found the guru in a remote mountain area, the guru asked “What do you seek?” The young man replied, “I seek oneness with God.” The guru took him over to a stream, had him kneel beside it, then pushed the young man’s face into the water. He held him there for a while in a surprisingly strong grip, then let him up and asked him again, “What do you seek?” “I seek God!” the young man sputtered. The guru pushed his head under again, longer this time. Again the question: “What do you seek?” “I seek God!” the young man said, signs of desperation and anger beginning to break through the facade of pious respect.

Another time under the water – this time the young man was flailing in the final stages of drowning before the guru let him up. The man was terrified – his composure totally gone – wild-eyed, gasping and choking and urgently sucking air into his lungs. “The guru asked once again, as serenely as before: “What do you seek?” “AIR!” the young man screamed!

The guru said peacefully, “When you realize you need God as much as you need air, you will have found him.”

Breathing is essential for life. It’s how we get oxygen into our bloodstream, and it’s how we expel carbon dioxide. It’s a constant rhythm of drawing life in and letting go of what we no longer need. Meditation leaders as well as Yoga instructors and voice teachers will teach their students to “Breathe!” We “Take a breather” when we need rejuvenation from some task. The language of breath and breathing is central to our concept of life in general and spiritual life in particular.

We begin each service with a prayer for the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” Inspiration literally means, to breathe in or to breathe into. It’s ironic because I think we are often oblivious to that Spirit as we enter worship – agitated, distracted, anxious, our minds like a tree full of chattering squirrels. When we’re that tense, we don’t breathe deeply, and when we’re that tense, we are not as open to inspiration in a spiritual sense. I often feel we should just spend some time breathing quietly and deeply, as people often do in meditation – to settle and become still enough to be aware of God’s presence (or even our own) – so we have the capacity to participate in a potential encounter with the Spirit.

Who knew that taking a deep breath could be construed as “sacramental”?! The greatest spiritual teachers always reveal how simple, ordinary and accessible the realm of the spirit is, rather than making it seem esoteric and exclusive. So instead of looking for those rare, elite, mountain-top experiences, you begin to become aware that every moment is a God-moment. John’s Gospel is very sacramental; it is a book that makes us aware of the many signs that accompanied Jesus’ ministry – signs like light, water, bread and wine. In turn those signs – things that are basic aspects of life — have become sacramental signs that remain as reminders to the faithful, keeping us aware of God’s presence in the everyday and ordinary things, not way off somewhere remote but close by, as present and necessary and life-giving as the air we breathe. Breathe in and not only are you physically rejuvenated but you are also reassured of the constant presence of God in Christ. The gesture was more than pure genius – it was inspired!

Jesus’ promise of the Spirit is a significant and unique aspect of John’s Gospel. Jesus promises not to leave the disciples orphaned – HE will come to them (John 14:18). Clearly, from John’s Gospel, Jesus understood it as his spirit that would be with them. The wind has been known as the “Breath of God” in many religious traditions. In today’s Gospel, Jesus breathes his risen life, his spirit, into the disciples. He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. God indeed is the one who “makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” This scene is certainly reminiscent of Pentecost: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” John must have known about the Pentecost event, but clearly, he saw the giving of the Spirit as originating with Jesus and not as an isolated event.

John’s interpretation of what transpired following the Crucifixion makes the point that there is a powerful experiential aspect involved in coming to know Christ – that it’s not just through words or concepts, but by engaging the risen Christ personally, intimately, breathing him in, as it were. The good news is that by virtue of this symbolic gesture our breath becomes a sign of the constant presence of God – the continuous animating, inspiring, and integrating activity of the Spirit. As the hymn says, “Breathe on me, breath of God.” The incident in today’s Gospel is highly symbolic. Jesus breathed into them, and they were transformed. The transforming influence of the Spirit is obvious in the lives of the disciples, who go from being intimidated and immobilized to agents of transformation, like superheroes discovering their true powers.

“The doors were shut due to fear …” Every now and then Christians get themselves into the same predicament. In the late 1950’s Pope John XXIII spoke of opening the windows of the Roman Catholic Church to let in “some fresh air,” because the atmosphere had been closed and stifling for too long. Good Pope John (as he was called) knew that the breath or wind of the Holy Spirit had to be given much more access to the institution. The result was Vatican II, which brought about enormous changes to the Church.

We saw the movie “Doubt” last week. The title connects us with (Doubting) Thomas’ initial reaction in today’s Gospel, which is John’s acknowledgement of the difficulty of belief, and how inspiration has the power (like our breath) to by-pass our heads and our egos in order to move us at a deeper level, and stir us to new life.

An interesting but subtle feature of the movie is the role of the wind. The wind seems symbolic of those radical changes troubling the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s and even now. The battle between tradition and progress is symbolized by the two main characters, Father Boyle and Sister Aloysius. Representing extremes in the Church, they become locked in a complex struggle, which is about morality (she suspects Fr. Boyle is a sexual predator); it’s about homosexuality; it’s about tradition holding out against modernist tendencies; it’s about church hierarchy and institutionalism; it’s about power issues between men and women.

Like so many Christians, their focus is almost entirely on the institution and on the differences between them – Father Boyle wants the institution to change; Sister Aloysius wants the institution to remain as it was. Throughout the movie the wind is like another character, an invisible but powerful character, with a life of its own. The wind (Spirit) makes its presence felt by blowing papers about, mixing things up, breaking things down, inconveniencing the people – causing them to struggle, and making them aware of a greater power at work. The scene where the wind is blowing the dead leaves around points effectively not only to the change of seasons going on in their lives, but to the paradigm shift happening in the Church and in the world. A scene stealer! Oscar-worthy performance! The human characters can’t help but notice it, but they are so preoccupied with their conflict that they seem oblivious to its meaning, as we often are to the influence and presence of the Spirit.

For Sister Aloysius it likely represents “an ill wind that blows no good.” For Father Boyle, it might represent an echo from folk singer Bob Dylan: “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Throughout the movie, the wind is present as a constant symbol of the mysterious power of God to stir things up, to shake, to rearrange, to remind people that there are always other powers at work than their own, obliging them look, if only occasionally, beyond their papers and their arguments and their carefully secured rooms.

The Spirit, the wind/breath of God, creates a chaos that the scripture makes clear is well beyond our control. For all our sense of order and propriety, we can’t control the wind. Growing up in Regina, I knew (and sometimes hated) its power – struggling to ride my bike against it; having things blow away; being obliged to walk at a 45 degree angle. The most sensible, carefully crafted hairdo could look crazy in seconds in that wind. When I was serving in a parish in Regina, an old lady once told me she hoped that one Sunday I might have at least one hair out of place. She said it in good humour, and I think she was trying to tell me that it’s not good to be too poised, presentable and impervious, that sometimes we are more accessible to other people, and to God, when we are more vulnerable and human. I think it was her way of telling me to be more open to the Spirit, and less concerned about how people view me. (Ironically, her comment made me, for a time, more conscious of my image!)

“The Spirit blows wherever it wants – you can’t control it – you can hear the sound of it but you can’t tell where it came from or predict where it’s going . . .” That’s the thing about air: like light, it doesn’t need much room to get in. It moves through our barricades – through our locked doors – as the Spirit of the living Christ got through to those early followers and gave them power to become sons of God, daughters of God. Consistent with his entire ministry, the ministry of the Spirit has to do with empowerment, transformation, the creation of a new way of relating to God and a new way of being human together.

Jesus is portrayed as coming right through locked doors and walls in order to inspire and empower the frightened disciples. It is an important reminder and corrective when the Church tends to shut itself off from the life of the world, and becomes insular rather than outward-looking, uninvolved and irrelevant to the world around. Obviously, the Spirit of Jesus does not intend it to be that way. He comes to them and they are transformed, and the rest is history as they say, as these early Christians overcame the oppression of Rome and the restrictions of their own religious background, and established Christianity as a radically new way of being.

Christ is as near to us as our breath! I find just thinking and meditating about this passage causes me to breathe with a different intent — a different sense of meaning and purpose. Perhaps if we breathed with a different intention – with a sense of hope and expectation, of taking something new in – of each breath representing a new beginning, a new possibility . . . And perhaps if we breathed out with a sense of offering our inspiration, our spirit, our joy, to a world gasping for life . . . Perhaps then, we would have found God, or God would have finally found us, and perhaps, the great festival of Pentecost, which is coming in a few weeks, would make a lot more sense. In this Easter season I live in hope that the inspiration of the Spirit will become the air we breathe.

rhgr+