Breath. Breathing. It’s something that we take for granted until we need it and we can’t get it. When you’re at a higher altitude, as I was for the last several years, you don’t realize that there’s not as much oxygen in the air and it’s more difficult to breathe until you come back down to a lower elevation. You notice how you breathe when you’re huffing and puffing up and down staircases moving heavy boxes of books. When I become anxious or nervous, I notice that I start to get short of breath, and my cat will often notice, come up to me, and start purring—which is also a form of breathing—and that calms me down, and I start breathing normally again. Finally, we notice our breathing when we have to use medical devices to help us breathe. For example, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea a few years back and now I use a CPAP at night to help me breathe—and what a difference this machine has made in helping me to feel healthy again. Much of our health, both physical and mental, comes down to how we breathe, and the quality of the breaths we take.
Today is Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples who were waiting in prayer for this gift. The story in Acts is full of wind and fire and speaking in foreign languages and people hearing the good news of Jesus and becoming believers and getting baptized. It’s a fun story to preach on; everyone likes to talk about the flash and the bang that the Holy Spirit used on that day, and laugh at how the people outside the group of disciples thought that they were drunk at nine in the morning! But sometimes it might lead to us thinking that this is the only way the Spirit works, and why doesn’t the Holy Spirit work like that today, so that 3000 people can be baptized in one day and our churches could be full again. Our lessons from 1 Corinthians and from John speak about other ways that the Holy Spirit is given and manifests itself. So today I want to focus on how the Holy Spirit is manifesting itself in our Gospel lesson from John. And it all has to do with breath and with breathing.
If today’s Gospel sounds familiar, then I know that you were in worship the Sunday after Easter. This is part of the Easter story, and it’s the one that includes the story of Thomas, he who would not believe that Jesus had risen until he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds from his crucifixion. But today we don’t get to hear about Thomas; we only get the first part of that story. So, just to refresh our memories—because it has now been 50 days since we heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection—I’m going to give you a summary of what has happened in this Gospel. Early on the first day of the week—the third day since Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried—Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found it empty. She ran to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty. Peter and the other disciple came and found it just as Mary said, and they went back home. But when Mary stayed at the tomb weeping, Jesus came to her and showed that he was alive. Then he told her to go and tell the disciples what she had seen and that Jesus would be returning to his father. So Mary did just that. And now we come to today’s scene.
Jesus comes in through the locked doors, into a room that’s full of fear, and says, “Peace be with you.” Picture that for a moment. I mentioned before that when I get anxious, my breathing becomes shallower. Now, picture a room full of Jesus’ disciples, already full of fear, they are not breathing very deeply. And then, Jesus comes in—through a locked door! Well, no wonder he says, “Peace be with you!” And no wonder he says it twice. The hearts of these disciples, already fearful, leapt with even more fear as they saw their teacher, who had just died a gruesome death. People don’t come back from the dead, after all. If it were me, I think my heart would go a mile a minute upon seeing Jesus appear in front of me. And my breath would get shallower than it already had been.
Then, Jesus does something very strange. Our translation says that he breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Well, the translators are softening the original Greek and taking away the powerful imagery of what’s really going on. Jesus actually did not breathe on the disciples. He puffed air into the disciples. What is translated “Holy Spirit,” more accurately means “holy breath”; the primary meaning of the Greek word pneuma is not “spirit,” but, rather, “breath.” I’d like you all to think for a moment where you may have heard about God puffing breath into someone before. If you said Genesis 2, you’re absolutely right: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” John wants to give us the same idea: Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is puffing his holy breath, the breath of the one who rose from the dead, into the nostrils of the disciples. He is not only giving them back the breath they were short of because of their fear, he is also making them into a new creation, just as God breathed into Adam’s nostrils to make him into a living being.
And Jesus also says something else, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We usually don’t think about that line too much. But let’s think about it today. The Father sent Jesus into the world to love us, to teach us, to heal us, and ultimately, to die on the cross for us. Now he sends his disciples into the world to love the world, to teach the world, and to heal the world. Some of those disciples would die a martyr’s death; others would not. But even if we are not called to show our love for the world by our physical death, we are sent into the world to give ourselves away, sacrificially.
So, what does all of this mean for us in our daily lives? First of all, as Jesus’ disciples, we, too, have had the holy breath puffed into us. When we were baptized, we were baptized into the death of Jesus so that we might walk in newness of life. We share in that holy breath, that breath of a new creation and that breath of promised resurrection. And that breath is deep and relaxed. There is no fear when we remember that, no matter how much evil there is in the world, Jesus has given us hope in him and in the new creation that he has breathed into us. Every breath that we take is a breath breathed into us by God. And that brings me to the second point: Because every breath that we take is breathed into us by God, we, too, are sent into the world as the Father has sent Jesus. The God-breath in us, or, if you would rather, the Holy Spirit in us, enables us to see that each person that we meet also has God-breath in him or in her. When we recognize that, then we can see that each person has worth in God’s eyes and is loved by God. And so, we are empowered to go into the world, showing God’s love to each person we meet, teaching them about Jesus, and giving sacrificially of ourselves so that others may have enough to live.
On Friday and Saturday, I was at Synod Assembly, both participating in a learning experience and participating in conducting the business of the Synod. Our keynote speaker, Dave Daubert, gave us some good news and some bad news about the ELCA as a whole. The good news is that we Lutherans have great theology: we know that God comes to us, and that we don’t come to God, just as we see Jesus today coming to his disciples and puffing breath into them. The bad news is that we are an aging denomination: Daubert estimates that, unless things change radically, the ELCA as we know it has only about 5 to 10 years of life left. Yes, you heard me right: 5 to 10 years. Here’s some more bad news: when they took a survey of Lutherans, they found that 25% of those who come to church are “functional agnostics”; that is, they come and they say the right words, but they don’t really believe. Perhaps they come because a family member drags them each week. Another 47% of people who come know the story, and believe it, but they leave it behind in the church each week; they don’t know it deeply; they don’t know it well enough to integrate the story of Jesus into their lives on a daily basis. Maybe some of you here today fall into one of these two categories. Maybe some others of you really do have a deeper relationship with Jesus, and that’s great. But no matter where we are in our relationship, we can all stand to grow deeper roots. And when we have those deeper roots, and when we have that deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, then it makes us easier for us to go out into the community and to invite others to come and see, and to deepen their roots as well.
I’m not going to lie to you: those statistics I heard filled me with fear. But I, and each one of us here today, have the breath of God breathed into us. In Jesus, we are a new creation. We have his resurrection-breath in us, and when we remember that, we remember that we have nothing to fear. Jesus has conquered death for us. Jesus is here with us, in us, all around us, everywhere in our daily lives. He is with us not only in the bread and the wine here at the table, but he is also with us when we help our family members who are ill, when we have conversations with one another, when we eat together in our homes. He is with us when we are sad and he is with us when we are happy. Each breath we take is a reminder that God causes us to live, and is a reminder that God causes each person around us to live. What do we have to fear? Let us deepen our roots, re-learn our faith and re-connect with that holy breath, and then go forth to love others, to teach others, to bring healing to the world, and to give ourselves away for the sake of the world. Amen.