Breath of New Life
Several years ago, I went looking for Jesus in the city. You know,
Jesus, no longer the one of ages past found in Galilee. I was looking for
Jesus, the risen one, alive in this world, 2000 years after he was
crucified. I was working on a project for a course I took with theologian
and Harvard professor Harvey Cox. I and a few colleagues spread out all
over town looking for Jesus, the resurrected one, as manifested in the
people we would encounter and interview - as found in their words and
ideas and creativity. I went to a church in Dorchester to interview some
children there about who they thought Jesus was and about where they
thought Jesus was. I will never forget one girl's response, answering me
with great enthusiasm as she and her friends played outside. "I know
where Jesus is. Jesus," she said, "Jesus lives in my
heart." Then she outstretched her arms and with a big grin she said:
"and I've got a b-i-g house in here!"
This is the time of year that I talk with children about the question
"where did Jesus go?" In church school, we have learned about
Jesus' life on earth. A life made visible, historic, and tangible by
scripture. But just where did He go after the tomb became empty? I have
found that the easiest way to explain to children where Jesus goes is that
Jesus lives in our hearts. I bet that many of you have said these same
words to your own children or to children you know. Jesus lives in our
hearts. That is a powerful metaphor.
But the author of the Gospel of John leaves us with another powerful
metaphor to take hold of. I love the image of Jesus, entering the room
with his disciples, showing them much to their surprise and joy that he is
still real, wounds and all. But then, the author of John portrays Jesus
doing something quite mystical. Jesus breathes on his disciples and fills
them with the Holy Spirit. Jesus breathed on them, and their lives would
never be the same. So it is true that Jesus, the resurrected one, is alive
in our hearts. But how about thinking of Jesus, the Christ, to be alive in
our very breath? Can we imagine Jesus being as central to our lives as our
own breathing? Can we imagine Jesus as being as life giving to us, as
vital to us, as breath?
New life - this is what the risen Christ can give you and me. The
gospel writer of John wants us to know this about Christ. For he describes
"breath" with the same Greek word, "emphusao,"
that appears in only three other places in the Bible. In Genesis (2:7) God
formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils
the breath of life so that man became a living being. And in Wisdom
(15:11), God "breathed a living spirit into them." In Ezekiel
(37:9), God breathes breath into the dry bones, so that they may live
again. The gospel writer wants us to understand that Jesus now, as the
risen Christ, has the capability to give to us what God is described as
having given to Adam - new life. And Jesus as the Christ has the power to
regenerate us, as God regenerated the dry
bones of Ezekiel to rise up and live again. What we have here is a new
creation story of sorts.
It's important to realize from this story in John that what Jesus did
for his disciples then he can do for us now. John, when he wrote of the
disciples, never intended to be exclusive. Some would argue that Jesus
breathed the Holy Spirit into the 11 disciples* and is thereby
commissioning the apostolic leadership of the church to go out and lead as
Christ's ambassadors. But what John means by the word
"disciples" is a more general gathering of the faith community.
This faith community included the apostles we know of but probably others
as well. Jesus breathed life onto his disciples, a group of people who
were faithful to him, just as Jesus can breathe new life into us, people
who carry on that faith.
I find the image of Jesus breathing on me to be profoundly healing. We
just sang together a hymn, one that I'm sure many of you know -
"Breathe on me Breath of God". This is one of my favorite hymns,
most especially because I have experienced the absence of breath. Have you
ever had the wind knocked out of you? That is kind of what happened to me.
Back in the 1980's, I spent many a day struggling with severe asthma. I
spent long hours in hospitals, barely able even to gasp for air.
But what saved me, beyond the very skilled physicians and nurses and
hospital staff, what saved me beyond the very potent anti-inflammatory
drugs, beyond the hospital care, beyond the healing love and support of my
family and friends, what saved me, I am convinced, was God. There was a
time when I thought I had lost God. God was no longer really relevant to
my day to day living. It was in the hospital though, when I found myself
in such dire need, without much breath left, literally, that I started to
pray again. I tuned into the God, the spirit I felt somehow living within
me. With each new prayer, (and my prayer basically went something like
this - "help me God"), I imagined God was breathing with me,
perhaps even, breathing for me. Breath by breath by slow, labored breath.
Over time and over these many years since, my breath came back stronger
and stronger. Now there are times when I take
a deep, clear breath and I remember. I thank God.
Jesus Christ is not some far away cosmic power. The risen Christ is
close to you and to me. Imagine the risen Christ as close to you as your
own breath. Imagine that the risen Christ can bring you healing.
Practitioners of Yoga and Buddhist meditation will tell you that taking a
deep breath is cleansing and restorative. I know some of you have
experienced this first hand this past Lent, practicing yoga in our church,
led by our group, Nurturing Our Souls. Imagine that like a deep, cleansing
breath, Jesus can restore you.
Christ restored the disciples. They were scared, lonely, and
despondent. They were locked away in a room, fearing they would be found
out by authorities that would persecute them, after Jesus was crucified.
They had lost hope. They were directionless. At least one of them, Thomas,
was full of doubt. But then Jesus came into the room and stood among them
and said, "Peace be with you."
The troubling feelings that had plagued them gave way to joy and peace
when the disciples encountered the risen Jesus. In this Easter season,
Christ can do this for you and for me too. If you have doubts, if you have
any fears right now holding you back from doing all that you feel called
to do in this world, if you feel locked up inside, if you have lost hope,
if you have dreams that have faded, if you have lost your way, Christ can
breath Holy Spirit into you and regenerate your life for the better. Now
is the perfect time to allow for Christ to infuse you with this power. Now
is the perfect time to open yourself up to the peace and the joy Christ
can offer. The risen Christ can make us whole.
But beyond what Christ can do for you, Jesus breathes on us so that we
can have the power than to do for others. "As the Father has sent me,
so I send you," says Jesus.
The words to my favorite hymn go "Breathe on me Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew. That I may love the way you love and do what you
would do." See, the surprising thing is, once you let Jesus into your
life to heal you on the inside, your focus soon shifts. It goes from being
not only inward, but outward focused too. When I was sick with asthma and
prayed more and more for my own healing, my breath did come back, but so
did a growing desire to contribute to the healing of others. So did a
growing desire to try to go out and do God's work.
Just what is God's work? After Jesus breathes on his disciples, filling
them with the Holy Spirit, he tells them to go out and forgive people of
their sins. "Receive the Holy Spirit," Jesus says. "If you
forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven." And remember, we're not
talking here just about some apostolic leadership having the power to
forgive people of their sins. We're talking about all of God's faithful
people having this call to forgive. But sin, according to John, is not
what you think it might be. Sin, in John's mind is not a moral or
behavioral transgression. Sin is when we fail to see the revelation of
God. Forgiving sin therefore means that we are to bear witness to the
identity of God as revealed in Jesus. In other words, we are commissioned,
by the power of the Holy Spirit, to continue to do Jesus' work in the
What is Jesus' work? Jesus healed people. Jesus spoke up for the rights
of people who were oppressed. Jesus befriended and believed in people who
were exiled from their communities because of one prejudice or another.
Jesus saw the potential in each person to be a child of God, and never
gave up on any single one. Jesus forgave people. Jesus spoke truth to
power. Jesus loved his neighbor as
himself. Jesus loved God with all his heart, mind, and soul.
In this broken world, where there is mounting violence and injustice
and poverty and disease, how do we carry on with Christ's work? How are we
to be Christ's hands and eyes and feet? It's easy to feel powerless and
overwhelmed by how much there is to do. By what power are we to go
forward, lest we become disillusioned? Another word for breath, "pneuma"
in Greek, is also the same word for "spirit" and
"wind." The ancient Greeks believed that spirit, wind, breath
were all somehow related. Have you ever thought of God's breath being like
the wind? Those of you who spend time in Boston, and you all know it's the
windiest city of the country, by the way, (not Chicago). If you spend time
in Boston, you might know of the "wind tunnel" between Trinity
Church, Copley Square and the John Hancock building. I.M.Pei designed the
Hancock building with such sharp edges that the wind is propelled forward
very powerfully by this architectural structure.
In the winter particularly, the wind can be so fierce, that security
guards stand outside and assist people, as they leave the building, to get
across the street, for fear that otherwise the wind would blow them off
their feet. I have experienced that wind tunnel - don't even think about
wearing a hat when traveling through - and my feet were literally lifted
off the ground as I was carried forward by the wind. That's powerful.
Imagine God's breath being like that wind, being that powerful. Imagine
Christ's breath and the power of the Holy Spirit lifting you off your feet
and carrying you forward to do God's work. In the Gospel of John it is
written: "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of
it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is
with everyone who is born of the spirit." (John 3:8) We do not know
how far we will go in this world but trust that Christ will carry you
forward. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
Remember, Christ is sending you and me forth into this world not with
some meek desire that you do good but with firm belief that you can do
good. You can do God's work. Christ is sending you and me forth into this
world not with some timid hope that things will work out for the better,
but with power, with revitalizing breath, with Holy Spirit that will send
you out, that will carry you like the wind, that will lift you up, empower
you, and put you in the places you are needed to be most, all for the
better in this world.
Breathe on us breath of God, fill us with life anew, that we may love
the way you love and do what you may do. Amen.
*The traditional 12 disciples the author of John writes about, minus
Copyright © 2004 Gretchen L. Elmendorf. Used by