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Based on the Scripture readings:
John 20: 19-31

2004 April 18
Second Sunday of Easter
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

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, Back to topas 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. Back to topNow 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 world.

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. Back to topJesus 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 Judas.

Copyright 2004 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission.

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