Take a breath
Reading: John 20:19-31
Take a breath
Reading: John 20:19-31
There are times when it feels quite a stretch to ensure that the events in a Bible passage are comparable or relevant to our situation today (step forward Exodus 5, verses 24-26, for example!). Today, however, is not one of those days for this Sunday’s gospel reading tells us of Jesus speaking words of peace and comfort to a group of followers who are locked inside, frightened for their lives!
As with the earlier part of the chapter which we looked at last week, verses 19-31 of the 20th chapter of the gospel according to John are rich in colour and character, in theology and validation of earlier promises of Jesus. There is so much on which we could focus here – the nature of Thomas’ doubts and beliefs; Jesus’ encouraging words about those who believe without seeing; Jesus’ difficult words about forgiveness being withheld…so much…but today, I’d like us reflect on John’s version of the Spirit arriving in a fresh way;
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.’
When he had said this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.
(John 20:21-22 NRSV)
Now remember, that this was the evening of Easter Sunday…so, taking into account what we looked at last week, John gives us resurrection, a nod to ascension and Pentecost on the same day. Clearly, he was one of those kids who tells you the punchline before finishing the joke! For John, then, the arrival and blessing of the Spirit is inseparable with Christ’s glorification and the Church’s mission – ‘so I send you’ – and all this takes place in a locked room with some scared disciples. I wonder if that should give us some encouragement, some hope for the circumstances in which we find ourselves today – that even in our scared, isolated states; even when holy week events are cancelled and communal dinners take place via photographs, skype and zoom, the risen Christ is in our midst; God’s Spirit is moving.
Many of you know that my brother-in-law was in a different kind of locked room when he had an encounter with Jesus and first felt the Spirit’s presence around and within him. This experience transformed his whole worldview, identity and perspective on his imprisonment;
I often describe my time in prison as my honeymoon with God. Once I had
encountered Him and began spending time with Him it stopped feeling like I was
locked inside but more like He had locked the world out so we could be together.
The coronavirus is affecting us all in very different ways. Whilst some of us are just as, if not more, busy and are still venturing to workplaces, vulnerable family members or elsewhere through volunteering, many of us are facing protracted periods of time facing the same four walls. We might well love this or loathe this, depending on our personality type, living arrangements and previous experience. What if, however, through the darkness or the light that this time has brought us; what if we sought out Christ’s presence in our midst? What if we listened out for the Spirit’s stirring in our souls? Could some of us even reframe the situation as a potential honeymoon with God? Could this period offer us the time and space to delve deeper into our faith – to read, write, reflect, pray, play, create, to stop, be still, to simply be with God?
I can honestly say that it has for me. My prayer life is shockingly sporadic…or it goes in ‘cycles and seasons’ if I want to sound more positive about it! So I am thankful that this time has afforded me the time, space and motivation to set aside time to pray, read scripture and use other resources to aid my holy habits and intentional time with God. One thing I’ve been using twice daily is a book of short extracts from the inspiring Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen, who valued solitude as a path to a deeper relationship with God. Ever the narcissist, I jumped a few weeks forward and looked up the extract for my Birthday…on the 11th of May…still time to make plans for the few of you who have yet to start them!!! It seems apposite to share;
Maybe I have been living much too fast, too restlessly, too feverishly, forgetting to
pay attention to what is happening here and now, right under my nose. Just as a
whole world of beauty can be discovered in one flower, so the great grace of God
can be tasted in one small moment. Just as no great travels are necessary to see
the beauty of creation, so no great ecstasies are needed to discover the love of
God. But you have to be still and wait so that you can realize that God is not in the
earthquake, the storm, or the lightning, but in the gentle breeze with which he
touches your back.
Perhaps then, we can use this time to be still; to look at the beauty of a flower; to taste the grace, and discover the love, of God.
Back to John’s gospel and his Pentecost portrayal contains none of the divine din that we find in Luke’s version. Instead, Jesus simply breathes on his followers (different times!). Remember, John likes his allusions to Genesis and so, just as God first breathed humanity into being in our first creation, here the risen Christ breathes humanity into a new creation, ready for their new mission. The disciples breathe in God. The Spirit transforms them. God’s Spirit is, as affirmed in countless other New testament passages, within them – within us. What might that mean for us in our present context?
Well, what if we used this time to reacquaint ourselves with ourselves – to make space to meet with God within? This might sound kind of trippy but if we do believe that we have all been made in God’s image, breathed into life by our Creator, entwined and enlivened by the Spirit, then perhaps we can learn more of our God by learning more of ourselves. Spending time in one’s own company, perhaps re-membering our past, reflecting on ‘what has contributed to what we have become and are becoming’ might enable us to reflect on our journey with God by our side. For others of us, freeing up time to experiment, discover, enjoy our God-given passions and gifts might help us connect with the Spirit within. For still others of us, this might be a time for some hard yet important work to be done on learning how to accept, value, even love the person God is creating us to be – perhaps even to ‘love into life all the broken and vulnerable aspects of our self which have been long neglected’. When we breathe the air around us, we take in the nutrients we need and expel the pollutants that irritate, debilitate or can even kill us. Perhaps, as we breathe in God, we might welcome acceptance, forgiveness, peace into our lives; we might rid ourselves of guilt, judgment, bitterness and fear.
Of course, for those disciples breathing in the breath of Jesus, the Spirit was given not simply to tend to their wounds but to prepare them for the next adventure. They were not to remain in that locked room forever but were sent by Christ onto the streets and into the world, to speak, act and live into God’s upside-down kingdom. Just as oxygen provides about 90% of the energy needed to live, so the Spirit provides the energy needed to tell the world the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. So what if we saw this enforced period of stillness as a time to breathe deeply; to regroup, reflect and reenergize for a brave renewed expression of God’s kingdom? After all, that’s where the word ‘inspire’ originates – from the Latin verb inspirare – to breathe into. What if we allowed the Spirit to inspire us; to breathe into us, reawakening us to our calling as partners in God’s mission of love to the world?
One image that I’ve taken to recently (more on Wednesday!) is that of the cocoon. The butterfly, of course, has long been an image associated with the resurrection for obvious reasons and if I had been able to attend Zelda’s funeral, they would have featured in my clothing for she joyfully embraced them as a beautiful symbol of resurrection hope. Today, though, many commentators are likening our current climate to that of a cocoon, encouraging us to be hopeful, imaginative, active in making sure the world that exists once the pandemic has run its course will not be the same one that came before but could be more just, peaceful, grace-soaked and beautiful. ‘We are both becalmed and in a state of profound change’, writes journalist Rebecca Solnit, in her hopeful piece bejewelled with butterflies. She continues –
Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and
exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe,
an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this
emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it.
As Rebecca notes, it’s far too soon to guess what will emerge when our isolation comes to an end and we all take our first faltering steps beyond our currently limited lives…but just imagine what could happen if we breathed deeply and dreamed big. After all, it was in the shadow of the Second World War, as the spirit of despair and division hovered over Europe that these soggy islands chose hope over fear, compassion for others over self-interest, life over death as the age of universal healthcare was born…and aren’t we seeing the wonder of this much-loved, much-beleaguered institution once again?
So what if we dared to breath in God’s Spirit and made space in our lives to dream dreams and see visions of how God’s world could be? What if we dared to declare that when God comes to town, prisoners can be freed, the oppressed can be liberated, the dead can return to life?
John tells us that the world was changed forever when frightened friends of Jesus behind locked doors breathed in God’s Spirit. Perhaps it might again. Amen.
 For more on my brother-in-law’s reflections on finding God in solitude, see ‘Sacred Solitude’ on the St. David’s Uniting Church website.
 Rebecca Solnit, ‘The impossible has already happened’: what coronavirus can teach us about hope, 7th April 2020,