Breathe Again

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the second Sunday of Easter. 

Genesis 1:1-5

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s spirit swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

John 20:19-23

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

***

It is surprising to me how easily humans forget to breathe.

When we’re angry. When we’re scared. When we’re sad. When we’re stressed. Whatever the reason, our first reaction is often—unhelpfully—to hold our breath, or shorten it.

When I was a hospital chaplain, my supervisor told me that 99% of my work in the emergency room would be reminding people to breathe. “That’s all the God they’ll need right then,” he told me.

He wasn’t wrong. It’s my go-to advice. Remember to breathe. Whatever else is going on, remember to breathe. Even if that’s all you have control over, even if that’s all you can manage, just breathe.

We come upon the disciples, here in John’s gospel, holding their breath. It is Easter day for them still, but they don’t know it. Mary Magdalene has told them Jesus is alive, but they have brushed her off, and here they are, huddled behind locked doors, waiting for the same Jewish authorities who killed their leader to come after them. They have lost their leader and their hope, and they are terrified.

As anyone who has ever played sardines can tell you, you can’t breathe too loudly when you think someone is looking for you. Better not to breathe at all.

And in the middle of all this, Jesus appears. Just appears. As if he was never dead, never gone at all. There’s no flash of light, no flash of thunder, he’s just there, with them, like he always was. I wonder if it even took them a second to notice, that there were twelve in the room now, instead of just 11. He comes so softly.

And says, “Peace be with you,” and you can almost feel the room letting out that breath they’ve been holding for three long days.

I almost wonder if somebody laughed, because “peace be with you” was just a standard Jewish greeting, like we’d say good afternoon or hey y’all. Jesus has been dead—tortured, crucified, executed before their very eyes kind of dead—and here he is again, and it’s just “hey, y’all.”

But of course, those words become more than a standard greeting when peace is the very furthest thing from your mind. When you have been hiding away in fear and confusion and anxiety and grief, then those words—“peace be with you”—are a lifeline. Jesus just shows up, in the middle of their terror, and gives them peace.

Just like that. It’s not showy or loud. But it’s miracle enough, I think. As one who has known that peace, it’s miracle enough.

We say those words to each other every service. “Peace be with you.” We echo Jesus’ Easter greeting, because every Sunday is a little Easter in our lives. Every Sunday is a little celebration that Jesus is here in our midst.

I know that for most of the people I greet during the passing of the peace, the words are as rote and offhand as “good morning” or “hey y’all.” And sometimes I slip up, and I just say good morning. But I also know that for someone here each week, the word they most need to hear is peace. And because we cannot know the full complexity of each others lives, cannot know who is huddled in their own room of anxiety and grief on any given day, we proclaim that peace to everyone. Peace be with you, Jesus’ own peace be with you. Whatever else is going on, peace be with you.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds in his hands and side, and they rejoice. This is their Easter experience—to see the marks of death on one who is alive, to know peace after a time of grief, to see a loved one they thought was lost. No wonder they are filled with joy!

Then Jesus does something kind of funky. He breathes on them.

On the one hand, this is just another sign that he is alive. In a world before ventilators, to breathe is the ultimate sign of being alive. The words breath and life are often used interchangeably in the Hebrew scriptures—breath is the source and sign of life.

And so Christ, with his new resurrection life, breathes that life into the terrified disciples.

It’s not the first God has breathed. We remember back to Genesis, to the very creation of the world, when God’s spirit—God’s wind, God’s breath—soared over the waters of creation. When God’s breath blew apart light and dark. Maybe even more closely, we remember the other Genesis story, when God breathes into the human body God just sculpted, and that body becomes Adam, a person, alive.

In Genesis, God breathes into the world, into humanity, and we came alive. God breathed, and the world came alive. Here in John’s gospel, we see creation remade in miniature—Jesus breathes into his disciples, and the church is formed. The church—which was always supposed to be the world as it should have been. A place where God’s image is fully seen, and God’s life fully known.

The gospel writer Luke has a showier version of this story, in Acts, when the spirit falls on the disciples. We read it on Pentecost. But John’s little pentecost story is beautiful too—all we need to be the church. Peace. Joy. Breath. Each other. And Jesus.

We have a god who breathes. Not a god made of wood or stone, but a god who is alive in the fullest sense of the word, a god who breathes that life right into us.

It is tempting sometimes to live as though Easter never happened, as if huddling behind closed doors, hiding from a big bad world, is what church is. I have certainly known my share of congregations who hide in their sanctuaries, and who might very well be shocked if Jesus showed up in their midst!

But that’s why I love this church. I see Jesus here. I see his peace. I see his joy in you all.

And I see the spirit, breathing through us. Sometimes that’s all we can do. But it’s enough. To house God’s spirit, and to be open enough to let it move.

I was talking to a friend recently, who asked if I thought I’d always be in small churches. I said I didn’t know, but I sort of hope so. Because I love how being in small church helps me see God’s Easter miracles at work.

It is not likely—not impossible, but not likely—that this church will ever be overflowing with the resources the world deems valuable. We do not sit on a hefty endowment or valuable land. We are in a stable place right now, but we will never stray too far from the cliff when it comes to sustainability. That is simply a fact of our life together.

And I have come to love that. Because it makes God’s work in us so transparent. When we make the budget, when we have enough Sunday School teachers, when the table in the narthex is full of food, when the grocery cart in the narthex overflows with donations—it’s so obvious that that is God’s spirit, breathing in and out through us. There are days it might be nice to be able to trust money to see us through. But small churches are forced to trust the spirit—and I wonder if we are not the more faithful for it.

God breathes through us; we are God’s new creation. We are the church Jesus commissioned, right on that first Easter, the ones who are sent forth into the world, to forgive and tell the good news. That’s all we are. And it’s more than enough.

So this Easter, I wonder: are you holding your breath? Are you waiting for a shred of hope, something to trust?

Then I pray you find it here. Let out that breath. Draw in another. As my supervisor would say, that’s enough God right there. That you are breathing. That today is a new day, and you are still breathing.

I hope today you are filled with joy. But if you are not ready yet, to be sent forth, if you aren’t ready to open the doors and go out into that big bad beautiful world, remember: keep breathing.

Because every breath is God’s spirit in you.

Every breath is an Easter gift.

Every breath is a reminder
that we are alive
that Christ is alive
that it is enough.

Amen.

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