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Second Sunday of Easter
Job 42:1-6; Psalm 111; Revelation 1:1-19; John 20:19-31
Fear. One of our deepest and most basic instincts. Fear keeps us alive, telling us what is to be avoided or destroyed for our own safety, whether we should hide, or fight. But fear also can freeze us at the moment we need to move, can paralyze us when we need to act. The gospel reading begins with fear, the fear of the disciples that the Jewish authorities who called for Jesus to be crucified would come for them. Fear, as one of my favorite books puts it, is the “little death that brings total obliteration,” because it takes control of us and, like an animal, moves us to act out of instinct.
After appearing to the women who bravely came to anoint his body, Jesus goes to these disciples, taking those who are afraid and preparing them for what they are to become: his emissaries to the world. We see right away that something is different here. Though the door is locked, Jesus just appears. But it is not like he is a phantasm, a ghost or illusion; he shows them his hands, his side, the holes where he had been crucified and stabbed. Yet he is different, changed, transformed. His resurrection body seems to be able to do things our normal human bodies cannot. He then takes these fearful disciples, and gives them what they will need to be messengers and witnesses of him and his mighty triumph in his resurrection: The Holy Spirit.
It tells us that he “breathed on them.” Breath, a sacred sign that he is giving them the Spirit, God-who-will-dwell-in-humanity. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends them, but he does not leave them to do it on their own; he empowers them to be his messengers.
Yet, there is something even more mysterious, more profound going on here. Consider how vivid the idea of “breath” is. When I used to run, it was when your breath starts to falter, to wear down because your lungs are so taxed, that you start to slow down and stop. If a person is pulled from the water, nearly drowned, we perform CPR; pressing on their chest, and breathing into their mouths, we seek to blow air into their lungs, to revive them into life. I remember when my son was born, he didn’t immediately start breathing. It was only for a few seconds before he did, but those seconds felt like some of the most intense of my life, a whole lifetime compacted into those brief moments, waiting for his cry to tell me he was okay. When we get an anxiety or panic attack, we begin to lose control of our breath, we suck air in desperately, grasping for it.
Breath, a sign of life itself. Jesus breathing on the disciples here is a profound and mysterious act, drawing upon not only the deepest experience of human life, but also on the Scriptures. Turning to Genesis 2:7, we see that, “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.” The word in John for breath or blowing is the same as that used in the Greek version of Genesis 2. In the creation story, God breathes into a lifeless body, and they became “a living being,” a human. Whatever separates humans from animals, making us rational, loving, creative people, is given here. In John, Jesus is re-creating the disciples as a New Humanity that is restored and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
We humans were supposed to represent God in the world before we sinned. We are his image bearers. Here, Jesus is taking our sin-marred image and turning us into courageous witnesses, people who can proclaim the truth that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again! Jesus is sending his disciples, and sending us, but he is not sending us alone. He is sending us empowered to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection, as humans raised to new life in him and filled with his Spirit. And the giving of the Spirit binds us to Jesus. For the Spirit we are given is His Spirit, and so in sharing we also share in Jesus himself. That is why he can say the Church can forgive sin and withhold forgiveness, not because it is our decision, but because we as the body of Christ, when we live in the Spirit, proclaim the truth of God and thus are embodying Christ in the world.
But even so, we still sometimes fear, sometimes doubt. It shifts straight from this gift that is to give the disciples courage to go even unto their deaths, to the story of Thomas. I don’t think Thomas is being rebuked here. He does what is natural to all of us, to say “I need to see for myself, I need to know!” Jesus then appears, and offers what Thomas asks. Jesus doesn’t say Thomas isn’t blessed, but that those who believe without having seen will certainly be. That is us. We do not see, and so we doubt, and we give in to fear. But Jesus drives away the spirit of fear, which is death, with the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. For in the power of God there is no fear. Our faith is an invitation to the Spirit to fill us, our trust a release of the breath we have been trying to hold back that now fills our souls and moves us to live not in fear, but in love.
For us, the breath of life has been renewed. The resurrected Christ has secured our resurrection, and given us his Spirit so that we have nothing to fear because nothing can take that from us. Even if killed, we will be raised again. What else can be done to us? Our bodies like Christ’s will somehow bear the marks of our lives, signs of what we have gone through; yet, they will also be transformed in ways we do not understand, healed and made whole, not just despite, but perhaps even because of our suffering. Sisters and brothers, breathe deep of the blessings of God. Witness to the power of God the Father in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Proclaim Jesus as Lord, because that is our mission in the world! Believe, be filled, and walk without fear, knowing that ahead of you has gone our “Lord and our God!”
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