Sermon for May 31st, 2020
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Receive the Holy Spirit
In today's scripture passage, the disciples are gathered in the upper room, and the door is shut. The door is locked. They are afraid to go outside, and who knows how long they've been locked inside the house? This should sound a little bit familiar to us.
So the door is locked, Jesus is about to make his big entrance (post-resurrection), and this is where I think he truly missed a great opportunity: Let me tell you how Jesus *should* have entered the building...
Knock knock. Who's there? Theodore. Theodore Who? Theodore is locked, you wanna open it?
Knock knock. Who's there? Usher. Usher who? Usher wish you would let me in, guys!
Knock knock. Who's there? Hal. Hal who? Hal'll you know unless you open the door and find out?
Knock knock. Who's there? Candice. Candice who? Candice door open, or not?
Knock knock. Who's there? Doris. Doris who? Doris locked, that's why I've been knocking!
Knock knock. Who's there? Ben. Ben who? Ben knocking for a long time now...
Knock knock. Who's there? Howie. Howie who? Howie gonna finish this story if you don't let me in?
Knock knock. Who's there? Dolores. Dolores who? Dolores my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he restoreth my soul.
Oh, hey Jesus, it's you!!
That would have been epic. Unfortunately, Jesus didn't go that route. Instead he just came straight through the locked door, surprised his friends who up until this point thought he was dead, and said "Peace be with you."
In the King James translation, the next verse reads "and the disciples soiled their undergarments and screameth like little girls." I'm just kidding--that's not in the Bible (but I bet that's exactly how it happened).
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The version of the Pentecost story most people are familiar with--the one we just heard from Ms. Marina--comes from the book of Acts. In that version of the story, the Holy Spirit comes 50 days after Jesus ascends into heaven, outside in the marketplace with tongues of fire descending upon the disciples.
But this year we're going with John's version of the story, which is a little more understated, a little more intimate, and the focus is on breath more than on fire. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples.
Yes, you heard that right. Jesus...breathes...on his disciples. He has recently been out of the country, and now he comes uninvited into a house crowded with people, he does not observe social distancing, and he does the one thing we are trying really hard NOT to do to each other right now, the reason we're all wearing masks whenever we go outside. Because bad, bad things come from breath and breathing...things like viruses that can make you sick and possibly kill you. Way to be an example, Jesus.
Of course, all of this takes place in an entirely different context from ours, where Coronavirus does not yet exist. And, in fact, where Christianity did not yet exist, either. Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Christian church. And so today, on this two-thousand-and-something anniversary of the birth of the church, while most of us are locked safely in our homes (like the disciples were) and perhaps a little bit afraid for our lives, I want to invite you all to do something you might not have done for awhile. Take a deep breath. Hold it in for awhile. Then let it out, slowly. Keep doing that a few more times as you're listening.
Did you know that the Greek word for Holy Spirit, in this passage and everywhere else in the New Testament, is Πνεῦμα Ἅγιον, which literally translates to "Holy breath" or "Holy wind?" In the Old Testament, in ancient Hebrew, the word for spirit is רוּחַ (ruah), which can also be translated as breath or wind.
This makes sense. To most ancient peoples, breath was not something to be feared, breath was life itself--the one thing above all others that distinguished the living from the dead.
When you breathe in, you take something from the world inside you--sometimes it's a nasty virus, but sometimes it's a breath of fresh mountain air, or the smell of cookies baking in the oven! Likewise, when you exhale or breathe out, something leaves you and goes out into the world. Lately we've been really worried about that, but let's remember that list of things going out into the world on our breath also includes our speech--every time you've spoken or heard the words "I love you," every song you've ever sung or that has been sung to you, has been carried out into the world on the wings of a breath. Your breath...is your life...is your spirit.
So Jesus, who was dead but now alive again, gives one last gift to his disciples: He breathes on them. He gives them his breath...his life...his spirit. There's a bit of metaphor in that act as well.
Just as he had drawn them in at the beginning of his earthly ministry (breathe in) now he sends them out in his name (breathe out). The disciples of Jesus have figuratively become his breath, his life, his spirit. They are exhaled into the world.
And so are we, both metaphorically and literally. This week many El Pasoans have been (or will be) cautiously wandering out of their doors for the first time in quite a while--little by little, hopefully using common sense and courtesy, and hopefully not all at once--but it is beginning to happen. I know that for some that's exciting, and for others it's terrifying. People in each of those groups would do well to listen carefully to each other, to understand and respect the different circumstances and contexts that sometimes lead us on different paths.
And of course that's where the metaphorical sense comes in: Here at First Presbyterian Church we like to think of ourselves as Wanderers, Wonderers, and Wisdom-Seekers. But all of those things are difficult to do when you are (metaphorically) stuck in a spiritual rut, locked up in the nice, imaginary rooms of habit or comfort or security, afraid to strike out on the kind of faith journey, the kind of spiritual adventure that gives life meaning and purpose; the kind Jesus is talking about when he tells his disciples (and us) that, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
Every time you open the door and step out into the world (literally or metaphorically) there will be risks and dangers. The very first thing Jesus does when greets his disciples is show them the scars and the wounds that his journey inflicted upon him. Venturing out into the world will hurt you, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. You might even get crucified. But there is also danger in never opening the door, never answering the call of the Spirit, never taking the first step on the road that God has prepared for you. In the end, there isn't much difference between death and a life that is never lived.
So I think the trick is in the balance--we don't rush through the open door recklessly, just for the sake of being on some sort of journey. Instead, we do so thoughtfully, purposefully, and always mindful that we walk with others on the path. You can recognize the call of God's spirit, because it's almost always a call to help other people on that path.
Oh, and there's one more thing Jesus tells his disciples to do before they open the door and step out into the world: Forgive people. Verse 23 says, "If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven [by God] and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained [by God]. Only the words "by God" aren't really there, even though we add them in our mind. We could just as easily read the verse as "If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven [by you] and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained [by you].
In other words, how much baggage do you want to carry with you on your journey? Do you want to carry around the weight of all the people who have wronged you, hurt you, disagreed with you...or would you rather let it go and walk out the door with nothing on your shoulders? Try it sometime. Stop before you leave the house, and forgive someone. Let something go.
So to recap all of that: Breathe in, Breathe out. Follow the Spirit. And forgive.
May your journeys be long, and may they take you far.
Knock knock. Who's there? Lettuce. Lettuce who? Lettuce pray...