A change for the better – “a breath of fresh air”…We’re all familiar with this phrase. It usually means that we have been unhappy with the status quo and something or someone has come on the scene to offer a new perspective, a fresh pair of eyes, or ideas we hadn’t thought of yet. That’s what the Jews expected the Messiah to be – a breath of fresh air, the wind of change – that would blow the Romans out of the water. It’s why many of them couldn’t accept Jesus in the role – his “change for the better” wasn’t what they expected or what they wanted. So their leaders arranged for Jesus to be put to death so they wouldn’t be threatened and they could keep waiting for the Messiah they wanted. But, God wasn’t finished. Jesus is raised from the dead and starts making appearances to his followers. Here in John’s story we find a whole new way of understanding “a breath of fresh air.”
[NIV, John 20:22] “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
[MSG, John 20:22] “Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ he said.”
This version of the coming of the Holy Spirit – the Pentecost – is a far cry from what we are accustomed to hearing from the Book of Acts. Luke talks about a sound like the rush of a violent wind, filling the entire house. He tells us that tongues of fire appeared and rested on each person’s head. The disciples began preaching in many languages to thousands of people and many were converted that day. This story has been foundational for the church for years. John has something else in mind for his version of the story. John wants to link the gift of the Holy Spirit closely to the miracle of the Resurrection of Jesus. John wants Jesus to be directly involved in giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples…This is the fulfillment of the promise he made earlier: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23) “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
“He took a deep breath and breathed into them.” I can’t imagine a more perfect way to complete John’s understanding of the nature of God, the identity of Jesus, and the relationship of the Holy Trinity…(Genesis 1:2) The breath of God (ruach Elohim) swept over the chaos and Creation began. (John 1:1-4) “In the beginning was the Word…” God as Creator and The Word being present from the beginning and Jesus as The Word…All things created through The Word of God…(John 20:22) Finally, God as the Holy Spirit in the breath of Jesus, the Word, being breathed INTO the disciples. Through this one dramatic act, Jesus breaths the essence of God into each disciple and fulfills the promise he made to come and make God’s home in each one of them. This same gift comes to us across generations.
Usually when this particular text comes up in the Lectionary we hear sermons preached on some variation of the “Doubting Thomas” portion of the text. There is certainly much to talk about in those verses and many wonderful sermons have been preached through the years. (I have a couple on this topic that I rather like too.) This year, however, I cannot help but focus on the Holy Spirit’s entrance into this drama and what that means to us as recipients of Jesus’ own breath. After Jesus’ death his disciples are a pretty sorry lot…From this group of his closest friends he was betrayed, denied, and abandoned. When confronted with the empty tomb they are unwilling to accept the full truth of the Resurrection miracle. On this night they are hiding behind closed doors, afraid that somebody might come after them.
It seems to me that this is a pretty stinky bunch with all their sin, grief, fear and guilt…The breath of the Holy Spirit is the fresh air of forgiveness amidst all of this stench…Jesus comes to them with mercy and grace to keep the promise he made in spite of everything.
There are a couple of points in this story that I think are important for us to mention…John shows us that it is not easy to be Easter people. It’s really tough to imagine what it must have been like to go through three years of ministry with Jesus only to watch him betrayed and slaughtered like an animal. Even when Jesus is raised from the dead, there is a time when none of the disciples can believe what they see and hear. It ultimately takes Jesus coming into their midst through a locked door and displaying his wounds to get them to believe. Thomas isn’t the only one who needed proof – they all did. As we look at the text today we need to see that reality…None of the disciples really believed or even started to understand until Jesus was standing right there in front of them…Let’s not all pick on Thomas here.
What’s worse, the story tells us that the very next week, even after they’ve seen Jesus for themselves and he has given them the power of the Holy Spirit and sent them out…“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he said. The very next week they are once again hiding behind closed doors and they haven’t done a thing about what Jesus has said to them. It’s really hard to be Easter people. These people new Jesus first hand and they were reluctant and afraid…What do we expect of ourselves? Sure, we are going to be reluctant and afraid, but we have the advantage of 2,000 years of hindsight…We have a much better idea of what lies ahead and we can embrace this gift of the Holy Spirit with enthusiasm. The really hard question is: Do we have the courage and the resolve to be sent just as Jesus was sent?
The other thing worth mentioning here is that Jesus is willing to come again and again to people who are reluctant and frightened and confused. None of us warrants a second or third visit, yet Jesus is willing to come through closed and locked doors to get to us over and over again. With no questions asked, Jesus offers himself, his peace, and his presence over and over again. I think the heart of this story is the grace that Jesus shows us as he passes through the barriers we have built around ourselves. We may be angry or confused or frightened or simply unbelieving. We may be stalling until we find the proof that we seek. We may be hiding from the conviction that our sin merits great punishment, not great mercy. We may be frozen by the fear of proclaiming what our hearts tell us is true. We may just have lost our passion over the years, gotten burned-out, or forgotten what it means to be a disciple. Whatever the reason for staying behind those locked doors, Jesus will continue to come and offer his grace, his forgiveness, his presence, and his breath of fresh air.
“A change for the better” – that’s what a breath of fresh air is. It’s a chance to let Jesus transform you from whatever you are now into what God wants you to be. As transformed disciples, we are empowered by this breathed-in Spirit to bear the forgiving, transforming love of God into every sphere of the human experience. This change for the better – this breath of fresh air can be the wind of change that sweeps across the world. John’s final words in this text are about that very thing…John understood that the people who read this text – throughout all time – would be people who could only come to believing without seeing. He knew that hearing about the signs in his writing others would come to feel the breath of fresh air and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. What we must hear now in these words is that the Risen Christ has breathed a new missionary calling into the church for today. “As the Father sent me,” Jesus says to us, “So I am sending you.” And he takes a deep breath and breaths INTO us the power of the Holy Spirit. Take it in – That’s a real breath of fresh air!
In the name of the God who comes after us time and time again…Amen