TEXTS: 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19-31
I’m not quite sure why, but some years ago the common lectionary was edited so that today’s passage from the gospel of John comes up as the appointed gospel reading on the second Sunday of Easter – every year! I for one am finding it almost annoying, being asked to preach on the same text year after year, especially when one of the purposes of the common lectionary’s three year cycle is to guard against repetition, with preachers preaching on the same texts over and over. And since one of the key points of this gospel passage has do with the disciples Thomas and his unbelief turned to belief, it seems to me that a lot of preachers turn the second Sunday of Easter into “Thomas bashing Sunday” or at least Thomas explaining Sunday. Well friends, I’m not going to bash Thomas today, in fact I’m not even going to talk about Thomas – as the doubting disciple or otherwise. Instead, I want to take a minute or two to talk about the first interaction between Jesus and the disciples present on that first Easter evening.
It is obvious to me that John wants his readers to know that the risen Jesus is not simply the dead Jesus resuscitated; another case like the case of Lazarus, where a dead man is brought back to the land of the living to continue the life that he had previously known. Lazarus died and Jesus brought Lazarus back to life; but nothing in that story speaks of Lazarus being resurrected. Resurrection and resuscitation are two different things. In his resurrected form, Jesus has powers that are beyond the powers any human being attached to life on this earth. Instead Jesus shows abilities that are reserved for beings from God’s divine realm.
We are told by John that, even though the doors were locked in the house where the disciples were gathered, Jesus came and stood among them. Now we are not told how Jesus accomplished this. John says nothing of whether Jesus walked through the wall or whether he simply materialized in the disciples midst as if he were being transported like captain Kirk in an episode of Star Trek, or whether he somehow had the ability to open a locked door; but any way we look at it, this was not the manner in which an earthly body would come into a room. And my understanding of the scene is that John was trying very hard to let his readers know that Jesus’ resurrected body was not at all like even his own earthly body had been. The nature of the body of the resurrected Jesus was not the nature of the body of the earthly Jesus.
Now the reaction of the disciples to this sudden materialization is not recorded, but my guess is that there must have been a decent amount of alarm and fear. I say this in part because I myself would probably have fainted dead away in a situation like this. I also say it in part because Jesus proclaimed peace to the disciples not once, but twice. I envision the disciples scared witless, Jesus offering a proclamation of peace and the disciples calming down a bit. Then Jesus showed his wounds and the disciples became freaked out all over again. Jesus must have had to again calm them with repeated words of peace.
And then; and then we have a moment that is pretty consistently glossed over by preachers and yet is, I believe, one of the central points of the passage. We are told by the gospel writer that Jesus breathed upon disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He then continued with words about retaining the sins others. These are words and actions that reach back to the earliest stories of acts of God and forward through the early days of the church.
I want to pause at this point to remind you that both the ancient Hebrew of the Old Testament and the ancient Greek of the New Testament use a single term to mean wind, breath and spirit, sort of a reversal of the many times when I have noted that these ancient languages have multiple terms for words that we offer up in English with a single word. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is “Ruach” (phonetically) and it can be translated as wind, as breath and as Spirit. The same goes for the New Testament Greek term “Pneuma” (phonetically). If you want to have some real fun with the Bible, find Bible passages which contain one of those translated words and substitute either of the other words in its place. A good example would be from Genesis, chapter one: “And the Spirit of God hovered over waters.” What happens to the passage when you use “wind” or “spirit”?
In the second chapter of Genesis, God shapes humankind from dust earth and breathes into that inanimate being the breath life, letting us know that our earthly lives have everything do with the divine breath that is within us and that we would not be living beings if God had not breathed into us that divine breath (or maybe that divine Spirit!). In the Pentecost event we are told that the first sign of the presence of God was a sound like a mighty wind (a mighty breath) filling the place where the disciples were gathered.
“Receive the Holy Spirit.” said Jesus; receive the precious, divine breath of God; let the fresh wind of God blow through you. This scene is John’s Pentecost. This is the point for John at which the disciples are transformed and take on the divine elements of God’s Holy Spirit. This is the point at which the disciples began to move from fearful cowering in a locked room to the bold proclamation of the word of God in Christ Jesus the Son.
Friends, we are inheritors of this good news! We have received the proclamation of the disciples that Christ is risen; risen to a new and amazing state of being and not simply resuscitated to continue the earthly life that he had once known. And I firmly believe that we are also inheritors of God’s Holy Spirit; the same spirit, the same breath that our Risen Lord breathed upon the disciples on that fateful night which John accounts for us in his gospel. God’s Spirit, God’s divine breath, is not reserved only for those who ate and drank with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but for every person who embraces the good news of resurrection in every age. Now God does not impart that powerful Spirit flippantly or without cause. The disciples and every Christian throughout time has received and will receive that divine breath for their own benefit and for benefit of others. The divine breath is given as a sign of new life, as a sign of a new reality of existence, the precursor of the new reality of resurrection to a life which is beyond our earthly lives and our earthly deaths, a life that is eternally in the presence of God Almighty. The divine breath was and is also given as a command, a command to go forth in the name of Christ to minister to the world around us in our own particular day and age, and to spread the good news of resurrection and of the power of the breath of God; to offer the abundance of God in the sharing of our own abundance.
Back in my seminary days, many years ago, I found myself working with the combined youth program of a couple of local churches. The high school group organized a work camp every year. Now these work camps were not of the type often see these days where youth from various churches take part in a camp arranged and run by a national organization. No, we did all our own planning. We secured the work to be done, we found a place to stay, we planned and cooked our own meals; we did it all. The camps were always held during Spring break, which for the schools in the St. Louis area invariably fell on Holy Week. Those were powerful Holy Weeks for me, working with teenagers in ministry to those in need and watching those teenagers be transformed as they learned what it was to minister to others and to have others minister , in turn, to them.
I was so impressed this year that our own Sunday School Children have astounded us in the weeks moving up to Easter with tremendous generosity; enough to purchase any animal they choose for a family in need through Heifer Project International.
Friends, God’s breath, God’s Spirit continues to be present with us, always ready for us to receive. Empowered by that Spirit, filled with that divine breath, we are invited to rejoice in the good news that Christ is risen, and to minister to the people God in every manner available to us. Let us move into this Easter season filled with that Spirit. Let us share the joy of being a people of the resurrection, a Spirit filled people of new life. Let us reach out to those around us and to those far away with the good news and with love and compassion as we minister to the world in the name Christ our Savior. Amen