Yr A ~ Pentecost ~ John 20:19-23
Every year around this time we have a celebration. We celebrate the year of Christian spiritual formation that our children have had, and we celebrate the teachers who engaged in this wonderful ministry. We celebrate the birth of the United Church which happened on June 10th 1925. And we also celebrate the Day of Pentecost.
Pentecost is one of my favourite liturgical days of the year. The story is so powerful, so vibrant, and so desperately relevant for the church today. The usual text for Pentecost is Acts 2. It’s the story of how the followers of Jesus were fearfully hiding out in an upper room when a sound like a rushing wind filled the place and the Holy Spirit was made manifest and danced like tongues of fire as everyone in the room was filled with the Spirit.
And then that Spirit so inspired and moved them that they were compelled out of their room and into the street where they shared their experience of God’s Presence with everyone they met and people deeply resonated with their sharing.
The day of Pentecost was nothing less than the birth of the Christian church. Those dead and defeated disciples were filled with the Spirit and were resurrected to new life – and from that beginning with those few followers a religion that about 1/3 of the world’s population now identifies with was launched. The Spirit of Pentecost is very powerful!
So if that’s such a great and important story why aren’t we focusing on it today? My answer is that as wonderful as it is it doesn’t speak to everyone. It’s kind of like Paul’s lightning bolt conversion experience on the road to Damascus – it’s a great story about awakening to God’s Presence but not everyone gets struck by lightning in their faith journey. Did you? Do you have a ‘fireworks and choirs of angels moment of awakening’ story? I don’t. My story has been more of a slow steady burn.
Maybe that’s why John 20:19-23 speaks to me so powerfully. You may remember that John’s gospel sees pretty much everything in the Jesus story differently than Mark, Matthew, and Luke/Acts do. John’s gospel is all metaphors and images and mystery. The passage we’re looking at today functions as John’s version of the Pentecost story. Remember, John’s gospel was written about 20-30 years after the others so there was lots of time for the stories to take new shapes and undergo deep theologizing.
Instead of 50 days after Easter John’s gospel places the Pentecost event on the same day as Easter. A couple of weeks ago we looked at the road to Emmaus story that took place “later that same day” on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. John’s gospel offers this story instead.
Like the day of Pentecost story in Acts 2, the disciples are locked away in an upper room and are very fearful. They’ve lost their leader. They’ve lost their way. They are defeated and dead. They had a dream of sharing their experience of God’s love with people but now it’s over.
Suddenly Jesus appears in the midst of them in the locked room. The first thing Jesus says to them is “Shalom!” Well, no kidding! The story goes that the guy was crucified and buried and then there was confusion that morning because his tomb was empty and now poof he appears in the room with them. To say they’d be startled would be a colossal understatement. So Jesus says, “Shalom! Peace. Relax. It’s ok.”
Jesus then says “Shalom” a second time, because we all know that peace does not come with the snap of a finger. And now that he has their attention – has our attention! – he gives them (and us) a message.
John 20:21 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you!”
It’s a strong theme in John’s gospel. Last week we heard Jesus talk about how he was in God and God was in him and they are in us and we are in them, so we should be catching on to the idea that if Jesus did something we’re supposed to be doing it to. Jesus’ mission was to share his experience of God’s Presence and try to awaken everyone he met to sensing and savouring God’s Presence too. If it was his mission, it’s ours. “As the Father sent me, so I send you!”
However, the disciples aren’t Jesus. We are not Jesus. I don’t know about you but I’m not sure I have the personal resources to carry out such a grand mission. Thankfully, I don’t have to possess those things on my own – they come through the Spirit. We are not alone!
Without the Spirit we’re as dead as those disciples were. Without the Spirit we are fearful and paralyzed, unable to enact what Jesus commands us to do. He says, “I’m sending you out!” but he doesn’t send us empty handed. John shows Jesus giving them (and us) some rocket fuel.
John 20:22 – And when Jesus had said (I send you), he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In John’s gospel, this is the Pentecost moment – the giving of the Holy Spirit – the moment everything changed – because when you breathe in the Holy Spirit everything really does change!
Notice when the Spirit is given in this version. It happens after they’ve had an awakening to the Presence of the Christ, and they’ve received a message of Shalom, and they’ve been given their marching orders. So they’re awakened, tuned-in, at peace, and have an understanding of their mission. What they need is a kick in the butt!
But instead of a pyrotechnic, Hollywood special effects extravaganza with sounds and winds and tongues of fire like in Acts 2, Jesus quietly breathes the Spirit into them. It’s such a different approach than Acts. He breathes on them. Breathes.
Go with the story, close your eyes, and let the picture form in your imagination.
Jesus is in the room with you.
He says Shalom to you and you take a couple of deep, long breaths.
Now he walks right up to you.
He stands directly in front of you.
He puts his nose about 2 inches away from your nose.
And he gently breathes his Spirit into you.
Breathe it in!
It’s very intimate. It’s very vulnerable. It’s very human. (You can open your eyes.)
You can’t breathe anything into anyone from a distance. You can’t share Spirit from way over there. It needs to be up close and personal. It needs to be intimate.
You can’t get what Jesus is offering from a book, or a sermon, or a hymn. Those things can certainly prime your pump and awaken you to sensing God’s Presence, but there’s still another step. We have dozens and dozens of windows, triggers, and openings to God’s Holy Presence. That’s all well and good. That puts us in the room awake and aware of the Holy Presence all around us.
Then you need to stand face to face with the Sacred, let down your guard and let it into your personal space, so close that if it was a flesh and blood person you could feel their warmth – and then you breathe deeply, receiving the Spirit that Jesus is breathing into you and filling you with – utterly savouring this profoundly holy moment. Thank God that Jesus has such wonderful fresh breath!
And as if all that wasn’t enough there’s even more here! Not only is this an intimate and profound way for us to imagine Jesus sharing the Holy Spirit with us and filling us with strength and courage and power to be sent out to share our lives with the world, it’s also an act of resurrection and new life. We’re not just talking about living spiritually here; we’re talking about the difference between being dead and being really alive.
The Greek word for Spirit is pneuma. And pneuma is also the word for breath!
The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach. And ruach is also the word for breath!
Both biblical languages understand the Holy Spirit and breathing to be the same thing!
Genesis 2:7 …Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (the ruach, the Spirit) of life; and the man became a living being.
Ezekiel 37:9 (the valley of the dry bones story) Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath (O Spirit), and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
Wisdom 15:11 speaks of people who are lost and suffering “because they failed to know the one who formed them and inspired (literally, in-spirit-ed) them with active souls and breathed a living spirit into them.”
Those are all Old Testament texts expressing the same thing as our Pentecost text today.
No Spirit, no life.
Know Spirit, Know life!
Spirituality isn’t a thing you do on the side. It’s not an add-on. Spirituality is as fundamental to your life as breathing is! Every breath you take to keep yourself alive is a breath of Spirit that makes you really live! Breath and Spirit are fundamental to living, and fundamental to abundant life.
Now for the “so what!” What does this text say to us today?
I hope you’ve already made the connection that we are the disciples in this story. Instead of an upper room we’ve locked ourselves away in thousands of little church buildings that dot the landscape of Canada. And we’re locked away in fear.
What we’re afraid of I’m not sure, but I suspect our greatest fear is that we’re on the verge of losing our locked rooms. One way or the other, we’ll either have to let them go (because we have far, far too many church buildings) or we’ll have to kick open the doors and interact with the world out there – which is called evangelism – which sadly scares the crap out of most United Church goers.
While we’re here in these locked rooms the Presence of Christ appears to us. It really does. We experience it over and over again. That’s why we keep coming back.
But there’s a problem. Even in a vibrant and healthy church like this one we are missing that final ingredient. Yes we do lots of good. Yes we share our resources. Yes we have a wide array of programming that people can plug into. But in truth writing cheques to support ministry is a fairly arms length thing. And for all the programs we offer it’s a relatively small proportion of the congregation that participates.
So why am I picking on you on a celebration day? Because the church is not meant to hunker down in the upper room.
Whether it’s via the pyrotechnics of roaring wind and dancing flames, or via the profound intimacy of breathing in the breath of Jesus, until we allow ourselves to be filled with that ruach, that pneuma, that Spirit, that breath, we are dead.
And how do I know that we here at Faith and all the churches of the United Church aren’t breathing deeply enough of Jesus’ breath? – Because evangelism is still a dirty word.
When the disciples encountered the day of Pentecost – either the loud version or the quiet version – they were filled with the Holy Spirit and it PROPELLED them out into the streets where they enthusiastically SHARED their experience of the Holy Mystery we call God that had lit them up and transformed their lives.
If our churches were truly filled with the Holy Spirit preachers would never have to preach evangelism because congregations wouldn’t be able to help themselves but to be out sharing their experience with everyone they encountered. Like a grandma showing pictures of their new grandchild – you just can’t stop them from sharing!
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not scolding you for not standing on a street corner and whacking people upside the head with a bible. I’m scolding you, and me, for not daring to breathe deeply enough of the Holy Spirit.
If the United Church wants to be around in another 20 years, if Faith United wants to really become all we could be, then we all need to heed John’s gospel today
– be on the lookout for God’s Sacred Presence in this place and every place
– hear the gentle word, Shalom
– open ourselves to the intimate presence of Christ
– and let him breathe his life-giving Holy Spirit into us
– and make us really come alive!
Then nothing could stop us from kicking down the doors of our locked rooms and sharing our transformational experience with the world, encouraging them to look for the Sacred in their locked rooms, and to urging them to dare to know and inhale the fresh breath of Christ for themselves.
What a celebration we’d have then!