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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Day of Pentecost, June 8, 2014

 Breathing Lessons

John 20:19-23; Acts 2:1-21

 

             Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, that day when we remember again Luke’s account of the disciples gathered in one place, doubtless on the Sabbath in worship, and the Holy Spirit came upon them “like the rush of a mighty wind.” It is a powerful, mysterious story telling of this defining, life-giving, church-creating event in the life of the first Christians. It tells of “a mighty rush of wind” and “tongues of fire,” of people and languages from every corner of the known world, and of Peter’s great sermon that begins with the Hebrew prophet Joel’s great vision of the Spirit being “poured out upon all flesh” and ends with the words we include in every infant baptism: “For the promise is unto you and to your children, to those who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Luke tells us that they baptized three thousand souls that day.

             I love Luke’s account of Pentecost. It is wild, even raucous, loud and untamed, powerful and transformational. We have focused on it before and we shall focus on it again. But not today, not on this Pentecost, 2014 Anno Domini. I want us instead to visit John’s quieter, more peaceful account of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

             The disciples are shut in a room on the first day of the week, with locked doors. John says it is because of their fear of the powers that brutally conspired to crucify their leader. They are all shut up in that locked room for at least two reasons: John mentions their fear, and none of us are strangers to fear that makes us want to hide in some secure place, to play it safe, to lower our dreams to something more manageable. What John does not mention, what he does not have to mention, is their sense of failure. These are Jesus’ closest followers, and they all know that when Jesus most needed them, they fled; they were not there for Jesus. They slept in the Garden that night when Jesus asked them to be with Him, they argued over who would have the most honored seats when Jesus came into His kingdom, they ran away and Peter denied that he ever knew the man. One of them even betrayed Jesus to His captors, for reasons we will never know for sure. They left everything to follow this man, and now their whole venture reeked of failure.

             Fear and failure are two imposing foes. Fear of failure can be paralyzing. We can be tempted in the face of our fears and our failures to withdraw, to run and hide. None of us are strangers to both fear and failure; we all are forced by life to contend with them. But note that in John’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus comes right to the place where they are. Jesus is not averse to either fear or to failure. Our fears and failures do not keep Jesus from standing right there with us, like that white Southerner, Pee Wee Reese, once stood with Jackie Robinson and put his arm around his shoulder at second base when fans were yelling words of hatred and ugly bigotry at this brave young man. Jesus draws close to us in our fear and in our failure. C.S. Lewis said once, “God whispers to us in our pleasure, but God shouts to us in our pain.”

             Here the risen Christ stands among these frightened, overwhelmed people. Jesus “stood among them,” and said, “Peace be with you.” Scott Bader-Saye in a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear writes, “Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.” Jesus is surely bigger and better than any fear we may have! And with that, Jesus showed them His hands and His side. Jesus showed them His wounds and His woundedness, what might well be regarded as the marks of His own failure. Even the risen Christ shows them His scars. The resurrection never denies the crucifixion or the crucified character of life, but rather reveals it.

             Graham Greene wrote a great novel called The End of the Affair. In it, a woman notices a scar on her lover’s shoulder, and sees the advancing wrinkles upon his aging face. She says, “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall. The scar was a part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”

             Nothing more than His wounds defines Jesus, who bore them for all eternity. His scars are part of His character. We do not know Jesus apart from these marks of His suffering and sorrow, and what most regarded at the time as His total failure. We know that Jesus’ wounds expose the depth and the compassion of God’s very heart. The disciples knew this as well, which is why they rejoiced and were glad when Jesus revealed to them His wounds. In the words of theologian Joseph Sittler, “If you don’t have a crucified God, you don’t have a big enough God.”

             Then Jesus says it again. “Peace be with you.” This, I want to suggest, is always the sign and work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit brings peace. In Acts, the Spirit brought understanding to all manner of people and nations and languages. Peace, of course, is what fearful, failing folks like us never have enough of in this world and in this life. Peace can be elusive in this pressure-filled world. Peace is hard for people and nations to find, and harder still to create. Peace is flat out unattainable by human beings. I love that the world gives The Nobel Peace Prize. In some ways, this Swedish gift to the world is a nod to the power of the Christian faith, though the Peace Prize has never been the province of only one religion or race. Jesus always comes in peace, just as God created a world of peace in Eden. We live “east of Eden,” but we sigh and long for that “peace that passes all understanding.” Jesus said in John 14, “Peace, I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Not as the world gives, do I give unto you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Notice that Jesus’ peace is given even by scarred and wounded hands and feet. It is not another worldly peace that Jesus brings, but peace in this problem and pressure-filled world.

             Jesus stands with us in our fear and failure to give us courage. And Jesus offers peace, indeed, Jesus is our peace. We taste that peace every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, and sit at table with Jesus. But every meal, every table can offer a foretaste of that peace. This week, Connie and I shared one of the most exquisite, unforgettable meals I have ever experienced. We took Josh, Molly and their three kids with us to Lago Mar, an old-style, old-fashioned Florida hotel on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. Two of our three nights we sent Josh and Molly out on a date with Pops’ credit card, and we ate with Ben, age 7, Garrett, 5, and Ellie, who is 3. The last night we ate outside, as the light of early evening was giving way to dusk. We sat at a table with the breeze blowing gently on our faces, and we talked. I was cutting Garrett’s grilled cheese sandwich (I think he ordered grilled cheese at every meal!), and a squirrel reared with his eyes on the feast. With a knife in hand I faked an attack on the squirrel, using my best three Musketeers imitation, and they started laughing. Soon Garrett was up protecting us from birds and squirrels! Then after our meal came dessert. They each ordered a different flavor, chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream. Then the waiter came and asked, “Do you want sprinkles on that?” They almost squealed with delight! As we sat around savoring the evening, Garrett said, “Pops and CeCe, can we eat dinner here tomorrow night?” For me, it was a moment of peace I will not forget as long as I live. Spontaneously, Ben said, “Pops and CeCe, thank you for dinner tonight.” And as in Luke’s Gospel in the Emmaus story, “my eyes were opened,” and I recognized Jesus. I will carry the peace of that night with me for a long, long time. Whenever we are aware of Jesus’ presence in our midst, there is peace.

             Then note that with His words, Jesus breathed upon them. To breathe on someone you have to be close to them. And Jesus draws that close to us! And what an image for the Holy Spirit, which in the Western Church “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The breath of Jesus reminds us of the “ruah,” or the breath of God that moved over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation. Remember how God gave life to Adam? God breathed the very breath of life into him.

             “Holy breath” is a wonderful image for the Holy Spirit. In the wildly popular novel, The Shack, the Holy Spirit is an oriental woman named Sarayu – a name that means “wind.” God breathed life into this world in creation, and in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, God breathed into those dry, brittle fields of death, new life into Israel. And of course, Paul said that when we do not know what or how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

             So Jesus breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” Then Jesus tells them, get busy forgiving – giving and making peace. Start at home, but let the Holy Spirit take you beyond there to wherever you may go. Forgiveness is the work of this Spirit that Jesus breathes upon us. Forgiveness is practical, down to earth, terribly needed in our world, and if you will forgive me for saying so, hard-as-hell to give!

             The Holy Spirit still moves, and can be in the very breath we take and give back – mysterious, creative, empowering, freeing, forgiving, always giving thanks and making peace. Irenaeus, an early Church Father, said once, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” I have spent my life trying to live into the fullness of these words. This same theologian said, “Word and Spirit always belong together. Word and Spirit are the two hands of God.”

             So come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and make our hearts your home. “Peace be with you.”

                                                                                     Amen.

 

                                                                              

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