A Breath of Fresh Air

John 20:19-31

Have you ever found yourself in a group of people who are going on and on about a particularly beautiful and inspiring place they’ve all been to but you haven’t been there?  Or maybe they’re talking about a show or a movie you haven’t seen, and they keep talking about how moving it is or how a particular scene brought tears to their eyes, or how it made them think about things in a whole new way?  And maybe they even turn to you and say, “Oh you’ve got to go see it!”  But you haven’t been to that place or seen that show, and you really can’t imagine that it’s everything they say it is, so you wander over to another group who are having a good-natured debate about whether or not garlic belongs in guacamole. 

It’s hard to be fully involved in the conversation about an experience you haven’t had.  It’s hard to believe that the thing everybody’s talking about is really as terrific as they say when you haven’t seen it yourself.

In today’s Gospel reading we have a story about a guy who had not yet had the experience that all his friends were talking about, a guy who simply couldn’t imagine the life-changing event his friends were describing because it just seemed too far-fetched, too contrary to the way the universe and life are known to work.  It was easier to believe that his friends were pulling some kind of elaborate prank in very poor taste than to believe that their beloved teacher who had been tortured to death had suddenly shown up in the room with them very much alive.

The story of Thomas is a story for us.  And a story about us.  When Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen?” then adds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” he is talking to us.  And about us.

This is a story for us, to us and about us even before Thomas is ever mentioned.  The story begins with the disciples huddled together behind locked doors.  They are afraid.  The world beyond those locked doors has become a dangerous place for them, and it’s easy for them to imagine that all that danger might burst through those locked doors any second now.  

They are grieving.  They are afraid.  And they are in turmoil.  In the midst of all that, Peter and the other disciple had erupted into the room all in a lather to say that the tomb was empty and the grave clothes were all neatly folded.  Okay.  Weird, but maybe explainable.  But then Mary Magdalene swept in and told them that she has seen Jesus and spoken to him!  But so far, she’s the only one who claimed to have actually seen the Jesus, resurrected and alive.  She’s the only one so far who had claimed to have spoken with him.  And for the rest of them… well that was just…unbelievable… so they passed it off as a delusion caused by her grief.  Or maybe some kind of female thing.  Because, you know, that’s how the boys’ club usually dealt with the perplexing things women sometimes said.

So there they were, locked in grief and fear and unbelief every bit as much as they were locked behind those doors.

But then Jesus showed up behind their locked door, stepping into their emotional prison to free them from the fear and grief that were paralyzing them, and at the same time unlocking and opening for them a whole new understanding of life and death and God.  

Jesus does the same thing for us.  Jesus steps inside our locked up spaces.  Jesus steps through our fear and unbelief to come and stand beside us and among us, to show us that he is alive—and to teach us how to live in a new reality.  If we will believe.  If we will trust.

In his book Living Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote, “The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?

“If Jesus is simply dead, there are any number of ways we can relate ourselves to his life and his accomplishments. And we might even, if some obscure bit of data should turn up, hope to learn more about him. But we cannot reasonably expect to learn more from him.

“If he is alive, however, everything changes. It is no longer a matter of our questioning an historical record, but a matter of our being put in question by one who has broken every rule of ordinary human existence. If Jesus lives, then it must be as life-giver. Jesus is not simply a figure of the past in that case, but a person in the present; not merely a memory we can analyze and manipulate, but an agent who can confront and instruct us. What we can learn about him must therefore include what we continue to learn from him.”

When Jesus steps into the locked up places in our hearts and minds, when Jesus steps through our fears and unbelief to stand before us, to stand in the midst of us, he does it for a reason.  The living Jesus stands in our midst not just so that we can resume the same old relationships with God and with each other that we had before, but so that we can begin an entirely new relationship with God and with each other.  

Jesus does not just want us to learn about him.  Jesus wants us to learn from him so we can live in unity with him.  We are not united to a dead, historical Christ who lives only in the pages of the Gospels.  We are united to a living Jesus who stands here among us, who meets us at the table of companionship, sharing with us and serving us all at the same time. We are united with a living Jesus who meets us in disguise on the streets just as in Matthew 25.  He awakens us to his presence and opens our eyes to look for him.  He urges us to be listening for him.  He opens our minds so we can learn from him.  He embraces us to be one with him as he is one with the Father.  

But Jesus doesn’t just show up.  Jesus knows that there’s something more that we need so we can rise out of our pain and fears and unbelief.  Jesus knows we need a spirit of courage that will make us brave enough and bold enough to love each other and love the world, a spirit of joy and wonder that will keep us from slipping into cynicism or despair in a world that is all too often indifferent when it isn’t being downright nasty.  Jesus knows that if we’re going to help heal the world’s angst, we need to be free of it ourselves.  So he gives us the antidote.

“Peace be with you,” he says.  Shalom aleichem.  Put away your anxiety.  Let go of your fear.  Put away your disagreement.  Stop trying so hard to be right.  Try, instead to be loving.  Stop the finger-pointing.  Stop investing so much energy and emotion in nonsense and things that don’t really matter.  “Peace.  There is so much you may never agree on, but you can agree on me.  Peace.  I will be your peace.”  

“After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” 

He showed them his hands and his side.  He shows us his wounds.  

In Wounded Lord, Robert Smith’s commentary on the Gospel of John, which he completed shortly before he died, he wrote: “Those wounds will never go away.  The exalted Christ has not passed to a sublime existence immune to suffering.  Even after Good Friday and Easter, God continues to turn to the world through the wounded Christ.

 “To believe in this Jesus means to take him, wounds and all, into our own lives.  To believe means to participate in Christ’s own suffering on behalf of the true life of the world.”

Our Christ, our God, is not some transcendent deity who sits in heaven far removed from the pain of our existence.  Our Christ, our God is wounded from embracing the world, wounded from loving the world.  We can sing about victory all we want, but the reality is that we’re still in the struggle, and the Good News, the really Good News is not that our Messiah, our Commander is immortal and impervious, but that he has a Purple Heart.  The Good News is that his wounds were fatal, but his fatality was not.  His wounds mean that our wounds may kill us, but that won’t stop us.  “If we share in a death like his,” says St. Paul, “then surely we will share in a resurrection like his.”

But first, we need peace.  And before we can spread peace “out there” we need to spread it “in here.”  

         We each need to receive that peace.

         We need to share that peace with each other.

This is so important that Jesus said it three times.  Peace be with you.

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 

This is where we go from being disciples to being apostles.  Now we have the same mission Jesus had.  We are not supposed to just sit still and happy in our own little pool of peace.  We are sent.  We have to go out in peace.  And with peace.  We have to be grounded in Shalom—the blessing of well-being—but on the move, carrying the shalom of God with us, sharing it and spreading it.

“When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It says in most English translations that Jesus breathed on them.  Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary says that the better translation would be that he breathed into them, and she reminds us that the word that’s used in the Greek, emphisao, is the same word that’s used in the Septuagint Greek version of Genesis 2 when God breathes life into the human that God has made out of earth.  This is the breath that gives life.  Jesus breathes the Spirit of life into us to give us a whole new life.

Breathe.  Take a moment right now and breathe.  Inhale the Spirit of God that is being breathed into you right now, right where you are.  Breathe.  

Now breathe out.  Let the holiness in you, the Christ in you, the love and goodness in you fill the room.  And now breathe in again.  Breathe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of Christ. 

And now, think about this.  This new life that you are breathing in—it has a purpose.  You are being sent.  “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” said Jesus.  You are being sent to bring God’s shalom to the world.  You are being sent to bring shalom into your home, to breathe out the love of Christ and breathe in the presence of Christ from those around you.  You are being sent into the world to breathe the Spirit of God and divine shalom into every place you go and everyone you meet.

Hand in hand with the breath of the Spirit comes the duty of 

forgiveness.  As Jesus breathes into his disciples he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Jesus gives us this very serious but also joyous job of discernment.  If you forgive, it’s forgiven.  Forever. Period. If you do not forgive, someone will carry the burden unforgiveness…and it might be you.  Refusing to forgive can forge a very heavy chain that binds you to the unforgiven person in ways that are painful and destructive. 

The Greek word for forgiveness means “to set loose, to set free.”  Just as there is bondage in not forgiving, there is transformative liberation in forgiveness.  As followers of Jesus, we are in the forgiveness business.

Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox wrote:  “The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business. . .

“What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business – and that, of course, is the church’s real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can’t turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what’s right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. . . We Easter People have been sent to forgive sins.”

Receive the Holy Spirit.  Breathe in the shalom of God then breathe it out again into a world that is gasping for the breath of peace.  If you forgive anybody anything, in God’s eyes it is forgiven.  When you do not forgive, someone will carry the burden and the body of Christ will continue to be wounded.  

And don’t worry about the Thomases of this world.  Don’t worry about those who don’t believe.  Just love them patiently and surround them with your peace.  When they see what you’ve seen and hear what you’ve heard, perhaps they will come to believe what you believe.  Until then, forgive their unbelief.  

The Problem With Creeds

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will work?  That’s crazy-making.  God won’t be boxed in.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein, which is about the fascinating theological and political battle surrounding the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in which the first prototype of the Nicene Creed was formulated.  The Emperor Constantine called the Council to settle a raging theological dispute that pivoted around several theological questions:  Was Jesus divine?  What did that mean, exactly?  What was Jesus’ relationship to the Father?  And the Spirit?  Was Jesus subordinate to the Father?  Was Jesus co-eternal with the Father or was he created? 

These questions had simmered in the background since the very beginning of Christianity but most Christians were more or less content to live with differing opinions on these matters.  But when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, stopped the persecutions, and made the religion legal, suddenly it seemed important to find official answers and establish doctrine.   

The Council of Nicaea was supposed to settle these matters once and for all, but, even though the Trinitarians “won” the debate and formulated most of the language of the Creed, the Arians continued to push for their interpretation of the faith for more than a century and often were in the majority.  They believed that Jesus was created by the Father and was not co-eternal, that he had a kindof divinity as the son of God, but was not equal to the Father, was instead subordinate to the Father. And so on.  So while the Creed gave language to the first official doctrine of the Church, in practice it really failed to unify the Church in any meaningful way.

Creeds can be useful.  Up to a point.  They are useful to help clarify what we think.  They draw lines that determine the boundaries of what we understand about God and our relationship with God, and help us identify ideas that don’t seem consistent with what we’ve known and experienced of God.  They tell us who’s in and who’s out—who agrees with the official line and who does not. But that’s also part of their limitation.  God is bigger, deeper, wider and more innovative than any boundaries we draw.  God is not a cat.  God does not want to curl up inside our box.  

Another problem with creeds is that they emphasize some aspects of our faith over others, sometimes even ignoring things that are vitally important.  In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, for instance, more and more Christian thinkers are calling attention to what’s being called The Great Comma.

“But have you ever noticed the huge leap the creed makes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? A single comma connects the two statements, and falling into that yawning gap, as if it were a mere detail, is everything Jesus said and did between his birth and his death! Called the “Great Comma,” the gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to “believe” in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ life and teaching?” –Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Perhaps the greatest problem with our creeds, though, is that they focus on what we think about God and not what we’re doing to live out our relationship with God.  There is nothing in their language about service. There’s nothing about love. There is nothing about hope.  There is nothing in them about helping “the least of these brothers and sisters”, or life together in a family of faith.  Forgiveness of sins is mentioned but there is no actual call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. The creeds are, instead, a historical snapshot of what the men who formulated them (and they were all men) understood to be the most important philosophical premises of their faith. And to be clear, these were the statements formulated by those who won the battles—battles that were sometimes physical and not just philosophical.  One can’t help but wonder how Jesus felt about that…or feels now, for that matter.

Yes, we do believe.  But more importantly, we are called to follow Christ and to live as the Body of Christ.  I wonder… what would a creed look like that focused on that?  What language would move our statement of faith out of our heads and into our hearts and hands and feet?