Sermon The Breath of God The Second Sunday of Easter April 28, 2019
Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but fearful, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side. The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!” Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” John 20: 19-29
On this glorious second Sunday of Easter, when we’ve celebrated the sacrament of baptism, affirming in word and action that God’s love and grace embraces even an infant who has no ability to profess faith; and when we’ve heard from John’s gospel that Jesus appeared to His disciples in a gesture of loving reconciliation even though they had run away and left Him to face suffering and death by Himself, the recent news from the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church is casting a shroud over our joy. I want to preach about Jesus walking through a locked door, and breathing peace – healing, forgiving, reconciling peace – on His disciples… but to not mention the decision made last week by the Judicial Council would be to act as if Easter has not happened. In her letter last Friday, Bishop Carcaño compared those who voted at General Conference for the Traditional Plan to Pharisees, the religious zealots who upheld the letter of the Law with no understanding of the heart of the Law: love. The vote taken at General Conference, and upheld by the Judicial Council, if this is your first Sunday in a Methodist Church and you haven’t heard about it, doesn’t recognize our LGBTQ siblings and children and friends right to be married, and it takes punitive action against clergy who perform such weddings. It doesn’t allow LGBTQ people to be ordained, and it takes punitive action against Bishops who confirm such ordinations. I’ve heard it said that God loves messes, in which case God must really love the United Methodist Church.
The story of Easter actually, is proof that God loves messes. Everyone who’d followed Jesus and called Him “Lord” denied knowing Him, abandoned Him, and went underground. When the Risen Christ appeared to them, they were hiding behind barred doors. I wonder if Jesus laughed to Himself as He walked through the walls, as if to say, “My friends, there are no doors or locks or borders that can keep out love.”
This is traditionally called “Low Sunday” because attendance drops from Easter Sunday, and there’s less drama in the telling of the story, and because our doubts have set in. Last week when the sanctuary was full, and we shouted “Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!” it was easy to imagine that we, like Mary Magdalene, had seen the empty tomb… that we’d seen the Risen Christ. But today an ancient story seems less convincing, and there’s nothing really in the world around us to witness to God having overcome hell and death. And the church (really, Jesus, what were You thinking when You called us Your body on earth?) the church has failed to be a resurrection community.
It turns out that Jesus’ friend Thomas is a good companion for us in this post-Easter-Sunday, post-General-Conference-season when our locked doors and high fences are exposed to reveal our comfort with the locked doors and high walls of an ancient Law, instead of choosing to follow the unpredictable Lord of Love. Thomas didn’t trust anyone else’s account of having seen the Risen Christ because there wasn’t any proof, and in fact, since all the disciples were frightened and hiding, there was more than enough evidence that Jesus, and the Kingdom He’d showed them, were dead and gone.
But Jesus returned a second time and walked through the locked doors and breathed His peace into them, into their faces, and into their lungs, and into their hearts. Neither time did Jesus berate the disciples for betraying Him, or for being afraid, or for having doubts. He simply breathed peace into them.
Before His death, Jesus had said to the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” This a “funeral” scripture – it’s most commonly heard at and associated with funerals. But this a scripture-for-life, something to hear and practice, to help us have faith that Christ is Risen, and that God has had the last word, and that God’s Kingdom has already begun. Because what’s the alternative to God breathing love and peace into us? It’s bitterness and cynicism over the state of the world, and failed leaders, and doling out bits of God’s love to people deemed worthy. It’s spewing fear and distrust and racism and homophobia into the atmosphere, instead of the peace of Christ.
It’s hard to be a person of faith and to breathe peace. There’s so little evidence that God is with us, that God’s love is healing us, and God’s working through us and with us to heal the world. But that’s why we’re here on this “low” Sunday… to practice having faith, to practice love and forgiveness and tolerance, and to practice receiving the breath of God [breathe in] and to breathe out[breathe out]
the peace of the Risen Christ.
A sacrament is something that expresses holiness and mystery. It’s something ordinary and incarnational (it’s physical) and sacred. Jesus rose up out of the Jordan River dripping water and heard the voice of God. He turned water into wine at a wedding celebration, and He fed a multitude of hungry people with a child’s lunch. He took a handful of dust and spit into it and make a paste for a blind man’s eyes to restore his sight. He broke unleavened bread and poured wine, as symbols of His body and blood, gestures of the extent of God’s love for all humanity. He let His friend touch His wounds, to show that God carries our wounds, and to allow us to have faith even while we have doubts. He breathed peace, and He breathed the Holy Spirit – God’s abiding presence – into His friends.
Sacraments are physical, and so is faith. It isn’t enough to have an intellectual belief of God’s creating love, or of the Risen Christ, or of the sustaining Presence of the Holy Spirit. We need to see it and touch it and breathe it in. So today we come to a font, and a bowl of water, and a vial of oil, and in this simple act of baptism, we experience a sacrament… a physical sign of a holy mystery. God meets us here, in the moment, in every moment, and if we are willing to receive it, breathes peace into us. Receiving God’s peace, and breathing out God’s peace, is the practice the Risen Christ invites His friends to. When we are angry, resentful, fearful, shattered and shattered, He breathes God’s peace into us, just as He breathed into His disciples hiding behind locked doors, trembling in fear, and uncertain of the future. This is an Easter practice in this season of doubt and disappointment – in the church, in the world, in the Kingdom of God – a practice of receiving the breath of God, filling you with peace, and breathing it out wherever there is fear and hatred and intolerance… breathing the breath of God as an act of faith.
The disciples weren’t instantly converted to a belief that Christ had risen. Story after story reached them… first from Mary Magdalene, and then other women, and then those hiding in the upper room, and then some of them saw Him cooking breakfast on the beach. The early church formed and, as we see in the epistles – letters to the churches in Rome and Ephesus and Colossae – they were a mess. God is found in our messes, in faith and doubt and fear. And the Risen Christ comes to breathe God’s peace into us, to give us breath and strength to do the hard work of being the church. He said to His disciples, “As the Father sent Me, so I send you… Receive the Holy Spirit… forgive sin.” Our work as Christ’s body is healing, forgiving, building, creating, welcoming, reviving and renewing the world. So, friends, take a deep breath of God’s peace [pause] and let’s begin the work of Easter. Amen.