Let me invite you all just to relax for a moment and take a few deep breaths.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
A few weeks ago I read an article entitled “Commemorate Caesar: Take a Deep Breath!” In it people were invited to commemorate the “Ides of March”, specifically the date of March 15th, on which Julius Caesar died, by remembering his last breath and taking a deep one of their own. It turns out that Caesar’s last breath has become a popular teaching tool in many colleges and universities. Presumably when Caesar exhaled that final time, he released an enormous number of “breath” molecules, mostly nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Scholars have figured that some of these molecules from Caesar’s last breath were absorbed by plants, some by animals, some by water — and a large portion would float free and spread themselves all around the globe in a pattern so predictable that (this is the fun part) if you take a deep breath right now, at least one of the molecules entering your lungs literally came from Caesar’s last breath.
That’s kind of creepy what I just made you all do, isn’t it? You didn’t know there was a little bit o’ Caesar in those deep breaths I asked you to take! I offer that to you as food for thought and food for faith this morning. The notion of breath figures prominently into our New Testament reading from John’s gospel.
It begins on an ominous note. The disciples had locked themselves in a room with each other. No one was getting in, and no one was getting out. What they did, they did out of fear and self-preservation. Their leader, who was supposed to be the Messiah, had been arrested, beaten, and crucified among criminals until he died upon the cross for all to see. Crucifixion was a shrewd way to put someone to death, and the point to hanging someone on the cross wasn’t just to kill the person, but to do so in a way that would intimidate the masses. It was meant to send a signal, loud and clear: threaten the state, and this is what you get. The primary purpose of crucifixion wasn’t to put someone to death. It was to engender fear in the hearts of the public. Without a doubt, the disciples got that message, and it was a message made even more acute by the fact that they had all deserted him – every single one of them.
The moment he was arrested, they fled. They were supposed to be disciples of Jesus, bound together by a common leader and a common mission, and though they never completely understood what that mission was, it didn’t really matter. It was Jesus who called them together, Jesus who bound them together, Jesus who taught them, ate with them, walked mile after mile with them, together. But now that Jesus was gone, and the only common thing among them was terror. They were afraid that the ones who inflicted that horrible punishment upon Jesus could do it to them as well.
Needless to say, this was not a great way for the church to get started, and indeed it was antithetical to what Jesus taught, preached, and practiced. A wise old prophet once taught his followers, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That was Yoda, from Star Wars, by the way. He was right, and it’s entirely possible that the disciples were well on their way down the path from fear to anger, anger to hate, and hate to suffering just in the confines of their sealed and locked room. In that room, they had lost all sense of community. They had lost all sense of real fellowship. They were no longer a family or a brotherhood. They had lost every dimension of togetherness and common mission except their shared sense of fear, which is no basis for community, especially a community of faith. It is at that moment, the height of fear and terror that Jesus breaks into their lives once more. Once more he calls them together, binds them together with a common purpose, and sends them out beyond the locked doors into a world of need. The birthday of the church wasn’t Pentecost according to John’s gospel. It was this moment, when Jesus breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. That breath is the moment that his followers are turned from disciples (ones who are taught) into apostles (ones who are sent). And as we imagine Jesus standing there in front of them, countering their fear with words of peace and showing them the wounds in his hands and feet, we can also imagine that the disciples themselves were transformed. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit and commissioned to go out into the world bearing the good news of peace and forgiveness to all people. But first they had to overcome their fear and their shame. In that room with the locked doors they were a bit like the unhatched chick in a Shel Silverstein poem who declares:
The hens they all cackle, the roosters all beg,
But I will not hatch, I will not hatch.
For I hear all the talk of pollution and war
As the people all shout and the airplane roar,
So I’m staying in here where it’s safe and it’s warm,
And I WILL NOT HATCH!
But hatch they had to. Jesus made sure of that. No more fear. It’s been forgotten. No more shame. It’s been forgiven. No more closed and locked doors. People had to come in. Good news had to get out. A church had to be born.
How much of us there is in this text! Are you afraid? Are you human? It’s incredible how much there is out there to be afraid of in the world! I’m not going to get started listing it all because you already know what scares you. Just think about it sometime. Think about all the things around us that are legitimately terrifying, and think about everything in us and around us that lives and thrives on that tried and true message: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Yes, Lord, we are afraid!
Are you ashamed? Are you human? The truth of us all is that we have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve done this in personal ways, like failing to be the people that God calls us to be, like failing to treat others as we would have others treat us, like fleeing the scene when God’s unfolding story doesn’t quite look like we think it should. But we’ve done this in corporate ways as well. Recently, Christian author Karen McClintock wrote, “I believe that congregations are in decline because they have become shame-bound”. She and fellow consultant Susan Beaumont are convinced that congregations tend to locate their “glory days” in the past, holding the history of the church in such high regard that the present can only look bleak and boring by comparison. The present day can only seem like failure when we idolize the past. As a result, many churches become locked in a pattern of sameness in which they are afraid to do anything new because they are afraid to fail, and they are ashamed that the present doesn’t meet the standard of the past.
That sounds like those disciples, doesn’t it? Jesus’ own disciples were locked behind closed doors because they were afraid, shut inside the walls because they were ashamed that this wonderful thing had happened to them, this amazing Messiah had come to them and they couldn’t keep him alive. Even more than that, they fled when he was arrested. They denied even knowing him. They failed at being disciples. And so do we. But you know what? That’s okay. Jesus knew we would. Jesus knows about our fear and our shame, and he comes to us right where we are, behind our locked doors, and speaks words of peace to us. He blesses us, forgives us, gifts us with power, and sends us out to be his imperfect but faithful disciples.
The temptation for the church during fearful times of fear, or anxiety, or transition, is to stay behind closed doors. The tendency for any organization, when threatened, is to focus only inward, on self-preservation and self-security. Our primary purpose changes. It is not longer sharing the good news of God’s peace, forgiveness, and love, but rather survival on our own terms. When that happens, we may as well shut and lock the doors. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. The church dies. There is no life, no breath there. It could be that the difference between a living church and a dying one is just that: breath.
When John tells us in his gospel that Jesus breathes on the disciples, he uses the Greek word emphysao, which does mean “to breathe on something”. There are only a few other times in scripture in which the word meaning “to breathe on” is used. The first is in Genesis 2:7, which reads, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The second is in 1 Kings 17:21, in which Elijah raises a widow’s son from the dead by stretching himself out upon him and breathing upon him three times. The third is in Ezekiel 37:9, which was our Old Testament reading from last Sunday, in which Ezekiel prophesies to a valley full of old, dry bones, saying, “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
Do you see a common theme there? In all four of these readings, including our gospel text, there is a movement from death to life. It is the very breath of God, the breath of new life and new possibilities, that turns dust into living things, and old, dry bones into brand new creations. It turns closed and locked doors into open pathways, and fearful, ashamed disciples into faithful and forgiven followers of Jesus Christ. It turns you, and your church, into God’s great and wonderful creation, whose best days, whose glory days, are yet to come.
So, let’s try this again. Relax. Get comfortable. Now..
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Imagine that breath that Jesus breathed upon his disciples that day. Think about all that that breath meant, and all that that breath carried within it. Peace. Forgiveness. Love. Acceptance. Mission. Imagine that those “molecules” of faith would float free and spread themselves all around the globe in a pattern so remarkable and so wondrous, that if you take a deep breath right now, at least some of the air in your lungs will be that life-giving breath of Jesus Christ.
Breathe in. Peace. Forgiveness. Love. Acceptance. Mission.
Breathe out. Out to those around you. Out to this community. Out to the world.
 NPR’s Morning Edition, March 15, 2006. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5280420)
 Where the Sidewalk Ends (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) p. 127.