Second Sunday of Easter | John 20:19-31
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.
There are stories of fire that fell from the sky onto the heads of the faithful. It was not a fire that burned them, not as one would think of it, not as some of the onlookers might have hoped. (Religious differences bring out the worst in people.) This fire was the Spirit of God, or so it is claimed in the book of Acts—but that will be the lectionary passage for the observance of Pentecost, May 24 of this year.
Fire that only burned within and did not scorch the skin—it sounds like a metaphor.
John tells a different story. In this Gospel a small group of believers gathered in a house, behind closed doors. Jesus, the same one who was crucified, comes to them somehow and breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit of God. He points out the marks of his torture to remove any doubts of his identity, such as the doubts of Thomas who had the good sense to want to see this living Jesus for himself.
Jesus breathed on them, as only the living can. Air from his lungs, the Spirit of God—it sounds like another metaphor.
There is a greeting in parts of the world where two people press their foreheads and noses together to share a breath. It may have nothing to do with this Jesus story. It does tell us something about the centrality of breathing. The beating of our hearts, the air we breathe, nothing about us continues without these things.
Like the bumper sticker says, just keep breathing.
Whichever version we read, John’s tale of Jesus breathing on his followers or the story in Acts with tongues of fire falling from the sky, the result is the same. Afterward something was different. These earliest Christians went out and began talking about what they knew of God, of this Jesus, of everything they had seen and heard and touched, to everyone they met, everywhere they went, so long as they drew breath.
Something had changed in them. Something drove them out of their rooms, their homes, their comforts, their habits.
The scripture writers claim that it was the Spirit of God. Radically differing in appearance and path, by breath or by fire or by touch of hand or sight, the New Testament people spoke of experiencing and witnessing what they described as the Spirit of God entering into themselves and into the people around them. What they described was not possession by a greater power. It was not acquisition of some greater power. It was transcendence.
Their existence changed.
They became different. The power that they believed resurrected Jesus had also resurrected their lives, lifting them from the mundane into the extraordinary. The resurrection stories of Jesus often mention that it was difficult to recognize him, though there is little explanation as to why. Perhaps that is because little or no explanation was needed for people living such transformed lives that they no longer even recognized themselves.
The breath of God. Many would dismiss such a concept as delusional. Perhaps Jesus was a good man, they say, but leave God out of it. There is no proof of God, they say, nothing to demonstrate that we did not create the idea of God out of our own need. There is no argument that can totally refute such thinking, no logic that can overwhelm such rational doubt.
Scientists tell us that when we breathe we take in elements that have come, as everything within us has, from the stars. The oxygen that sustains us may contain atoms that sustained Marilyn Monroe or George Washington or Jesus or the Buddha. In every breath we touch on something eternal.
We are miraculous. We are ordinary. We are living stardust. We are imbued with the breath of God.
At the end of the lectionary passage for this week’s reading, there is a confession, a reason given as to why this Gospel of John was written down at all: these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
That we might believe, that we may have life, is the whole purpose of the Gospel. You might say we were already alive without hearing it.
Tennyson wrote, As though to breathe were life! There is more to living than existence. That, too, is the message of John’s Gospel. Feel the wind and know it for more than weather—for you it is the breath of God. See the stars and know them for more than engines of the expanding universe—for you they are the sparks of life.
Do more than remember to breathe. Remember to live.