The God Who Breathes

John 20:19-23

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

I mentioned last week that I recently purchased a family tent for us to use on our many camping expeditions in the years to come, but I failed to mention that my children have also received their own tents. Paxton and Hadley both now own their own little private bed tents. Perhaps you have seen these before. They are simple tents that fit snuggly over a twin mattress so that children can sleep under a tent in their own bed. Paxton has had his “Cars” tent on his bed for a couple of months, and Hadley got a princess castle that we are able to put over her crib. It works well enough.

Unfortunately, we got something else this past week as well. We got a stomach bug. At 1:00 am on Wednesday, we awoke to the sound of Paxton reviewing the previous day’s meals. And as you might rightly assume, getting out of a tent in the middle of the night when you wake up sick is an additional challenge.

Sonya cared for Paxton while I was on clean-up duty. I pulled the tent off his bed and took it outside. I stripped the bed and took his sheets outside as well. At that point Sonya suggested that I wash out his bed sheets in the bathtub, but I told her that I just couldn’t. When she asked why not, I told her my reason was biblical: The spirit is willing, but the stomach is weak!

Sadly, everything about that story, with the exception of the final quote, really happened.

We have stumbled into an unintentional sermon series here at Staunton Mennonite as we begin 2015. We began by looking at the role of God the Father in the creation of the world, and followed that by looking at the part of Jesus in the creation story. So where do you think that we are going today? Today we consider the role of the Holy Spirit. I plan to look at the role of the Spirit in the creation of the world, but that won’t be our main focus today. The Holy Spirit is usually left out of so much of our theology that I feel it is important to discuss the Holy Spirit in broader terms today before we briefly look at the Spirit’s role in creation.

The text that I chose for today from John’s gospel is found at the other end of this book of the Bible from what we studied last week. One week ago we looked at John chapter 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now we turn to the last chapter of John to find more information about the third member of the Trinity. This seems significant to me. We begin with a text that speaks to the relationship between Jesus and God the Father. As the story continues, we find an increase in the role of the Spirit.

This event takes place after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The disciples are gathered together, possibly they are still meeting in the Upper Room where they met for the Last Supper. And John tells us that they were there because they fear the “Jewish Leaders.” They are afraid because they know what has just happened to Jesus and they are not any too interested in meeting the same end.

As they are hiding there, with the doors locked, the resurrected Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you!” And being the good, liturgical people that they are, the disciples respond with, “And also with you.” No, they were taken aback. They touch Jesus to make sure that he is real, feeling his hands and his side where he had been pierced. And Jesus goes and says it again, “Peace be with you!” However, Jesus does not stop there. He continues: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

We are probably more familiar with what is called “The Great Commission,” which is found in Matthew 28, where Jesus sends his disciples out into the world to make disciples of all nations. If that is the Great Commission, this one is probably a really good commission. It is not as grand, but not too shabby, either. Essentially, we find Jesus sending the disciples out into the world to continue doing the things that they have been doing together for the last three years or so. The difference is, Jesus isn’t going with them.

But notice that when Jesus sends his disciples out to the world, he does not send them unprepared. Verse 22 says, “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This Holy Spirit is given as a way of equipping the disciples for the work that they are called to do.

In chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul gives us some insight to how the Holy Spirit works and what the intention of the Holy Spirit is. I think that one of the most helpful lines in this chapter is found in verse 7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” The manifestation of the Spirit, the outward signs that the Holy Spirit is in someone, are meant for the common good. You don’t receive the Holy Spirit so that you can keep it for yourself. Healing, faith, prophesy, and speaking in tongues are named here as gifts of the Spirit. All of these things are given for the good of the world, or “for the common good,” as Paul writes. The gifts are meant to equip people for their mission as Christians.

I think that one of the reasons that we don’t talk a lot about the Holy Spirit in the church is because there is a lot of confusing stuff out there. One thing that continues to get me is that in John 16, Jesus tells his disciples that it is to their advantage that he leaves because if Jesus leaves he can send the Advocate, or the Paraclete (which sounds a lot like “parakeet”), which we assume means the Holy Spirit. It seems like Jesus and the Holy Spirit can’t be in the same room at the same time. Is it like going somewhere and seeing an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend? They just can’t stand to be at the same place at the same time? I doubt it. But here is what I really don’t understand. When Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit. He even breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples. Maybe we can just say that there is still a significant amount of mystery surrounding this member of the Trinity. Perhaps we will try to figure that one out next week.

So the Holy Spirit is our Advocate, who equips us for missions. That is so very important, and we should not forget that we have the Holy Spirit as our guide. But I want to focus on the weird part of this text. Why does Jesus breathe on the disciples? If I walked up to you and just exhaled forcefully, you would think that I was either really weird or trying to show off my new breath mints. Maybe both. It doesn’t even matter how well you know someone, that’s strange. Who just goes up to someone and breathes on them? Well, if you have been paying close attention during the last few weeks, you may guess that there is something special going on in the original languages that does not come through in our English versions.

The Hebrew word that we translate as “spirit” is ruach; the Greek word is pneuma. Both of these words can be translated into multiple English words so when reading the Bible in its original language you really have to use context clues to understand what is going on. For instance, ruach and pneuma both mean not only spirit, but also breath and wind.

This may sound a little strange to us, but we have words that mean breath and spirit in English as well. When you take a breath of air, filling your lungs with crisp oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and smog, we have a word for that. It is called “inspiring.” When you breathe in, you inspire. When you breathe out, you expire. The word “spire” is Latin for spirit.

But the word “inspire” has another meaning. When we see someone do something heroic, maybe we see a firefighter run into a burning building, we might say that he is “inspiring.” Or when we hear stories of people who make sacrifices for others, like someone who gives half their savings away to the Salvation Army, we might claim that we feel inspired by their actions. Of course the firefighter is inspiring. He wouldn’t be alive if he wasn’t breathing. No, no. What we mean is that the person’s spirit, that thing that motives the fireman, is rubbing off a bit on us. We find his actions inspiring because we find his spirit to be encouraging.

The Holy Spirit is a specific kind of spirit. It is the very breath of God and the breath of life. And the Spirit is often represented by wind or air.

If we jump to the next book of the Bible, the book of Acts, we find that on the day of Pentecost, which is about 50 days after Easter, the believers were all gathered together for a worship service. As they are there praying, reading the scriptures, and preaching, they hear a great wind blowing into Jerusalem. And with that wind they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, we see this connection between wind, breath, and the Spirit.

So let’s go back a little bit further as we try to understand the role of the Spirit in the creation narrative. Now that you understand that these words are close or the same in both the Greek and Hebrew, you may start to make a few connections. For instance, if we go all the way back to Genesis 1:2 and revisit this passage, we find this: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

It is very easy to miss that. Right there in the second verse of the Bible, we find a reference to the Spirit of God. It was the Spirit of God that hovered over that tohu vabohu, that chaotic emptiness that would become the world as we know it.

The text isn’t clear where the creation responsibilities start and end. What is the role of the Spirit? What is the role of the Father? And what is the role of the Son? We can’t say for sure based on these verses. But what is clear is that the Spirit of God is right there in the middle of it all. The Holy Spirit is involved in bringing order to the chaos. And the Spirit doesn’t stop there, with the ordering of the chaotic emptiness. No, the Spirit’s greatest achievement comes in the next chapter.

This past Friday we celebrated my son’s 5th birthday. Often around these special celebrations we hear people say things about how much a child looks or acts like one of their parents. “He takes after his dad.” “She sure does resemble her mother.” Or maybe you have heard someone say, “He’s just the spittin’ image of his pappy.”

What in the world does that even mean? The spittin’ image? I understand the “image” part. If you look like your parents, you share some of their image. But why are you spittin’? I’m trying to teach my little image bearers to not spit!

If you do a little research on the origin of this phrase you will find that it is likely that “spittin’” is a shortened version of the phrase “spit and,” not “spitting.” So they aren’t the “spitting image” of their father. They are the “spit and image” of their father. But that still isn’t helpful, and to be honest, it might be a little more disgusting.

Now things get interesting. Some believe that when people started saying that a person is the “spit and image” of their parents, they were actually not saying “spit” at all. They were saying something that sounded a lot like spit. They were saying “spirit.” You might say that a person is the “spirit and image” of their parent.

In Genesis 2:7, we find this: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Breath, wind, spirit, all connected. When Genesis tells us that God breathed life into the nostrils of humanity, what we are reading is that God “expired,” causing the lifeless lump of clay before him in “inspire.” The very Spirit of God is what brings life to a lump of clay. God breathing his own spirit into us is what brings us life.

We often talk in church about being created in the image of God. But we forget that we are created in the “spirit and image” of God. When God breathed life into humanity, God breathed his own spirit into us.

This is not to say that there is something divine in us, that we are all little gods. What I am saying is that it is the very Spirit of God that gives us life. And that Spirit is in us all. When Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples, he is giving them more of God’s Spirit. When the wind blows on Pentecost, the people receive gifts of the Spirit. But just as all of us are created in the image of God, and that image is marred by our sin, each of us also has the very breath of God within us. It is the gift that we call “life.”

I’m going to guess that very few of us take the time to think about our breathing. Just slow down a second or two and listen to yourself breathe. Feel your chest rise and then fall. The only reason that we can take that breath is because God breathed his breath into our nostrils. We are “inspired” by God.

The next time that you feel called to do something “missional,” and you don’t feel equipped, take a breath in and then let it out slowly. And remember that the very Spirit of God is within you.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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