Sermon: Breathing Peace

Sunday 28 April 2019
The Second Sunday of Easter

John 20:19-31

It’s still Easter. The disciples have gotten the news that Jesus is risen. They’ve heard the reports from the empty tomb. They’ve heard Mary Magdalene’s story of how she saw the risen Lord. And now, with the sun low in the western sky, they are not out proclaiming the good news, they are not spreading the word that Jesus is risen. No, as evening falls they are hidden away in some undisclosed location, with the doors closed, locked, and barred. And why are they cowering away in some dark corner? Because they are afraid of the Jews.

And I suppose it’s not so hard to understand why they were afraid. It was the Jewish authorities, after all, who had brought Jesus to trial in the first place. Now that his body has gone from the tomb, neither the Jewish leaders nor the Roman government would be very pleased. They’d likely come after all of Jesus’s followers to keep these rumors that Jesus has risen from the dead from starting some sort of riot or insurrection. Judea was a volatile place, and the government wouldn’t think twice about using military force to put down a few rebels. They had to be prepared for the coming battle. They had to develop their plans and strategies. If Jesus really was alive, then perhaps he would be amassing forces to overthrow the Roman military occupation and their lapdogs, the Jewish religious authorities. This might be the very moment that they had been waiting for since they first heard about the messiah. Jesus would surely rise up now and crush the foreign oppressors. The disciples just had to play it safe for a little while, stay under cover, until Jesus came to rescue them.

And so they remain locked away in a secret conclave on that evening of the first Easter, hiding out and assuming the worst—because they were afraid. The word in Greek is one that you know: phobia. The disciples were phobic of the Jews. And it was this Jew-phobia that kept them isolated, paralyzed, disconnected from the rest of the world. They couldn’t move, they couldn’t act, they couldn’t even find out what was really going on. All they could do was hide out and cower in fear.

And it seems to me that we are not unfamiliar with that kind of fear—the fear that paralyzes and keeps us locked away. We are a nation that seems to run on fear. You only have to turn on the news to see it. Story after story that highlights only the worst things in our society, only the most frightening, so that we can keep cultivating the idea that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. I guess the fear sells more commercials.

On channel 25 they’re afraid of a radical socialist takeover of the United States. Socialist healthcare, socialist eduction, socialist Green New Deal. If the liberals get their way then we might as well have lost the Cold War. The government will run everything and all the things that are good about our country will be lost forever. No more freedom. No more rights. No more liberty.

Over on channel 67 they’re afraid of a president run amuck. Election tampering, obstruction of justice, cruel immigration policies, a loss of integrity. If the conservatives have their way then we’ll be back in the dark ages. The government will give up on all its vulnerable citizens and won’t be good for anything except war. The poor will have no protection. No more freedom. No more rights. No more liberty.

Now, if neither of those world views suit your fancy, there are plenty of other things to be afraid of. There are natural disasters like tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, and hurricanes. There are oil spills and nuclear accidents. There is the threat of global climate change.  There is our dependency on oil, and the world’s dwindling supply of petroleum resources. We’re afraid of diseases: cancer, AIDS, measles flu pandemic. We’re concerned about the economy, and the kind of chaos that might happen if it gets any worse. We’re afraid of change in all its forms: change in our personal lives, change in our families, change in our nation, change in society, and change in our church. We’re afraid about success and failure, and what others might think about our lives. Ultimately, we are afraid of death, of that great unknown, and whether or not our life will have been worthy of eternity. Sometimes we take all of these fears, roll them all up together into one neat package, and call it the End Times. Things seem so bad that we become afraid of the very end of the world.

Now, it’s certainly not wrong to be afraid. Fear is God’s way of keeping us out of undue danger. And there certainly are real threats in the world that trigger our fears. But, whether or not a fear is justified, it can still be a dangerous thing. Fear has the power to overcome us, to enslave us, bind us, and confine us. Fear causes us to separate ourselves from the world around us, to expect the worst, to suspect our neighbors. Fear brought the disciples to lock themselves away in a secret hiding place, to reject the world, to live in constant terror of the people in the their own communities, and it has the power to do the same thing to us. When we let fear control our lives, we stop living for God and for God’s kingdom and start living only for our own self-preservation. We become blocked from the grace that God provides, and our discipleship becomes sterile and fruitless, like those useless apostles hiding behind bolted doors.

While the disciples were still locked away in that back room, Jesus mysteriously appeared to them. And he immediately spoke to them these words: “Peace be to all of you.” Jesus came to them in the midst of their disabling fear and spoke peace. “Let your fear go. Fill yourselves with peace instead.” But the disciples weren’t able to hear him. They were too caught up in their phobias and paranoias to understand Jesus’s message to them. Yes, they were happy to see Jesus, they were glad to be in the presence of the risen Lord. But they were unable to really listen to what Jesus was saying to them.

So Jesus tries again, repeats his previous words: “Peace unto all of you.” And then he adds, “God has sent me out, rolled away the stone and set me loose from death. Now it’s your turn.  Unlock these doors that keep you buried in this room just the same as if it were a grave. Roll away the stone of fear that makes you a slave to sin and death. Now, I am sending you out into the world. Even death can’t keep me locked away; don’t let fear keep you locked away. You’re supposed to be apostles, aren’t you? And an apostle is one who is sent out. Well, I’m sending you out. Leave your fear behind and get going.”

Jesus will not let them stay snuggly hid away in their safe little bomb shelter. He won’t allow them to remain comfortably separate from the world outside. No, Jesus sends them out into the world, tells them to get past their fear and do the work that they are meant to do.

That same message applies to us today. Jesus is sending us. If we hold on to our fears, allow them to control us, then we will be unable to answer Jesus’ call to us. Change, and disease, and disaster, and terrorism, and death, will keep us bound up in chains that prevent us from doing what God intends for us. Fear will render us useless.

Now, that message might seem a little harsh, a bit unsympathetic on Jesus’s part. Are we being told to just get over it? To pretend that we don’t have any fears? Overcoming fear takes more than just getting a lecture.

Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t leave us there. If fact, Jesus does something absolutely extraordinary. What Jesus does is so amazing, that it is very difficult to understand. If you check your Bible at John 19:22 you’ll probably find something like, “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” That in itself is quite remarkable, but it’s not as simple as it seems at first. Once again, the frailty of the English language fails to capture what is happening in this passage.

First, Jesus does not breathe on the disciples, which seems pretty strange already. No Jesus actually breathes into the disciples. The Greek word used here is the exact same word in the exact same form that is used when God breathes the breath of life into Adam in Genesis 2. Jesus isn’t just breathing on them, he is breathing a new life into them, making a new creation out of them, just as God made a new creation by breathing into Adam. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and he is breathing that divine Word into the disciples. He is making them into new beings, creatures filled with the Word and Spirit of God.

And that’s not the end of the mystery. Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In Greek, this can also mean, “Receive a holy breath,” which makes sense since he is breathing into them. Or it can mean, “Understand this holy saying,” which also makes sense, because Jesus is about to deliver a wisdom saying to them. The Greek reader would probably understand all of these meanings to be happening simultaneously. Receive the Holy Spirit, receive a holy breath, understand this holy saying—they are all true to what is happening.

And then Jesus delivers the saying. The New Revised Standard Version translates it this way: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” So we usually think, Oh, the apostles have received the Holy Spirit, so now they must have the authority to forgive sins or retain them. This is some sort of special privilege and power that they’ve been granted.

But once again, it’s not that simple. Listen to another translation of those same words: “If you should happen to let go of the sins of anyone, that person is set free; if you lord it over anyone, then that person has been enslaved.” Now things start to make sense. Jesus is not granting the disciples some sort of special power, he is giving them a piece of wisdom. He’s saying that if we choose to forgive someone or not to forgive them, that it actually has an effect on that other person. If we forgive them, then we set them free. If we withhold our forgiveness, then we are enslaving that person with the chains of our own negative emotions. To grant forgiveness is a beautiful gift that releases good into the world. Withholding forgiveness is an injury to others, and limits the avenues that God has to pour forth grace. Understand this holy saying, says Jesus, if you forgive, you grant freedom; if you withhold forgiveness, then you just create more ways to hold people down.

And what is fear but a wrong left unforgiven? When we hold on so tightly to all of our hurts, every bad thing that we’ve ever experienced, then we start to live in fear of everything that could possibly go wrong in the future. Living a life without forgiveness inevitably leads us into a life of slavery—slavery to our own fears—slavery that reaches even to those around us, binding us all in a web of terror.

But Jesus offers us a different way. He says, “Peace. Peace to all of you. Be released from your fear.” And offers us the gift of the Holy Spirit, he breathes peace into us, breathes forgiveness into us, breathes new life into us, and makes us a new creation, free from slavery to fear and death, free to go out as Christ’s representatives into the world. Christ is calling. Christ is making us new. And Christ is sending us out into the world that we might share in his ministry and be always and everywhere breathing peace.

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