Saturday, April 26, 2014

"He breathed on them" (Second Sunday of Easter, Apr 27 2014)

Homily:  Yr A Easter 2, April 27 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Ps 16; 1 Pet 1:3-9; Jn 20:19-31

Last week we celebrated the joy of Easter.  We journeyed with the disciples from the sorrow and fear of Good Friday, through the silence of Holy Saturday to the excitement and joy of meeting the risen Christ on Easter morning.  And it was a joyful occasion, wasn’t it?  Lots of people, lots of smiles, great music, great singing, awesome worship, wonderful family meals and gatherings, Easter egg hunts and all the rest of it.  It was a celebration of the resurrection, a celebration of the realization that in the resurrection we are given a tangible sign that life can overcome death, that love will prevail over hatred, that joy emerges out of fear and that the light that comes into our world cannot be put out by the darkness.  All of this is good news, all of it is worth celebrating.

And so this week we continue the celebration.  And we will continue to celebrate Easter in our liturgical calendar for a full 50 days, a week of weeks.

And as we celebrate, we will also seek to enter into a deeper understanding of what Easter is all about, not just by looking back at what happened, but also by looking forward.  What does Easter mean for you and me as individuals and for all of us as a community as we continue on our journey together?

Our gospel today is set on the evening of that first Easter Sunday.  The women who had seen Jesus early that morning have already found the rest of his disciples and told them what they had seen and heard.  Now, as evening falls, they are gathered together in a house in Jerusalem behind locked doors, still fearful, not knowing what to do, not knowing what would happen next.

And then out of nowhere Jesus comes and stands among them, and says to them “Peace be with you.”  He shows them his hands and sides so that they know it’s him.  Then, he commissions them saying “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And then, John tells us that Jesus breathed on them.
That’s a strange detail.  Jesus breathed on his disciples.  It seems like a curious thing for John the gospel writer to record.  After all, we don’t normally make a point of entering a room and breathing on people!  But John mentions it here because he wants to remind us of two other texts in the Hebrew Scriptures where it talks about God breathing on people.  One is found in the creation story of the book of Genesis.  The other is found in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which we heard as one of our Sunday readings several weeks ago.

Genesis tells us that in the beginning, there was darkness, and chaos.  And then, God’s breath swept over the face of the waters, and God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.  A little later on, we’re told that God formed the first human from the dust of the ground.  But it was not until God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life that the human became a living being.  The earth-creature went from being a mere physical thing, made of the dust of the earth, to a living being.  When God breathed into that collection of molecules and atoms, it became a living human, an animated being, capable of eating and drinking, of loving, of experiencing both sadness and joy.  That is an amazing thing, an amazing act of creation, something which too often we take for granted.

With his symbolism and phrasing, John is proclaiming in our gospel today that something equally amazing is happening.  John is proclaiming that the resurrection of Jesus is an act of new creation every bit as awesome as the original act of creation in Genesis.  Just as God breathed life into the first human, Jesus is breathing life, new life, life in the Spirit, into his disciples.  Just as the breath of God swept over the waters in the beginning, on the first day, Jesus’ breath on the disciples on this first day of the week, the first day of the resurrection, is the start of a renewed creation.  In the Genesis creation story, God creates natural life and natural light.  In the resurrection, God gives us life which is eternal life and the light which is the true light of the world.
If John had been making a movie instead of writing a text, I’m quite convinced that today’s gospel would have started in virtual darkness, just as Genesis tells us that darkness covered the earth at the dawn of creation.  We are told that it is evening, and that the disciples are huddled indoors with the doors locked and presumably the windows shuttered because of their fear.  The scene begins in darkness, the disciples are lifeless.  Then suddenly Jesus appears among them.  Let there be light. The scene brightens, the disciples come into focus.  Jesus speaks, then he breathes on them and they are brought to life. 

You see, the purpose of the resurrection is not so much to bring Jesus back to life as it is to bring his disciples to life.  It is an act of creation which bestows new life on those who were in many ways lifeless.

Peter certainly saw things that way.  When he looks back on his life in the letter which we read in our second reading, he looks back to the resurrection as the pivotal moment.  It is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, says Peter, that God has given us new birth.

There’s another place in the Hebrew scriptures where God breathes on humanity.  It’s found in the book of Ezekiel, in chapter 37, in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.  In this text, the prophet tells of being brought out by the spirit of God to the middle of a valley which was full of bones, and the bones were very dry.  God asks Ezekiel “can these bones live?”  Ezekiel wisely replies that only you know, God.  God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, and he does, saying that the Lord God will cause breath to enter you and you shall live, and sinews will come upon the bones, and flesh and skin and they shall be brought back to life.  And so there is a mighty rattling sound and the bones start to come together and sinews grow upon them and flesh and skin, and there is a mighty wind, and God breathes life into the bones, and people stand up and live.

Now the Jewish people five centuries before Jesus understood this picture of God breathing life back into the dry bones as an image of the return from exile.  Of a homecoming.  The Jewish people had been taken into captivity and exile in Babylon.  They were downcast, hopeless, cut off from home and from God.  They weren’t physically dead, but they were the dry bones longing to be restored to life.

John’s gospel, by evoking this vision of Ezekiel, is telling us that we too are like dry bones that need to be breathed back to life.  How often do we feel like exiles, how often do we despair, how often do we feel cut off from others or from God?  We are the ones who need to be re-created, who need to have hope restored, who need to be brought home, who need to learn to live life abundantly.  The purpose of the resurrection is not so much to bring Jesus back to life as it is to bring us to life.

Why did Jesus come?  Why did God raise him?  Why do we still tell the story of the resurrection?  John sums it up in the last line of the gospel which we heard today:  we tell the story “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and through believing you may have life in his name.”

Did you notice in John’s final summation that belief itself is not the objective?  Often we put our emphasis on belief.  But belief is just a means to the end, and the objective of all of this, the final word in the gospel story, is that you and I may have life, life in all its fullness, life lived abundantly, the new life that comes through God’s act of new creation, a life that sends us out with meaning and purpose.

Those who were paralysed by fear and huddled in the darkness, those who were dry bones, have had new life breathed into them and they were sent to proclaim the good news.  Because just as God the Father sent Jesus to bring new life to us, we in turn are sent to bring new life to others.

May the God of all creation breathe new life into each one of us.


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