Sunday, April 7, 2013

(Easter 2) From the disturbed to the disturbers

John 20:19-31; Acts 5:27-32

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We just heard two very different stories about Jesus’ disciples.
Very different.
Exact opposite, really.
Strange thing . . . is they tell about a very similar situation.
And they happened fairly close together in time.
The story in John 20, and the story in Acts 5,
both involve the disciples
being completely at odds with the world around them,
because of their connections to Jesus.
They are in serious tension with the authorities.
Their well-being is threatened.
Their very lives are in danger.

In John, story 1, they are the disturbed.
In Acts, story 2, they are the disturbers.
How did they move so quickly, and so decisively,
from being the disturbed, to being the disturb-ers?

There is a short answer, and it’s a good one.
It’s on target.
The answer is that Jesus said, “Peace be with you,”
and breathed on them, saying,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
That fact—that the Holy Breath of God blew into them—
explains the difference well enough.
But there is more to be said,
at least if I’m going to get a 20-minute sermon out of this.

And more needs to be said,
because it’s simply too easy to say “all you need is the Holy Spirit.”
True enough, but too easy.
And it can mean too many things.
It’s like the Beatles singing, “All you need is love.”
It’s true, but too simple. And means too many things.
We need some definition.
We need some practical handles to get hold
of big concepts like that.

What do we mean, when we say that the disciples
“received the Holy Spirit?”
Why does it say that Jesus “breathed on them,”
when he gave them the Spirit?

You might know, that in both the old and new testaments,
in both the Hebrew and the Greek language,
the word that gets translated “spirit”
is exactly the same word used for “breath” or “wind.”

It’s not an accidental choice of words,
when the gospel writer says that Jesus “breathed”
the Holy Spirit on them.
It’s not a coincidence that the writer of Acts—
in describing the day of Pentecost
when the Holy Spirit fell with power on all the disciples—
tells us there was the “sound of rushing wind.”
There is a direct association connecting breath, wind, and spirit.
We could just as accurately call the Holy Spirit, “Holy Breath.”

But what is the actual effect of this breath, this wind of God?
What does it bring about?
What does it do to the disciples?
How are they different after,
than they were before the “Holy Breath?”

Let me run some ideas by you, and let you ponder them.

First, you remember how the book of Genesis describes
the creation of human beings?
In the second account, in chapter 2,
it says “the LORD God formed the man
from the dust of the ground
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,
and the man became a living being.”
Adam is simply the proper name for the Hebrew word “man”—
and “ah-DAHM” is related to the word for earth or soil—
So we humans are named after the earth,
the dirt from which we came.
Without God’s Spirit, the “holy breath of life,”
we are only dirt with a shape . . . a sand sculpture, I guess.
But while our beginning is dust,
God created us for more than that.
God placed in us something of God—God’s own breath of life.
God breathed into us God’s own Holy Breath,
and destined us for a full life,
with lungs inflated with Holy Breath,
a life intimately connected with God,
where we essentially “breathe together with God.”
“Breathe together with,” or, “con-spire.”
That’s what con-spire literally means—“breathe with.”
Since creation itself,
we are designed to be God’s co-conspirators—
God’s co-breathers.

I’m not stretching the meaning here to make a point.
That’s literally what it means to have the Spirit of God.
We “breathe together with God.”
We conspire with God, to carry out God’s agenda.
That’s what it means to live a Spirit-filled life.
It’s really not so mysterious and mystical,
this thing of being filled with the Spirit.
And it’s definitely not rocket science.
It means we are breathing with God,
we are in God’s rhythm of life,
we value what God values,
we love what God loves.
It’s a life we were all meant to live.
We are to breathe and work with God,
not against God.

So back to the disciples.
What difference did it make, that Jesus breathed on them?
What changed in that time from John 20 to Acts 5?
Other than the true, but simplistic answer,
“they had the Holy Spirit.”

How did they turn aside
from their hurt and disappointment and confusion
they suffered after Jesus’ unexpected death,
and become God’s courageous co-conspirators?

Well, it wasn’t purely a matter of willpower.
They didn’t just see the error of their ways,
and make a decision to get with God’s program.

I think at least two significant things happened,
without which they never would have gotten out
from behind locked doors.

Two things that, for me, kind of spell out what it means,
for them to have received the Holy Breath of God.

The first thing was they received the words of peace from Jesus.
Did you realize that three times,
in that short passage from John 20,
Jesus says to his disturbed disciples,
“Peace be with you”?

Part of the reason, of course, that Jesus said “Peace be with you,”
was that they were scared stiff.
They barred the door, and did not leave their room.
Their fear was well-founded.
They were not safe.
But I think there was something deeper behind Jesus’ words,
than just calming their anxiety.
I think Jesus knew the peace they needed most at the moment,
was peace set in motion by forgiveness.

Yes, forgiveness.
I think the Holy Breath of God
first of all breathed forgiveness on them.
The disciples had all—everyone of them—
abandoned Jesus at the most critical moment.
While Jesus was being tortured and mocked,
they stood at a distance and watched,
or stood close and denied they knew him.
And then they all ran off and hid behind locked doors.
As disciples, they failed their master miserably.

And as a side note, get out of your head once and for all,
that this text from John 20 is all about scolding Thomas,
the poor faithless, doubting disciple.
If you think that, you misread the text.
Thomas gives one of the most powerful statements of faith,
when he says, “My Lord and my God,”
and Thomas didn’t ask for any more evidence,
than what the other disciples had already gotten.
So, give Thomas a break.
He wasn’t a doubter, he was a data gatherer.
Like a lot of us are.
But I’ve preached that sermon before,
so I won’t do that today.

The point is, here they all stood . . .
face to face with the one they all had failed.
And they needed forgiveness.
They needed redemption.

Craig Barnes, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writes:
“At the center of the gospel is the proclamation
that Jesus Christ has come looking for us . . .
He walks right through the locked door to find us . . .
Then he says, ‘Peace be with you.’
You are forgiven, peace is restored to your troubled soul,
and you are free.”

So . . . central to the Easter story we celebrate this season,
is a story of freedom.
Freedom from sin.
Freedom from our failure to trust.
Freedom from spiritual humiliation.
Jesus came looking for his disciples,
to pronounce peace and forgiveness.
He gave them freedom to come out of hiding.
But it didn’t stop there.
Because it wasn’t just freedom for the sake of the disciple’s freedom.
Jesus did not pronounce peace on them,
for their psychological benefit.

Jesus gave them the ministry of forgiveness.
He commissioned them to carry this Gospel of freedom
to every other person who was hiding behind locked doors,
in one way or another.
He breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In other words, you go do for others, what I just did for you.
Proclaim peace and forgiveness
to other souls crippled by shame.
Breath Holy Breath on them.
Declare their forgiveness.

So that’s the first evidence I see
of the difference God’s Holy Breath made
when it was given to the disciples by Jesus.
It freed them from what bound them.
Peace was pronounced on them.
And it freed them.
No longer were they choked, asphyxiated from the breath of God,
their airways were cleared, Holy Breath was restored.
The wholeness and fullness of life God created them for,
was possible once again.
They could walk out of that choking-ly dark room,
and breathe freely again, in the light.

The other evidence I found in the pages between these two stories.
Events in the early post-resurrection church,
are recorded in considerable detail.
And they are profoundly communal.
This Holy Breath of God clearly
was not primarily something that worked
in the interior of each individual,
for the benefit of that individual.
That is a common misrepresentation of the Spirit
and its work in the church today.
This distorted view of the Spirit fits our individualistic culture
very nicely, as a matter of fact . . . very conveniently.
It’s just not very true to the biblical story.

After the first encounter with Mary at the tomb,
Jesus’ multiple encounters with the disciples
were like this one.
They happened when they were together.

And when the Holy Breath of God started
filling this collection of disciples, as a body,
they were transformed into a new peoplehood.

They lived together differently.
When the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Breath
happened on them as a community,
their life together was transformed.
They broke bread together, day by day.
They “spent much time together,” it says,
in worship, and in mutual care,
and in mutual discipleship.
They shared their possessions.
They opened their homes.
And people not in the church were drawn to this way of living.
Many people.
Thousands, in fact.

And the old posture of the disciples toward the outside world—
that old fearful, self-protective, behind-locked-doors, posture,
was turned on its head.
As a result of Jesus’ pronouncement of peace and freedom,
And as a result of their vibrant communal life of worship
and discipleship,
they suddenly knew who they were,
where they belonged,
and to what they were called.
And they acted on it.

They were back in God’s breathing rhythm.
They were breathing with God again.
They were con-spiring with God.
So the disturbed became the disturbers.

Read the first five chapters of Acts sometime.
It’s quite a story of activism and resistance.

These once-fearful and now-bold disciples—
because of the Holy Breath,
that made them sure of God’s forgiveness,
and made them clear about their place
in the community of God’s people—
now could not be held back.

They healed the lame and sick,
and when the healings attracted attention,
and a crowd gathered,
they did not slip away into safety.
They confronted the crowds,
boldly preaching that they, the people and their leaders,
misunderstood Jesus completely,
and killed the “author of life.”
They told the people to repent and
take responsibility for their deeds.
You can read one of those sermons in Acts 3.
It’s an amazingly gutsy sermon.
More gutsy than anything I’ve ever preached.
And it landed them in jail for the night,
and then they were hauled before the Council.
And they preached pretty much the same bold, confrontational,
come-to-Jesus sermon to the Council,
that they gave the crowds the day before.

And this, as you might expect, disturbed the leaders.
But, it says they were afraid to do anything,
because of their popularity with the people.
You see? The fear-ful ones became the feared ones.
The disturbed the disturb-ers.

They were let go, but before long,
the scene pretty much repeated itself.
They publically preached, offended the leaders,
got thrown in prison,
but next time an angel let them out at night,
and they went right back to preaching in the temple.
So they got hauled into the Council again.

And this is where today’s scripture reading comes in, Acts 5:27ff,
They answer the accusations of the Council,
by claiming a higher authority.
“We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

This is nothing short of amazing,
this transformation from the disturbed to the disturbers.

And it is made possible by the Holy Breath of God,
by allowing ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

That is still our call, today.
It was not just for the Twelve.
We, and all followers of Jesus, are still to open ourselves
to the Holy Breath of God,
that Christ is still breathing.

And to make this breath effective,
to make it anything more than an inner psychological boost—
the same two things need to happen, I believe.

We need to listen to and believe
the proclamation of God’s peace and forgiveness.
We must receive the freeing word
that God loves and accepts us,
in our sin and failure and shame.

And we need to join ourselves to a body that is inviting God’s breath.
A body that con-spires, that breathes with,
the agenda and purposes of God in the world.
Like the first church,
we must spend time together,
breaking bread, and worshiping,
and being reminded of who we are in the world.
There is no reason for our faith to be lived behind locked doors.
If we really know who we are,
where we belong,
and to what we are called,
there will be nothing to hold us back, either,
from a life of bold and public,
yet humble and loving witness,
in every aspect of life.

May the Holy Breath of God continue to blow into us,
through us,
and to the world that so desperately needs it.

As the hymn writer Brian Wren puts it,
Then let us, with the Spirit’s daring,
step from the past and leave behind
our disappointment, guilt, and grieving,
seeking new paths, and sure to find.

Christ is alive, and goes before us
to show and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings;
our God is making all things new.

—Phil Kniss, April 7, 2013

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