Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter; John 20:19-31
In springtime, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater hosts its annual season of Call the Midwife. It’s been going the last few weeks, and if you don’t know the show, it’s about a company of midwives and Anglican nuns in a poor part of London in the 1950s and ‘60s, in every single episode, there’s a moment when a mother has just delivered her baby, and the midwives and momma are waiting for a baby’s first cry. There’s the anxious eye-darting, the building tension.
Perhaps you’ve even had your own “Call the Midwife” moment, waiting for your own baby’s cry. Or in the reverse, perhaps you’ve been sitting at the bedside of a dying loved one, wondering if that heave of breath you just heard would be the last one.
I was sitting next to his bed the morning my grandpa Chuck died; I’d gotten to the hospice house early, as the sun was rising, and we sat alone in his room, him lying quietly on the bed, me to one side, with a view out the window over his his body. His breath was irregular by then, with long pauses between exhale and inhale. More than once, I thought I’d witnessed his last breath. I remember musing how much like a baby he looked, bald head, smooth skin stretched over his back-tilted face, eyelashes resting gently on his cheeks.
I’d never met my great-grandmother Marian, his momma, but I felt a kinship with her in that moment, as she must have spent time, too, watching him sleep, listening eagerly for each breath.
Though I’ve practiced yoga for more than a third of my life, I only started to realize recently how medicinal the breath is for our bodies in everyday life. Did you know that increasing the oxygen in our blood through breathing can decrease pain and also increase endurance?
Having been a cross-country runner in high school, I should have known this, both for my longevity and for my pain tolerance during long those races! It’s what they tell women in labor, right? “Breathe!” And what we say to children when they’re upset: “Take a deep breath, honey.”
I’ve started experimenting with this concept in everyday moments of my life, imagining as I breathe in that I’m enjoying the effects of a pain pill, like popping a Tylenol, or gulping down some Advil as I fill my lungs. The medical community has started doing studies about the effectiveness of deep-breathing and of oxygen-rich air for treating pain in our bodies even for conditions like fibromyalgia and even depression, and I think this is a way science is finally catching up with Scripture’s wisdom a few millenia after the fact.
In this morning’s Gospel passage, Jesus breathes on his disciples. It’s the way that the writer John expresses Jesus gifting the Holy Spirit to his followers. While we’ll celebrate Pentecost in June as the feast of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire and all — Colby has already offered his services as a liturgical fire-breather — I want to sit this morning with the analogy of the Holy Spirit as breath. The words that Jesus uses around this strange action he takes give us clues to what’s happening here, and how we might understand Scripture and its underlying truth to continue to shape and determine our lives.
When Jesus appears to his disciples in the passage this morning, he says first, “Peace be with you.” When we take deep breaths, we slow our heart rates, we force our bodies to calm down, to enter a state of deeper peace, just like Jesus tells us.
Then he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Breathing is not a single action, it’s a wave of gathering and release, again and again and again, from the very first breath through to our last. We inhale, gathering in, think of it as receiving the call that the Father and Son make to us, and then we exhale, releasing, being sent, sharing with others the breath of life and the truth of redemption that we’ve just taken into ourselves.
Our bodies aren’t made to have one without the other, if we just inhale and hold it, before long, we’ll pass out. We aren’t made to just receive or just be fulfilled or just be poured-into. But neither are we made to only only exhale, only give and breathe out, that, too, leads to passing out, to what we might understand as a biological, even cosmically-demanded, reestablishing of equilibrium, as soon as a person passes out, our involuntary functions take over, including the involuntary function of breathing.
And that’s another thing to notice about what Jesus uses as the symbol of his gift to the disciples this morning, breathing, most often, is something we don’t think about at all. It continues every few seconds of our entire lives without our direction or effort, from the very first Call the Midwife moment, to the very last sigh in a hospice room. The breath, we might even say, God in the Holy Spirit, is always, persistently present in our lives, acting and holding up and guiding us whether we notice it, even whether we accept it, or not.
Charles’ godfather, a priest in Cooperstown, NY, has a plaque in his study that says, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Just like the breath in our bodies, God is always surrounding us, whether we are thinking about it, or whether we feel it, or whether we try to stop breathing and close him out; God is here.
In the beginning, God breathes the “breath of life” into the nostrils of the first humans, gifting our forebears and in turn, each one of us, with a spark of divinity, with the presence of God in us.
Today, Jesus reenacts this miraculous gift, renewing and strengthening the relationship between God and humanity through Jesus’s own fleshy presence, and also through the continuing, relentless presence of the pneuma, the ruach, the breath of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, our Physician and Comforter, decreases our pain as we set our attention on God; the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, increases our endurance as we pursue the will that God has set before us.
Rather than holding our breath when pain comes — which is our ingrained reaction — God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit invites us to breathe deep, to fill up with the presence of God in order to walk through the pain which will come our way. And rather than ignoring either the inhale or the exhale, God invites us through the rhythm of the Holy Spirit’s movement to find both peace and new life to share in his glorious Name. Amen.