Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The gospel story from John’s gospel that we’ve just listened to is one we hear every year on this second Sunday of Easter. There are very few gospel texts that we hear every year, but this is one: the organizers of the lectionary cycle obviously consider this second part of John’s resurrection account to be very important.
We tend to think about this Second Easter gospel as being the story of Thomas – poor Thomas who gets such a bad rap and seems to be forever known as “Doubting Thomas”. This is what most of us usually preach on this Sunday, and in fact during the past week both Bishop Doug and Canon Rich Simpson have published reflections of Thomas and his concerns.
And the questions raised are good ones –
Why wasn’t Thomas with the others as they huddled together, locked in?
Was his questioning of his friends’ testimony of Jesus’ resurrection a sign of weakness, or of strength?
But as I dwelled on this story this week, my attention was more drawn to Jesus’ first appearance in the story, rather than on Thomas’ part in it.
Recall that it takes place on what we’d still call “Easter Day”, the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. In our story, we find the disciples – except for Thomas, of course – gathered together: john tells us they were afraid. They had watched Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and then, as if that was not enough, that morning they had heard a fantastical story from Mary, John, and Peter that must have added to their shock and confusion.
And then, suddenly, Jesus stood among them. He offered them the greeting “Shalom”, a blessing that means not just tranquility, but a deep and holistic sense of well-being -- the kind of peace the world cannot give.
And Jesus then goes on to offer his last teaching, reminding them of the work to which he has called them: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
And here’s the part that feels so powerful to me this week: When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit”.
It’s the breath imagery. With thousands in the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world, literally struggling for breath to sustain their lives, the image of Jesus breathing on the disciples, breathing INTO the disciples the grace and presence, the strength and consolation of the Holy Spirit seems like exactly what they must have needed, exactly what WE all need.
And the breathing of sacred breath bringing new life is a reminder of another ancient story we know well, from the second creation account in Genesis:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,… the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.
New life animating a creature of the dust, of the earth – life that comes from the breath of the Creator itself.
The breath of Spirit that brings peace, that casts our fear, that gives direction to the frightened disciples.
And that breath of life of the Creator, of Jesus, of the Spirit – is in us as well.
We know how it impacted the disciples, how they went on to spread the word and change the world.
As we sit with those questions, I want to recall another story – one that is not so ancient, but which happened in our own lives. And it’s one that fits right in with our consideration of how the breath of the Spirit enables us to do more than we thought possible.
Three years ago, on the Second Sunday of Easter, the people of The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew allowed the breath of God’s Spirit to enter and enliven us, to guide us forward into becoming a new parish family, to “cultivate a [new] community of love, joy, hope, and healing.”
Two smaller churches that were each, in their own way, struggling to maintain vision and to maintain energy opened themselves to new possibility and stepped forward in trust, becoming a new church. And the Spirit breathed into us. And I suspect that many of you recall, as I do, the indescribable joy of “Emerging Sunday”, a joy that has remained with us.
Today we struggle, again, with fear and anxiety in a world transformed by the corona virus pandemic. The questions we have been living with of “how bad will it get?” and “How long will it last?” are still with us, but new questions are being added as glimmers of hope emerge both in terms of slowing infection rates from Covid 19 and in promising new treatments.
We’re now wondering not only when and how we can safely enter a post-pandemic world, but we have to ask what that world will look like. Just as the disciples, changed after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension had to find the way forward, so too will we find ourselves changed and need to find new ways.
The disciples had to give up what had become a familiar life of traveling and ministering under the direction of their teacher Jesus. They had to let go of a messianic vision based on the triumph of power and glory, to embrace Jesus’ example of service and sacrifice. They had to trust the breath of Spirit to guide and sustain them as they faced new challenges and new hardships.
So as we look forward to a new world that we’ll be stepping into in the months ahead, we, also, need to be ready to let go of the familiar. We will have to learn new ways that we can’t even imagine right now.
I don’t think we’ll ever return to the same “normal” that we were accustomed to before Covid 19. Some of the sacrifices we’ve had to accept in recent weeks will end, but some will not. Hopefully, the losses we’ve endured during this terrible time will show us ways to be a better humanity, a more compassionate and just society. Hopefully we will have gained new perspective and be ready to set new priorities. Let us pray that we will allow the Spirit’s guiding and sustaining breath to give US wisdom and courage. Amen.
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