John 20:22–23 (NIV)
22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Dear Christian friends,
‘Just breathe’. [Speaking slowly] ‘J u s t b r e a t h e’. When you are anxious, overcome, angry or fearful, just don’t forget to breathe. This is good advice, but we so easily forget it.
Some call it ‘mindfulness’, being present and aware of yourself in the moment. This technique has become quite popular in our stressed out world, and some Eastern religions and Christian monks have used it for centuries.
But now that I’ve mentioned it, you might already be doing it. You might have become conscious of the breath entering your body as you inhale, and leaving you as you exhale. [slowly] Breathe in… Breathe out… Breathe in… Breathe out… And so it goes on from the cradle to the grave. 99.99% we don’t think about it. But it’s always there, always going on, always part of what carries you from one moment to the next as a living, breathing human being.
How we forget this slender thread in the hurly burly of daily life until one day, unexpectedly, we find it difficult to breathe. That’s when we remember how basic breathing is to life.
God made us living, breathing human beings in God’s own image. The Bible shows God breathing into creation, and creation breathing with God. In the first verses of Genesis 1 ‘a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’. The cosmos relies on the breath of God. If God withdrew that breath, everything would cease. In Genesis 2 God breathes life into the dust and creates Adam as a living being. God’s breath is the essential, underlying pre-condition of all human life and existence as we know it. God goes on breathing life in us, despite the distortion and pollution sin has brought into the world. God does not stop breathing, does not stop loving, and has not stopped caring for creation.
But the unthinkable did happen. On the cross the Son of God breathed his last, and the whole universe stopped breathing with him. Only when God returned the breath to Jesus’ body could the universe breathe again. That’s the setting for this morning’s text from John 20.
This is Jesus’ first resurrection encounter with his cowering disciples in their locked room. Jesus comes and gives them peace, sending them out into the world. He also equips them for that mission. ‘He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.’
Christians have written, said and believed many things about the Holy Spirit over the centuries. Our minds go straight to the third person of the Holy Trinity. But John wrote his gospel before the church spelled out that doctrine, which took centuries of debate. The Greek manuscript of gospel uses no capital letters for holy spirit. Later Bible translators and publishers have inserted them. Quite literally, John wrote, ‘Accept holy air’ or ‘Receive holy breath’. It can also refer to a vital principle or spirit, or even the soul.
So picture the scene, just after the resurrection. God is breathing into the world once again and bringing it back to life. Sin and evil are gone. Bringing new life into the world, Jesus brings with it limitless possibility, hope, and certainty. The world has been saved, and us along with it. Jesus breathes holy air that is unpolluted by sin and guilt, breathing it out upon his people.
So just … [pause] … breathe. It’s not only air, which is essential for the body. It’s the Spirit of the living God, the Holy Spirit of the resurrected Jesus, which is essential for the health of the soul. You breathe it in, and you breathe it out. It’s an action as basic and essential as life itself.
You can’t just keep this living breath to yourself. Humans can only hold their breath for a very limited time – what goes into us must come out of us. If we don’t release it we soon turn red in the face, and then pale and white as the oxygen in our system burns up and the toxins build up in the blood. Breathe in, breathe out. Always follow breathing in with breathing out. Never the one without the other. God made us that way. Life works that way. In and out, in and out.
So when we breathe in the Holy Spirit, what do we breathe out? Why, the same thing, of course. We breathe out the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, and we just can’t help it! Our life comes from Jesus as he breathes on us, and in breathing out we pass it on to others. That’s the rhythm. It happens when Christian breathe.
But what does that look like? Jesus tells us: ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ The breath of the Holy Spirit coming out of us looks like forgiveness. We breathe out what we have breathed in. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those
who have sinned against us.’ Breathe in, breathe out.
Talking about sin is out of fashion these days. It comes from a time when people were afraid of punishment. Sin was the big stick to make them feel guilty. People don’t feel like that anymore. Society has replaced forgiveness with diagnosis, treatment and
cure. And we’ve learnt a few things along the way. Of course counselling is highly recommended and medication can be helpful, but on their own neither can reach the core issue where it hurts us the most.
We often misunderstand what the Bible means by sin and forgiveness. Sin is being in a wrong state of mind or soul. The things we do wrong, our individual sins, are the result of being wounded and broken on the inside, in our souls. That’s where we need the cure. Anything less is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer. Rules and laws can help ease the itch, but they are not the cure. Sin is a state of being, a living death, a wounded person. Jesus died for that person, each one of us – bodies and souls. He restores our life from the inside. God forgives your sin. God makes you whole. You
can breathe again.
Forgiveness is being fixed on the inside. It applies the cure for sin which Jesus brings. It restores you to God, to yourself, and to others. And when we don’t forgive others it shatters everything and everyone.
So we could read the text like this: After his resurrection Jesus came and gave his disciples a mission for the world. He sent them out on that mission, breathing God’s holy breath on them, giving them life: new, whole and restored. They are sent to breathe life into others, forgiving them as they have been forgiven. God doesn’t want anyone to remain unforgiven, dead and broken on the inside.
Friends, this is an awesome responsibility. We breathe the life of Jesus. To look at us, who would have thought it! But there we are. We breathe in, and we breathe out. As we breathe in, God gives us with life. As we breathe out, we give others life. This is God’s mission in its most basic form. We just need to live and breathe – truly live and breathe in him. Be the person God has made you to be. God will take care of the rest, saving the dead, the lost and those without hope.
I believe, and I pray you do also, that the Lutheran Church of New Zealand is just such a living, believing, breathing community of forgiven sinners. You cannot help but bless those around you. Go out into this country, and into this world with an attitude of hopeful expectation, confident about life, and about your Saviour.
Breathe deeply of the Spirit so that, as you breathe out, those you meet along the way will receive new life and healing just as you have.
God bless you in your mission, in the name of our risen Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Sermon prepared for LCNZ Convention of Synod / Pentecost Sunday
Hamilton, Sunday 9th June 2019
Pastor John Henderson