2nd Sunday of Easter

March 30, 2008
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 16
Reading 3: 
I Peter 1:3-9 or Acts 2:14a, 22-33
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-31
By Bruce G. Epperly

In today’s lectionary readings, we experience John’s Pentecost. Trapped in fear, uncertain of the future, and troubled by unbelievable stories of resurrection, the disciples experience one more surprise – Jesus appears in their midst, proclaims his “peace” to them, and “breathes” upon them, reviving them to resurrection life. Surely, the Holy Spirit is here in Jesus’ act of spiritual resuscitation.

John’s Pentecostal moment is characterized by peace and power. Twice Jesus proclaims “Peace be with you.” God’s Spirit of Shalom encompasses and permeates them. And, then he breathes on them, speaking the words “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Filled with the Spirit, they embody the authority of God’s new life.

In today’s mainstream and progressive churches, the Spirit of God is often the neglected member of the Trinity. Put off by the antics of tongue speakers and televangelists, many mainstream Christians want to do away with the Holy Spirit altogether or describe the Spirit so antiseptically in sermons and  theological texts that God’s Spirit can be dispensed with as irrelevant or ineffectual in the Christian life.

In contrast to such spirit-less faith, we need to embrace God’s Spirit as the lively energy of transformation that changes bodies, minds, spirits, and relationships. We need to claim God’s Resurrection Spirit as being as near as our next breath and as lively and uncontrolled as the winds whipping across the prairie or the sand dunes. When God’s lively wind breathes within us, we become spirit-filled and spirit-centered, able to do more than we can imagine as God’s partners in healing the world and our personal lives. God’s Holy Spirit is a healing spirit, mending wounds of relationships, bodies, memories, and the planet.

Today’s Gospel reading begs the question for preacher and congregants alike, ”What if we truly breathed God’s Spirit with every breath? How would our spiritual lives be different? How would it change our world?” One of my wife Kate’s and my spiritual mentors, Allan Armstrong Hunter, taught Claremont seminary and graduate students to “breathe the Spirit deeply in” and then “blow it out again,” as a way of expressing the way we felt at any given moment. In this spirit, perhaps, the preacher could pause a moment during the sermon and invite the congregation to breathe deeply and, then, imagine that each breath was an inhalation of God’s Spirit. Or, perhaps, a time for deep, slow spirit-breathing could be taken during the pastoral prayer or following the readings of scripture.

We need breathing space. We need healthy breath. Congregants can be invited to remember the experience of congestion, of breathing difficulties, and then the relief – more than that, the joy – of breathing again. Breath is the gift of life and the medium, symbolically as well as personally, of enlivening Spirit. Jesus’ breathing reminds us how much we need the “revival” of the Spirit in our churches – theologically, socially, spiritually, evangelistically. (Yes, even evangelistically, as we explore non-hierarchical, open-spirited, listening and welcoming, rather than violent and coercive, forms of evangelism.)

Thomas needed breathing space during resurrection week. He needed room to doubt. Thomas’ heroism is often forgotten in our desire to proclaim the Easter message or, more realistically, allay the doubts we have when it comes to understanding or believing the resurrection, Pentecost, or any other radically life-changing experience that is reported to us. Thomas heard the message “Christ is risen” with astonishment. No doubt he asked himself and his friends, “How could the dead come back to life? How could Jesus suddenly appear? What’s this business about a corpse breathing upon the disciples?”

Thomas had many questions and they were a matter of spiritual life and death. Yet, Thomas bravely spends a week with the disciples in spite of the fact that he alone doesn’t “get it.” Conversely, caught up in the ecstasy of resurrection and spirit-filled life, the disciples continue to welcome Thomas. His doubts don’t frighten them, nor do they need to silence him. Healthy resurrection faith makes space for doubts, questions, and unbelief. In accepting Thomas’ doubt, the disciples enabled him to experience resurrection. Christian tradition affirms that this doubter became a global traveler. Going as far as India, this theological evangelist was able to respond to the complexity of Hindu and Buddhist thinking with the message of spirit-centered resurrection.

Long ago, I experienced a “conversion” in reading Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. At the time, I was a “process” philosopher, but not yet a “process” Christian. I was still stuck in believing that Christianity was an “either-or” proposition – either I accepted the literalistic faith of my Baptist roots or I had to abandon Christianity as a belief system altogether. In reading Tillich and process theology, I discovered that Christianity was bigger than my doubts and that being a Christian involved the constant death and resurrection of images of God and myself. A dynamic, ever-breathing God inspired a dynamic, ever-growing faith.

Thomas’ bravery is rewarded. He encounters the Risen Christ, who is known not by his celestial perfection but his earthly wounds. This is good news for Easter Christians and for those who live with pain and doubt. God is present in pain, doubt, suffering, and imperfection. The resurrection and the gift of holy breath does not “perfect” us but enables us to experience spirit-centered and resurrection living in the midst of the challenges of personal and global death.

Resurrection and God-breathed living brings new power to our lives. While few of us would claim Jesus’ promise to his disciples – “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” – we can claim that God is giving us the wisdom, energy, creativity, and authority to enact resurrection and Pentecost in acts of healing, wholeness, and transformation. This may mean “convicting” our nation and its values and leadership for our violence and our disregard of poverty, starvation, global warming, and economic uncertainty. It may also mean standing for life as “God-breathers” in our world, exhaling hope, spiritual vitality, and relational healing. What would happen if the God who breathes in us calls us to “spiritually resuscitate” persons in our congregations and in the world? We are called, in the words of Wendell Berry, to “practice resurrection” by “breathing God’s presence” – embracing and sharing it with the life-giving power of the Easter Christ.

Psalm 16 complements the Gospel reading with its prayerful request, “show us the path of life.” Teach us to breathe, to live with doubt, to expect more than we can imagine, and to claim our place as God’s healing partners. For each person and congregation, the “path of life” is somewhat unique, but in all cases, God’s path calls us to “practice” holy breathing through the ongoing interplay of contemplation and action, of theology and practice, of hospitality and self-affirmation.

While it is important to breathe in the transformational life of Easter, the words of Acts may be the focus of some sermons. We need to claim the possibility of becoming God’s partners in “deeds of power, wonders, and signs” without assuming we fully know God’s intentions or that our congregations are the only places where divine activity and truth is to be found. Sadly, the opposite is often the case in mainstream and progressive churches, insofar as we are too humble in our expectations of divine revelation and power in our churches. Acts 2 invites us to be bold in our prayers and in our actions – to breathe deeply God’s spirit and then move ahead under the guidance and energy of God’s lively spirit-wind.

We do not need to claim divine “foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23) in order to be faithful. Perhaps, the recognition that God breathes in us is sufficient for personal transformation insofar as it calls us to be God’s partners in an unfinished world in which our faithfulness truly makes a difference. The fact that the world is “open” and the future “to be written” by God and ourselves inspires us to acts of resurrection hospitality and power. Like Thomas, we do not need to “see” the Risen Christ (I Peter 1:8) in order to be faithful in our doubts and our affirmations. We can rejoice because, in ways we can’t imagine, the lively and freely moving Spirit moves through our lives, reviving and restoring us, even when we are unaware of it.

Let everything inhale the power of God’s Spirit!  Let Jesus breath in you!

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.