This month I have been preaching at a small congregation in The City, filling in for a friend who is on sabbatical. All last week I planned to rework a sermon for yesterday that I'd preached some years ago that reflected on the same text from the gospel of John that was one of the alternate readings suggested for Pentecost.
I had a very restless night sleeping on Saturday night. I felt like God was working on me. (Though I've never actually been to a chiropractor, I imagine it would feel quite a bit like that kind of work out--a realignment that's not particularly comfortable in the moment, but feels oh so better afterwards.)
I woke up at 6:00 a.m. Sunday and looked at the sermon I thought I was going to preach. All wrong. Instead, I preached the one that follows here. Whatever it's worth, it was the one I felt I was given.
John 20:18-23 and
Last Sunday, we read the texts in Scripture that were preparing Jesus’ followers for the time when they were no longer going to be able to enjoy Jesus’ physical presence with them anymore. In our readings last week, we got the sense that Jesus’ followers were gripped by fear; fear of the unknown, of the threat, maybe, of violence, fear of loss.
“How can we go on?” the disciples seem to ask, “Without the one that we love?”
But Jesus replies, in some ways to their unvoiced questions more than the ones they actually ask, that the Spirit will come and give them power so that they might become his witnesses on earth.
It is the coming of this Spirit that we read about in this morning’s scripture. The story we might be most familiar with is the one that appears in Luke’s account, in the books of Acts. The Sprit comes upon the gathered followers with the sound of a loud wind rushing over them. It is an overwhelming presence, even described by Luke as a violent one.
There is no mistaking that something has happened to the gathered followers: they have experienced the radical freedom of the presence of the Spirit in their midst, which has loosened their tongues, broken down barriers, set them apart from those who would scoff at them, and truly empowered them to go out, as Jesus had assured them they would, to become witnesses of Jesus’ on earth. This is the more familiar of the Pentecost stories—often referred to as the birthday of the church, when the Spirit that had once hovered over the waters before creation, now sweeps over a bedraggled group of followers and brings something yet again into being: this time an empowered community of witnesses of God’s astounding love.
But the text I felt more drawn to this morning is a much quieter Pentecost. This one happens so gently, comes to Jesus’ frightened disciples so peacefully, that it can almost be missed entirely. This is the Pentecost of the Gospel of John.
Once again, we encounter Jesus’ followers huddled together with their seemingly ever-present companion: Fear. This scene takes place in the upper room, on the evening of the resurrection. And the disciples have locked themselves in their room in fear. Their beloved leader had been killed only days before. And though Mary had come to the disciples that very morning to tell them she had seen the Risen Christ, still they sought out the comfort of close quarters, and the reassurance of locked doors.
One of the most astounding things about Scripture, I believe, is the extent to which it invites us into a profound confrontation with our own selves. It is so often the case, with Scripture, that when we’re able to hoist ourselves over all the centuries that have passed between these ancient texts and our contemporary lives—we are brought into an encounter with our own soul’s condition. There is no other place that this seems more evident than in the reactions and questions posed by the disciples. While we might find it easy, at first, to laugh at all of their blunderings and missteps, when we are truly honest with ourselves, we have to admit that their mistakes graciously illuminate our own.We know fear. We know the tendency to lock ourselves away from those who wish to do us harm. We know self-protection. We know how to close ourselves off from experiencing the presence of God’s extravagant love. We know how to shut out the world with all it’s horrors, brokenness, despair, and disappointments.
There is only so much we can take. This past week, as the horrors have unfolded in Burma, it is more than we can take in. How can we, really? The loss of life from natural disaster alone is unfathomable. But it is compounded unbearably by the inexplicable, inhumanity of corrupt government officials who leave people to die even as they seize the humanitarian aid sent by outsiders.
In the face of such overwhelming grief and horrific brokenness, if we’re honest, I think there is at least some part of ourselves that wants to lock ourselves away: protect ourselves from feeling the pain that is surrounding us.
Many of our churches will gather for worship this morning in just this way, don’t you think? Cloistered from the pain of this past week (whether in a global sense or in a personal sense), sometimes our worship takes place in rooms that are securely locked away from the reality of our lives for fear of the pain we all too often encounter there.
But here is the good news: We cannot lock away the Spirit of God. Because it is through our most hidden-away, locked-up places that the Spirit desires to move. It is to the most broken, horrific, grief-filled moments that the Spirit is drawn. The Spirit does not know separation or boundaries, but moves freely into them, always with the desire to reconcile, to draw out our wholeness for the healing of the world.
The followers of Christ locked themselves away in fear, but the Risen One entered the room. It is a divine breaking-and-entering, if you will. And, unlike the violent coming of the Spirit as we read about it in Acts this morning, in this account the Risen One stands in their midst and reassures the fearful ones: “Peace be with you.”
Then he shows them his wounds. And the disciples, John tells us, rejoice as they recognize Jesus for who he is. They rejoice when they see the evidence of his wounds. Why do they rejoice?
Well, maybe it is this: when we see the Wounded/Risen One, we see a few things:
First, we see the worst that can be done to any human being by other human beings. Second, we see the Divine One who did not self-protect, but willingly entered into the brokenness of the world. And finally, we see that brokenness is not the final word. Despair, abandonment, military might, betrayal, even death: none of these is the final word.
Again, Jesus says to his followers, “Peace be with you.” And I like to think that just as God spoke the world into being with commands as simple as “Let there be light,” so in the same way, Jesus spoke Peace into being with this simple phrase: "Peace be with you.”
And in doing so, the room that had once been close and humid with fear is now flooded with peace. It is in the reality of that saturating peacefulness that Jesus, the Wounded/Risen One, tells his followers what is expected of them: he sends his followers out of the room and into the world in the same way that he had himself been sent. In the same way, we must be reminded,
that wounded him so.
And it is at this point that we come to John’s depiction of the Pentecost—of the gifting of the Spirit to the bedraggled, beleaguered community of followers.
Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them: Receive the Holy Spirit.
No tongues of fire. No violent wind. Just a breath.
John writes this as if it were a single moment, but I can't help but wonder if it actually happened over and over again. Jesus breathing on each disciple one by one. Much in the same way that we passed the peace this morning: a singular encounter, each one of us with another, coming in close enough to each other that we can feel each other’s breath.
In the same way, I imagine Jesus drawing each one of his followers close to him, in a warm embrace, close enough that they can feel the gentle breath of the Spirit move across their faces:
Receive the Holy Spirit.
Receive the Holy Spirit.
Receive the Holy Spirit.
Receive the Holy Spirit.
The first step in opening ourselves to the pain in the world and in our own lives is to open ourselves to God’s love for us.
That love comes in many forms—sometimes in dramatic, unmistakable ways. And sometimes in the most intimate, gentle, and almost miss-able ways: a breath.
Despair, fear, abandonment and betrayal are not the final words. But what are the final words? In John’s Pentecost, they are these: Peace; I send you; Receive the Holy Spirt; And, finally, forgive.
This is the message of Pentecost. This is the message that birthed the church. This is the mission at our center. No matter how many times we forget it or how many times our sisters and brothers in faith forget it, it doesn’t essentially change: Peace, Go, Receive, Forgive. The outpouring of God’s love for God’s broken creation never ceases, never stops pouring itself out. Never stops breathing into the hidden-away, locked-up, broken places. Never stops inviting us out into a world we think we can’t face.
We can face it because we have received all that we need. When we look at one another in love
even in all our Wounded/Wholeness we know this to be true: We have all that we need.