"Breath of Life" Sermon on John 20:19-30 by Joe Ellis — April 11, 2021
This is where the disciples are when we meet them in this passage. They are adrift. Confused. They’ve locked themselves behind closed doors. They are afraid. Yes, they have heard some strange stories from the Mary’s about seeing Jesus, but as you can tell from this passage, that wasn’t enough to even remotely grasp the joy of the resurrection. John’s Gospel says, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with doors locked, for fear of the Jews.” Try and get a sense of the heaviness that the disciples would be feeling, not just that evening, but ever since they saw Jesus taken away, placed on trial, scourged, nailed, hung and buried. Likely, it was only after the burial that the trauma began to set in. That’s what it was — trauma. The disciples were not just sad and disappointed — they must have been traumatized. They had just witnessed their friend, teacher, rabbi and Lord brutally executed. Maybe some of them were plagued by images of their friend dying over and over and over. Maybe they kept hearing his voice cry out. Maybe some of them simply shut down and lost track of time — In any case, that Easter night, they sat together, doors locked for fear. It’s in that place when you can begin to feel apneic, like you can’t breathe. Like you are under water and desperately want to come up for air.
That’s the context the risen Jesus appears, stands among them and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and his feet. Again, Jesus says, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathes into them.” Let’s focus on this breath. A few moments earlier we were talking about finding ways to come up for air. In normal life we can do this in all sorts of ways — reading a good novel, going for a run, watching a comedy, receiving a hug, sharing our heart with a good friend. However, the deeper a person plunges into the waters of despair, heartache, depression, hopelessness — the stronger the intervention needs to be. The harder it can be to pull this person to the surface. Sometimes it feels as though you have to dive so deep to reach your friend, and when you find them sometimes you have to kick the water so hard to help them to the surface. Sometimes, a person can be underwater so long that they can’t breathe on their own. Sometimes they need somebody to breathe for them. For me, this is the picture of what Jesus does for the disciples. He places his mouth on their mouth and he breathes into them. Being near dead. Having been utterly traumatized by Good Friday, Jesus comes and breathes into them His Spirit. He gives them the breath they need to live.
This is what God does. He gives us breath to live. We first saw this happen when God formed Adam from a lump of clay from the Earth. Adam would have remained a lump of clay until God breathed His Spirit into Adam and he became living flesh. Genesis 2 says: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
God not only does this to bring us to life, he does this to bring people back from death. Remember when Ezekiel was in the Valley of Dry Bones — the Lord had taken Ezekiel to a valley of bleached white bones — the bones symbolized the state of his nation, his brothers and sisters. God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” And so the Lord commands Ezekiel to say to the bones: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” Without God’s breath, we are dead. So Ezekiel says, “I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet — a vast army.”
Do you think that’s how God raised Jesus from the dead? Do you think the Spirit of God entered into that tomb, entered the lungs of Christ, and gave Him life? Maybe.
This breath has for me become an image of Easter Hope. For me, who has lately felt so out of breath, it offers hope of the restoring life giving breath of Christ to come and fill my lungs. This passage offers hope that as we find ourselves deep under water — unable to breathe as perhaps like the disciples, Christ will come and say, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit” — and then He will give us the gift of His Spirit/breath filling our lungs and we feel as though we can keep living.
This is such a beautiful image of Easter hope — and perhaps when we finally lose our breath, when we’ve breathed our last, when we think all is over, we will be awakened once again with the breath of Christ filling our lungs and we will rise from the dead.
The challenge is when we’ve felt out of breath for quite some time. When we have felt under water and Christ breath doesn’t seem to be reaching us. The challenge comes when we feel submerged and this would be the perfect time for Christ to appear and say, “Peace be with you, receive the Holy Spirit.” What do we do when His breath seems to take its time in coming?
The story of Thomas helps answer that question — but before going there let’s acknowledge that often the Breath does come. Sometimes it feels like small sips of breath — the sun breaking through the clouds, a friend holding your hand, your pet crawling into your lap, a Word of Scripture speaks with unusual power during your devotional time — these times, often unlooked for, can be times when God breaks through our reality, says “Peace be with you” and gives us breath. When these happen, take note, the Presence of God is with you, let’s not take it for granted, let’s not move on too quickly when His breath comes.
Sometimes the breath of God doesn’t seem to come. What then? Let’s look at the next part of the story, the part about Thomas. Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus came the first time. He didn’t get the breath. When he heard the disciples say, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas infamously replies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” He’s been called Doubting Thomas. That’s not fair. Why can’t we call him Grieving Thomas, Traumatized Thomas, or Deeply Shaken From Seeing His Friend and Rabbi Brutalized Before His Very Eyes Thomas? In Thomas, we see how difficult it is to just set aside the brutal realities that we have seen and experienced. We resonate with Thomas in just how hard it is to see this world with the eyes of faith after having been blindsided when we thought we had the right of way. What Thomas had experienced on Good Friday was too powerful. His traumatic memories were far too present to be changed simply by hearing his friends say, “He is risen.”
But Jesus appears. He says — “Peace be with you.” Notice that Jesus always comes with peace. Then Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” The text doesn’t say this explicitly, but there is the deep implication that Thomas in fact does insert his finger into the pierced side of Jesus. That Thomas does put his fingers through Christ’s wounded hand. Jesus then says, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The first level of interpretation on this passage is simply, “Stop doubting and believe that I have risen from the dead.” Believing that Jesus has risen from the dead is only half of what must be believed. Remember, the reason why Thomas refused to believe the disciples was because he was so traumatized by what he had seen. He saw the torn, lacerated body of Christ. He saw him spit up blood. He saw the whites of his friend’s eyes as they rolled back. He saw the water and blood pour from his side. He heard his ragged, shallow, watery breaths as the work of crucifixion slowly suffocated him. The challenge for Thomas to stop doubting and believe goes deeper than believing that Christ is somehow now alive. Thomas becomes present to the challenge to believe as he stands there with his fingers in the side of Jesus, perhaps feeling the Jesus’ lungs rise and fall with his breath. In that moment, Thomas was challenged to believe that God works through the trauma. Resurrection is not simply about a pretty little reset, making it as though bad things never happened. If that’s what resurrection was, then Jesus would not still have the wounds in his hand or side. He would not have made such a point of showing the disciples his wounds, and having Thomas put his finger into those wounds. If resurrection was a reset, Jesus would have appeared complete and whole — without a scratch on Him. That’s not what happened. The first thing Jesus does, after giving the disciples his peace, is to show them his wounds. Jesus had Thomas insert his finger into his side to underscore the point that God brings life through trauma. Not in spite of trauma, but through trauma. Isaiah puts in this way, “By his wounds we are healed.” This is not to crassly say, “All things happen for a reason” as if life is like a bunch of dominoes where some bad things need to happen in order for something good to happen. This is also not anywhere close to saying that somehow that trauma is good. It is always evil, horrendous. But somehow Resurrection faith is trust that God brings life through trauma, loss, sorrow, grief and death. Resurrection faith is trust that those very traumas and losses and sorrows and griefs and deaths somehow become seeds for life when they are in God’s hand.
Now is when we go back to that question — why doesn’t Christ’s life giving breath always come when we want it? When we feel like we are drowning. Why is it that sometimes we become mired in trauma, loss, grief, sorrow and death without a sense of relief? Because we are resurrection people, and resurrection means you must walk through the valley of death. Remember earlier when Jesus said to the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” The disciples are hearing these words after the Father has sent Jesus to be lifted up on the cross. They must have heard those words with a mixed reaction. Jesus sends them and us into the world with all its griefs, and traumas, and losses and death — and he challenges in the midst of it all to have faith in the resurrection.
And so Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Believed in what? Yes, believed that Jesus has risen from the dead — but this requires believing that God redeems grief and trauma, loss, sorrow and death — God redeems this brokenness into life. That’s the challenge of faith. To hold fast to resurrection hope during the storm, when we’ve capsized and been thrown under water. The challenge of resurrection faith is to hold onto that faith as you feel your lungs screaming for breath. To hold onto that hope as you feel life ebbing away. To hold onto that belief as you drift towards death. The challenge is to believe that this too is not beyond the resurrection power of God. The challenge is to believe that, as Paul says in Ephesians, the same resurrection power is at work in us that was at work in Christ on Easter morning. The same breath will revive our lungs that revived His. So, when we find ourselves like Peter sinking into the water and crying out “Lord save me,” we know the end of the story — as we keep sinking we know we will breathe once again. And as His breath gives us life, he will greet us with these gentle, comforting words: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Why did you doubt the power of resurrection?
We will all die. Unless Christ returns in our lifetime, we will all die. We will all experience the sinking, breathlessness from which there is no earthly hope of return. Some of us will die peacefully, some traumatically. Yet we will all be awakened with the breath of Christ — our suffering will be transformed as we are greeted with these words: “Peace be with you.”