‘The doors of the house where the disciples met were locked for fear of the Jews’. Those early disciples were a pretty terrified bunch. Even as the possibility that Jesus could be alive was dawning on them, they remained uncertain, afraid of being arrested and killed. It seems to me likely that they met secretly for a long time. The texts of the New Testament compress what was probably a lengthy process, into the shorter units of symbolic time. But whether these things happened over a few hours and days, or many years hardly matters. What matters is that a change occurred and a new beginning became possible...
The thing is, locked doors don’t make a lot of difference to the risen Christ. As we see in this story, Christ appears in spite of them. Now this is not to say that Christ ever intrudes on our personal space and choice. If we want to remain in our locked rooms, Christ will respect that. But my experience is that if we allow even a chink of openness God can use even that chink to bring healing and new creation to the locked rooms of our lives.
So it is in today’s story, that the risen Christ stands among his friends and says ‘peace’, - that lovely word Shalom, that in Hebrew carries all the deeper meanings of wholeness and spaciousness- ‘let’s bring a little space into these cramped quarters’, he says. Then identifying himself to them by the wounds in his hands and side, those portals and passageways to the new, ‘he breathed on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. This is John’s version of Pentecost, with fewer bells and whistles than Luke's version for which we will have to wait for the fifty days of Easter. The wounds are wonderful, gateways to the divine - but today I want to think about the breathing.
First breath and last breath are the brackets that enfold our earthly lives. In the second account of creation in Genesis 2 God breathes into Adam the breath of life. Now the name Adam of course means earth, and in that story God shapes the first human being from the dust of the earth, so that when he receives the gift of breath, he becomes the first ‘earthling’. In our big Judaeo- Christian story, we earthlings are shaped from the dust, that we now know is stardust, and given life by the breath of God. Breath, like God, is essential to our being, and indeed it has been suggested that one of the early names for God, Jahweh, a name that in Hebrew has no consonants, actually mimics the sound of breathing - Jah……weh….Jah……weh……hear it? To say that name over and over with your breath is a lovely way to pray and remember our oneness with God who is the breath enlivening all things.
Breath was certainly something that the disciples needed. Their whole lives had been shattered and turned upside down, and the aching of their hearts for Jesus must have made it hard for them to breathe. So Jesus breathes on them, and the breath of the beloved, the breath of the creator sparks a new creation. As Jan Richardson puts it, ‘more than any words could have done, this breath comes as gift, as grace: Christ’s own breath that will enable them to keep living, to keep breathing, to proclaim the astonishing news of the risen Christ, and to be his body in the world.’
The writer of John’s gospel is always very precise in the words that he chooses and very particular about the time frame that he assigns to particular events in his narrative. So when he writes, ‘when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week’, he’s not just reporting. He is making an important theological statement. In Jewish thinking, the seventh day, the sabbath was the day of rest, when God rested after creating the world. The next day, the first day of the week, and the eighth day of creation, is for a wholly new creation and by evening time that creation is almost complete. The resurrection of Christ and the giving of the spirit, signal for John that a wholly new beginning has been made.
So when is this day for us? Yes, it is back at the beginning of the Christian story on the first Easter Day. But it is also every day when we choose to receive the Spirit, to breathe with Christ, to let go of the past and to dare to begin again. Notice even in this how respectful Christ is, ‘if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any (including yourself) they are retained’. In other words, we can choose to hold on, to lock the doors, to only go so far; or we can allow the Spirit of Christ to breathe us into openness, each day a little more, as with every moment we choose to begin again.
So in a moment Jackie is going to make just such a new beginning as she offers herself for baptism. May we with her, dare to breathe and begin and allow the locked doors to fly open.
So let’s just pause for a moment to pray for her and for one another as this new journey begins……………In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.
Penny Jones, for Easter 2 Year B, Sunday 8 April 2018