take this breath

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I posted. Part of the reason is we have been in the throes of selling our house in Durham and buying a different house there and also dealing with Lizzy!’s recovery from her surgery to remove her eyes. Along with that I have been dealing with some sort of GI issue that has yet to be identified but has sapped my energy. All of that to say thanks for your patience and here is this week’s sermon based on John 20:19-29, verses that tell the story of Jesus’ first encounters with the disciples after his resurrection.

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I’ve always liked Thomas.

I like him because he is himself. He is honest about what is going on inside him. He must have felt like the poster boy for the Fear of Missing Out when he found out that Jesus showed up the one time he wasn’t in the room. The last time they had seen Jesus, he was dead. Now they were telling him Jesus was alive and they had seen him.

And he said, “Yeah—I’m going to need to see that for myself. I need to touch him if it’s going to feel real.”

The brevity of the gospel account doesn’t tell us if the others tried to talk him into trusting them, or if the castigated him for being a bit skeptical, but somewhere along the line he became “doubting Thomas” and the name stuck. For many, that’s the only way they know him.

But Thomas wasn’t questioning the theological underpinnings of the Resurrection; this wasn’t an intellectual exercise. The one to whom he had devoted his life had been killed—that was real—now he was being told he was alive again and doing fantastical things, and so he said, “Yeah, I’m going to have to see that for myself.”

Eight days later, they were all together and Jesus showed up again.

One of the things that is interesting is that it seems Jesus wasn’t with the disciples constantly after the Resurrection. The stories in the Gospels that precede the Crucifixion make it seem as though Jesus and his followers almost lived together. Yet over a week went by before they had contact with him. Once again, the gospel account doesn’t tell us anything about how either Jesus or the disciples spent that time. We don’t know if the others kept riding Thomas, or if they knew where Jesus was, or if they knew they would even see him again.

And then he showed up in the same room specifically, it seems, to present his wounds to Thomas. Jesus didn’t reprimand him or correct him, he just said, “Go ahead and touch me. Do whatever it takes to trust I’m really here.”

And Thomas exclaimed, “My Christ and my God.”

Like I said, I like Thomas.

But I want to back up for a moment and look at the encounter that took place without him because it seems Thomas was not so different from the others, and I’m not sure Thomas is the center of the real story in these verses.

It all took place in the evening of the day the women had found the empty tomb. In John’s account, Mary Magdelene was the only one who had seen Jesus, and they had not believed her. They had not gathered to celebrate; they were scared to death. They were hiding in a locked room when Jesus appeared among them and offered peace.

Well, that’s the way it’s translated, but poet Pádraig Ó Tuama points out that shalom is the way Hebrew people said “Hello,” much like they do today in Israel. In Arab countries they say, “Salaam.” Jesus appeared and said, “Hello.” And then, the gospel says, he “breathed on them,” which seems like an odd detail, but from what I learned this week it is the essential moment of the story.

In her new translation of the Gospels, translator Sarah Ruden that it was a folk ritual of the time to take in the last breath of a dying person in to your own mouth. When I told Ginger about it, she remembered working with a woman whose husband had died. She found a beach ball in the attic that he had blown up at the beach the previous summer and realized it was still his breath inside.

Jesus seems to have reversed the ritual. Ruden translates the verse to read, “He puffed air into them,” and then goes on to point out that the verb is the same for playing the flute.

It makes me think of how many Sunday mornings we have been moved by Valerie’s beautiful offerings with her flute and the way she can turn a piece of pipe into an instrument just by breathing into it.

Perhaps that is what inspired St. Francis to pray, “Make me an instrument of your peace.”

And then Jesus said the words about forgiveness depending on them, which feels like another way of saying that the only way anyone else will catch the melody is if you breathe it into them as well.

And then Jesus came back for Thomas, not because Thomas was a special case as much as to demonstrate how the melody of love and trust gets passed along. Jesus forgave Thomas for his fear, as he had done for the other disciples, and met him where he was.

“Go ahead and touch me.” And Thomas felt the breath of God flow through him as well. He was filled with the melody of love.

In Greek the word for breath also means spirit. Another way to think of the Holy Spirit is to think of the breath of God. The key verb in the Genesis story of creation is much the same in Hebrew: God breathed the universe into being.

At her church in Guilford, Ginger starts each service by inviting people to sit still and then to breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God. Breath is at the heart of our very being, on many levels it seems.

So let us practice for a moment and focus on our breathing.

Breathe in the breath of God.
Breathe out the love of God.

Feel the presence of God inside you, the melody of creation, the holy spirit that connects us all, and trust that we are instruments of peace. We can change the world by the way we breathe. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

PS — I can’t pass up the chance to point to this old gem.

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