Breathe Out… Breathe In

Sermon preached for Easter 2 on Sunday 11th April 2021 based on readings Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-end

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Are you sitting comfortably…

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out.

I’ve recently started using an app on my phone which teaches basic meditation as a way of slowing down a little and making space for quietness from time to time.

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out.

The first thing it makes you do, apart from sitting comfortably is to focus on your breathing and suddenly you realise that you’re consciously thinking about something that you subconsciously have done all your life.

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out.

You find yourself with your hand on your diaphragm, trying to make sure that your stomach and abdominal muscles are fully engaged to make your lungs work more efficiently – and it’s then you begin to think that you’ve actually forgotten how to breathe…

Yet breathing is the thing that keeps us alive: it’s the reaction to the proverbial slap on the bottom by the midwife when we are born; it’s the air passing through our larynx to give us speech and laughter. It’s also the last thing we will do when we face the end of our mortal life. Breathing is a natural and necessary part of creation, but it is also a means by which God imparts his Spirit.

Throughout the bible we hear how the breath of God enlivens and invigorates. From the second account of creation in Genesis,

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’
Genesis 2:7

to the quickening of the dry bones and Ezekiel’s prophetic command to the four winds,

So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies.
They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army’
Ezekiel 37:10

However, in our gospel reading this morning we hear that the risen Christ comes and stands among his amazed and probably terrified disciples and breathes on them both as a soothing and galvanising action, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

He then says something that seems a little disjointed in verse 23, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ However, there is a connection.

In Greek there are many different words for breathe, but two of them appear just four times in the gospels and all of them are an action of Jesus and all of them are connected to the Holy Spirit.

At the crucifixion scene, Mark tells us that Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last, and that the Centurion witnessed that in this way he breathed his last; whilst Luke tells us that it was after committing himself into this Father’s hands, that Jesus breathed his last. In all of these verses the Greek work for breathed is ekpnéo meaning to expire, to breathe out, to exhale.

However, Matthew’s account doesn’t mention breathing, he has Jesus crying out with a loud voice before yielding up his spirit, using the Greek word aphiēmi, for yield, which has a number of meanings but most commonly means to forgive. Luke also uses this word just before Jesus’ last breath when he tells us that Jesus says,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Luke 23:34

We could reasonably surmise that Luke and Matthew are connecting the breathing out of the Spirit with the forgiveness that Jesus gave. So, Jesus forgave us and breathed out the Holy Spirit on the cross.

But let’s go back to that locked room and the next time that breathed is mentioned in the gospels. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ However, breathed here is a different Greek word emphysáō , which means to breathe into, breathe on, or blow in and echoes the action of God in the story of creation. Jesus breathed out his Spirit on the cross. But here he is breathing out his Spirit onto the disciples, because he is sending them as the Father sent him, to bring life and peace to everyone by forgiveness of their sins.

This then is the purpose of the Holy Spirit, to provide life, to energise and to activate. Just like those disciples gathered together, they had now received the Spirit and were being transformed into a people who sought to live and work for the common good, who valued forgiveness as an essential grace and who through the Spirit gave their testimony with great power, no longer afraid and no longer doubting.

What then of Thomas? The absentee disciple, whose doubt would not be satisfied unless he had physical proof and who did not at this time receive the breath of the Spirit. For him the sense of touch activated his belief, but he too would go on to receive the Spirit at Pentecost.

What then do we need to believe? There’s a wonderful verse in the Book of Job,

But there is a spirit within people,
the breath of the Almighty within them,
that makes them intelligent
Job 32:8

This does not necessarily mean academic or clever, but more intuitive. Life is breathed into us at the moment of conception but there is an unconscious desire to understand what it means to be fully human.

When we encounter Jesus, whether through our baptism, a gradual awareness or a seismic moment of conversion it is then that the Spirit within us is activated and becomes a living breathing force that blesses us and sends us out to bless and bring life, peace and forgiveness to others.

Jesus breathed out his Spirit on the cross. But, after the resurrection, Jesus breathes his Spirit into us. So, it’s worth getting that breathing correct

Breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…breathe out           

Amen

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