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"The Gift of a Breath"

John’s account may not be as dramatic as Luke’s, but it is more intimate. He says Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”


[1] “Pyroclast” by Carol Aust
[1] “Pyroclast” by Carol Aust


John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15, 20:22

May 19, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


“Pentecost”, for most church folks, is almost exclusively linked to Acts 2. We have heard the story so many times, we know the images by heart: the gift of the Holy Spirit in flames of fire, a multitude of languages, and a church suddenly formed and thrust onto the world stage!


It is a powerful story … and our church has told it with passion and creativity. We have waved ribbons signifying our place in the crowd; we have watched as Amy painted the symbols on canvas; we have released balloons with our prayers on origami doves, and sent paper lanterns into a bright blue (and distressingly windy) sky to blow wherever they might go.


But the gospel of John has a different take on the moment.


John is often out of synch with the rest of the gospels. He has his own memories, his own sources, his own spin on the story of our Savior. He is more concerned with theology than chronology, so he places the Pentecostal moment, not 50 days after Easter, (as the name indicates), but on the day of resurrection!


 

It is the fulfillment of earlier promises. What is promised? The Holy Spirit. In fact, during his last night with his disciples, Jesus promises this glorious gift five times! Today’s lectionary readings include three of those promises.


The word John uses for the Holy Spirit is paraclete – Greek for “the one who comes alongside.” Karoline Lewis says the paraclete is like a first responder – “coming alongside [in moments of] acute need.”[2]


You may have seen EMTs at work – a calm (and calming) presence, stepping into the chaos when life and death hang in the balance, following a checklist to assess, stabilize, and treat. They know things you don’t know; they have seen things you haven’t (and don’t want to); and they are ready to do what your shaking hands and flowing tears will not allow you to do.


It’s not a bad image for the Holy Spirit. Especially for folks who feel lost and alone!


The disciples need someone to come alongside.


Like the picture on the cover of the bulletin, Jesus stands before them with bags packed and they can smell the smoke on his clothes, the acrid scent of all their dreams going up in flames!


The paraclete is his precious gift to them as their stomachs begin to churn with fear and grief as the immediacy of Jesus’ departure hits them. Jesus will not leave them alone.


But there is more. The paraclete will also show them how to testify – like John the Baptist and the Samaritan woman at the well – even when people resist and reject their testimony. The paraclete will affirm and confirm the disciples’ decision to follow Jesus by exposing the folly of those who do not believe the good news. And the paraclete will help them in the future to remember Jesus’ words and open their ears and hearts to receiving new messages from God.


 

John’s account may not be as dramatic as Luke’s, but it is more intimate. He says Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”


One scholar observes, “To breathe on someone, you have to be … very close to them.”[3] Jesus is close enough that they can feel the heat of his breath on their cheek, smell the lingering scent of sour wine from the cross, and see wounds that are still not yet scarred over.


It is as intimate and tender as the foot washing and John draws us into the circle to feel it.


 

It may not be fire and mighty wind, but according to John, it is life-giving breath.


It evokes the moment of creation when God formed the first human from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; it evokes the moment when dispirited, and scattered Israel was like a valley of dry bones and by the word of God they came together and the final touch was God blowing breath into them.


The disciples needed such a gift. We do too!


Maybe you have heard of breath prayers – something as simple as: breathe in saying “The Lord is my Shepherd;” breathe out saying, “I shall not want.”[4]


Simply breathing your prayers has been shown, according to medical studies, to reduce stress and enhance immune system functioning. What is true for us physically is also true for us spiritually. Consciously receiving God’s life-giving breath brings us new life and energy for the adventures that lie ahead.


No wonder John gives us this alternate version of Pentecost! He wants people, who are all too often lifeless and anxious, to experience the sensation of being fully alive, not because of an exercise regimen or a new medication, but because the Risen Lord has bestowed the gift of the Spirit!


 

So most years we will mark Pentecost using Acts 2, but every so often, it is good to hear John’s insight that our Savior is intimate, breath-close, and life-giving. We need this gift.



Empowered by the Risen Lord we will follow in his footsteps, not just by mimicking his powerful breath, but by bearing “unceasing witness to the Love of God in Jesus”[5]. Amen.


[1] “Pyroclast” by Carol Aust
[2] From her reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 5/19/24
[3] From James Howell’s commentary on John 20:19-23.
[5] This lovely phrase is from Gail O’Day’s reflection on the text in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume IX, page 848

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