Take a Breath – The Second Sunday of Easter – April 27, 2014
And Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That night, according to John’s Gospel, the disciples were still in hiding; they had heard the amazing story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter in the garden. They knew the tomb was empty, but still they were afraid and shocked. The past week had rocked their world, revealed their own cowardice, and robbed them of their beloved teacher, the most holy and noble person they’d ever met. They were still trying to catch their breath.
And then Jesus appears – out of nowhere, breaching the walls of uncertainty and fear, and showing himself to be alive. Defying death, embodied in ways that we cannot imagine, known by wounds but also light, love, and power.
Have you ever been short of breath? A few years ago, out of nowhere, I had what seemed like an unexpected anxiety attack that lasted two days – there were no precursors, no history – in fact, I thought I was immune from such events, given my commitment to spiritual practices, overall good health, and optimistic disposition. I tried to catch my breath – I wanted to take that great big deep breath that tells you everything’s alright. I was anxious and worried that this might go on forever. I sought medical attention and received a prescription for Ambien and Prozac. But, within a day or two, my breathing returned to normal. Perhaps, I was given a window into my brother’s lifelong and regular anxiety attacks, and though I was grateful for the new insight, I don’t want to repeat it.
Perhaps, that’s how the disciples felt – anxious, afraid, and wondering if they could ever breathe deeply and enjoy the pleasure of exhaling fully again.
And, then, in the midst of their anxiety, Jesus appears. We don’t have to argue about the mechanics of resurrection. Something amazing happened that defies both literalists – who believe the stories occurred exactly as written, despite the differences in each gospel account – or the biblical skeptics, who reduce resurrection to stress induced hallucinations, fabricated stories, or the quest for a corpse in a tomb. The gospels themselves recognize how amazing and incomprehensible resurrection is, and even allude to a rumor that Jesus’ body had been stolen from the tomb.
Resurrection requires a great imagination and perhaps a greater faith. But, in a world described by physicists and cosmologists that originates from an energy event – the big bang – so small we can’t see it with the naked eye, surely resurrections are possible. As C.S. Lewis says, there is a Deeper Magic in the universe that reverses death and brings forth life in the midst of hopelessness.
Jesus appears to the disciples, the women and men, and breathes on them. Take a moment to breathe…….
Some scientists suggest that we actually breathe the particles of the ancients – they are still present in minute – homeopathic doses, filling our lungs. Could we be breathing the same air that Jesus used to resuscitate his followers that night? Could Jesus be breathing in us right now, ready to give us all the power we need to be faithful in our time? Could God be ready to give us more than we can ask or imagine if we just take a breath?
Thomas missed this moment of spiritual resuscitation. He had heard the amazing stories and experienced the unexpected energy of his companions, but was still short of spiritual breath. He wanted to believe their tale, but he also wanted to be intellectually and spiritually honest. He wasn’t an unbeliever; he was a spiritual agnostic, trying to figure out what happened and willing to follow the evidence wherever it took him.
Thomas gets a terrible rap in Christian and non-Christian circles. How many times have you heard “Doubting Thomas” invoked as if questioning the most important things in life is somehow wrong and that blind faith is to be treasured? As theologian Paul Tillich proclaimed, doubt is an essential part of faith, and not a sign of unbelief. We don’t doubt unimportant things; they don’t matter enough to provoke intellectual or spiritual struggles. We have second thoughts about what is essential to our well-being and the well-being of those we love: the medical diagnosis and treatment plan, the nanny we hire to care for our children, the one with whom we fall in love, the everlasting future of ourselves and others, the relationship between our faith as Christians and the insights of scientists and persons of other religions.
Thomas was faithful: he didn’t run away even though he was left out of the celebration. You can imagine him wanting to believe and feel the certainty of the living Christ, but waiting for confirmation. He stuck around: once the author Madeleine L’Engle was asked by a college student, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” She responded, “I believe in God with all my doubts.”
We need more Thomases in our world: we need faithful agnosticism as an antidote to religious fanaticism, cult-like behaviors, and the polarization that characterizes our time. We need to be able to recognize the limits of our own faith and accept the possibility that others – those from different faiths and with whom we disagree politically or socially – may also have experienced a glimpse of truth as well.
When Thomas encounters the Risen Jesus, he is overwhelmed and embraces God’s resurrection love. He can breathe again, and from that living breath, an adventurer of faith emerges. In India, there is a movement two thousand years old of Thomas Christians. They base their faith on Thomas’ evangelistic journey to India and East. Perhaps, Thomas the agnostic was the only one with the intellectual and spiritual vigor and stature to share God’s good news in the religiously lively and pluralistic world of India. Perhaps, Thomas sat with Buddhist monks and Hindu yogis sharing his good news of the Risen Jesus, the healer and teacher who broke down barriers of caste, class, gender, and race, as he listened to them describe their spiritual journeys. Perhaps Jesus’ breath empowered Thomas on the long journeys that lay ahead for him.
Today, let us breathe deeply; let us open our hearts and minds to God’s wondrous resurrection love. Let us believe great things about ourselves, God, and this church’s future. Let us open to Jesus breathing in us, awakening us, and energizing us to breathe on others, giving life and spiritual resuscitation to those trying to catch their breaths, and sharing in God’s new life, more powerful than fear, anxiety, disease, and death.