Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31; Psalm 150
“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” Ps. 118:17
The radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, features advertisements for fictional products. One of my favorites is the slogan for Powdermilk Biscuits, which are purported to “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” I’m not entirely sure why, but I love the idea of biscuits possessing the power to revivify the virtues in shy or timid people. If only it were that easy!
In today’s readings, we learn that it is not old fashioned biscuits, but the Holy Spirit who energizes the virtues, giving the disciples the strength, specifically Christ’s strength, to get up and do what needs to be done.
So, to set the stage for today’s reading, it’s the afternoon of Easter, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John were at the tomb in the morning, and now ten of the remaining eleven disciples, fearing for their lives, sit in the upper room, hiding from the Judean authorities who had crucified Jesus.
Remember that nearly all of them had abandoned Jesus. John, alone among the men, remained with Jesus in his darkest hour. But the disciples problems began even before the terrible moment of Jesus’ death. As their friend and master wept in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples slept peacefully. As the temple authorities arrived to arrest Jesus, the disciples lashed out in zealous violence. Then, John tells us, only Simon Peter and himself followed Jesus to his trial. The others, apparently, turned tail and ran. And Peter denied Jesus three times. Courage doesn’t appear to be a strong virtue for the disciples.
Nor does belief. We know that Mary and John, upon finding the tomb empty, believe in Jesus’ resurrection. But Peter is unsure, as are the other disciples. Whatever mysterious events might have taken place at the tomb, it isn’t enough to steel them against the threat of Temple retribution. Rather, on the afternoon of Jesus’ resurrection, the primary disposition of the disciples is fight or flight.
Jesus returns to the upper room to find the disciples’ resolve in a sorry state. We could surely excuse Jesus if he had, say, rebuked the disciples for abandoning him, for their embarrassing lack of solidarity, for their faintheartedness and self-interestedness.
Instead, however, Jesus surprises my own self-righteous instincts by offering the eleven peace. “Peace be with you,” he says.
And he breathes on them.
What does this mean, this peace and this breath? What exactly has he offered them in this strange and remarkably intimate gesture?
In old testament texts, such Genesis 1, breath symbolizes spirit. God breathes into Adam the breath of life, and on the cross, Jesus breathes his last, giving up his ghost, as John puts it.
C. S. Lewis borrows this imagery wholesale in his Narnia series. Aslan breathes onto creatures that have been turned into statues giving them new life. He breathes on timid children, who then feel revivified. He breathes on sterile ground, and new life pops up through the crust. He breathes on old men, who sleep peacefully at last.
So too, In the upper room, the resurrected and very much alive Jesus breathes his spirit onto the disciples. Whereas on the cross this event signified his death, it signifies now a new kind of life. True, the resurrected Jesus can no longer die. But moreover, he is abundantly full of life. He is like the giant of Psalm 19, bursting forth to run his course.
And Jesus invites his disciples into this new life. He offers them the opportunity to bear his Spirit. The truly revolutionary thing here, is that Jesus can share his Spirit, that he wishes to do so, and that he bids his disciples to share it with others. The resurrected Jesus is no longer confined to one body, to one time, to one place. No, he is carried now far and wide by his followers who bear his Spirit. These followers are his witnesses.
A strange word, witness.
In the ancient world, the word for witness was the same word for martyr. Perhaps this is why John in the book of Revelation calls Jesus the first witness. He is the first to die in order to destroy death. Jesus’ faithful witness makes him the firstborn of the dead, which is John’s way of saying that Jesus is the first witness to new life, the new life of the Spirit.
In Acts 5, we find the disciples in a similar situation but behaving in a much different manner. Confronting adversity from the Temple again, they have now inhabited their role as witnesses. They explain to the Temple authorities that they are witnesses because they have Jesus’ Spirit. No longer hiding, they preach publicly that Christ was crucified and is now risen. In fact, they plan to keep obeying Christ because even though the temple authorities killed him, Jesus has defeated death. According to the disciples, Christ’s new life has won him all authority in heaven and on earth. So they will obey him, and not the high priest, they say. For Christ, the Lord of Life and Death, and no one else, has breathed his breath on them.
I think that today’s gospel message is a powerful reminder of the transformative obligation and transformative privilege involved in following Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit gives birth to a new kind of life, transforming the fearful disciplines into emboldened and courageous people who reflect Christ. The disciples’ courage isn’t their own, as if they could somehow whip themselves up some powder milk biscuits which would magically instill that courage in them.
Instead, it’s Christ’s courage; it’s the courage he showed in Gethsemane while they slept, and he prayed that the Father’s will and not his own desire to live should be done. It’s the courage of one who would lay down his life for his friends rather than slavishly hang on to it, principles and friends be damned. It’s the courage of one who loves and is willing to let that love for the other so permeate his existence that it changes the world.
It is this courage, this obedience, this love, this witness that is meant to become ours as we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, as we renew our baptismal vows, as we receive the Eucharist, and as we remember and celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Making Jesus’ courage our courage means carrying out Jesus’s own mission to the world, not by our own power. . . on our own, we end up in hiding just like the eleven. . . but by the power of the Spirit. For, just as Jesus gives us his mission, so too he breathes his spirit upon us.
Easter 2, 2016
St. David’s Episcopal Church