19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” — John 20:19-23
I started running competitively in high school. Although I had been running for conditioning for sports I played through my whole life this was the first time in my life that running was the sport…and I was in bad shape. I remember my coach did tests on each of us at the beginning of each year to determine where our growth needed to happen, and I remember the first year he tested me he told me that I ran like I was playing baseball. In that my body worked in short bursts of energy that were hard to sustain over long periods of time, and at the heart of this was my breath. He mentioned that most of my problems did not lie in my strength or conditioning…I was good there. Rather it was the manner in which I controlled my breath to allow proper blood flow to my legs while I was running over long distances. My breathing would be so sporadic he could tell how it was affecting my stride. As I learned then and as I continue to live into now the way I control my breathing when I run is crucial to being able to last over the long distances.
Not just in running, but in life…proper breath control is essential. If I stop breathing for a short amount of time I can cause damage to myself, or if my breathing is irregular it can signal a problem with my system, and if I stop breathing altogether…then I have no life.
That is why I love verse 22 in this passage. The Gospel writer writes,
“When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22)
Breath has connected us to life since the very beginning. In Genesis we hear of the Breath of God was over all creation and the breath of life that comes from God to humans. In Ezekiel we hear of the Breath of God bringing life to the valley of dry bones. And here in John Jesus breathes on his disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit. Breath is connected to every part of our being. Breath is not only the very essence of our lives, but it is the very essence of our ministry we have in Christ. It is the reception of the Spirit.
We are in this season of Easter, yes that’s right Easter is not over. Over the next six weeks we will be examining the life of the resurrected Christ. In these first three weeks we will be awakening ourselves to our tasks. To our ministry, to the table, and to our baptism. In this part of the series we are looking at how we are awakened by Christ to the work of the Holy Spirit that lays before us at Pentecost. This is not only encapsulated in this breath of life, but in the breath of the Spirit that Christ ushers in for the disciples at this moment.
Today we look at our awakening to ministry. This breath Jesus gives to the disciples is meant to awaken them to the ministry that he is calling them to do in their lives. Our scripture today follows our scripture from last week, and this is the first appearance Jesus makes to his disciples after he is resurrected in the Gospel of John. Jesus has already given them many of his final instructions, but this time after the resurrection serves as a reminder for Jesus followers of what lays ahead for them once Christ ascends and they receive the Spirit. This is not just an anointing of the Spirit but the disciples are given instructions as well. As we consider the manner in which Jesus is awakening the disciples, and us for that matter, for ministry we must ask one question first.
What is the ministry of Christ? What is Christ calling us to?
The answer to this can be found in the verses surrounding 22. We read,
“Jesus said to them again, ‘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. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:21-23)
The central theme of our ministry is peace. Through peace we live into who Christ was and therefore into who Christ calls us to be, and this peace is embodied not just in Christ’s life but in his death and resurrection as well. And often times in spite of his death. Cameron Murchison of Columbia Seminary in Atlanta, GA writes,
“For the one who offers the words of peace is the very one who has endured the brunt of that chaos and hatred, yet now stands in their midst—risen, indeed!’ (Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 1 p. 396, TP)
Based on how he was treated Christ has all the right to not only withhold peace, but to encourage his followers to do the same as well. However, less than a day after his resurrection we here Christ not just offering peace to his disciples, but encouraging them to give it as well.
Christ is setting the precedent and awakening his disciples to the true nature of ministry for those who will receive the Spirit. Jesus is sending his disciples, and us, into the world not in retribution for his death, but in the same peace which he lived by in his life.
This continues to be an odd understanding. At this same time in history as the death and resurrection of Christ there was also an era occurring known as Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. However, the ideologies of this time tended to be less than peaceful. It was not as much a peace through love, but a peace through strength. They flexed their military power and often even used their military to continue peace in certain regions. I myself have a hard time considering it a time of peace when the only people who considered it peaceful were the Romans and they considered it peaceful because of how powerful there rule was over others. This type of understanding of peace through strength continues today, but is it really the peace Christ calls us to live?
The peace that Christ calls us to is a peace that has no understanding of retaliation. It has no understanding of strength in the manner we think of it, but the strength of the peace Christ gives to us and calls us to is the love that flows through. Examine how Christ shows us the example of peace lies in the spreading of forgiveness. When we gather together we are called to share the peace of Christ with one another, and when we leave this space we are called to share that same peace of Christ with the world.
We live into a ministry of Christian Discipleship. To live into this ministry means looking at the whole world as the children of God, even if they may not act like sometimes. It is about looking on creation and instead of reacting out of strength we react out of love. Our first response should never be a retaliation, but our reactions should be to forgive. Jesus says to his disciples,
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21b)
How then are we awakened to ministry?
Through the forgiveness of sins by Christ, and with reception of the Holy Spirit in our lives we seek to forgive others and live into the peace Christ gives us. It is Christ’s breath that begins this for us…the very breath of God, and just like when I run I must have proper breath control to continue to move forward, just like in life when I have to breath normally in order to be well, we must continue to feel the breath of Christ in our ministry. Our awakening and continued life in ministry is drawn for the breath of Christ and reception of the Holy Spirit. It is through Christ’s breath that we receive the Spirit and we are awakened to our ministerial life, and through both that we continue on in that ministry as well.