Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
“Breath of God”
In the words of Henri Nouwen,
When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” We are seldom aware of our breathing. It is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”
The death of Jesus for those who loved him and saw him die, was a terrible agonizing event. On the first day of the week, when Jesus came into their presence fear had already gripped the followers of Jesus. The disciples saw firsthand the brutality of the Romans as they witnessed the torture and death of Jesus. In addition, the memory of the 2000 Jews that were crucified by the Romans during a rebellion following Herod the Great’s death was a fear that could not be removed.
Fear is a gripping force. Probably my most intense feeling of fear was when I was on a B-52 bombing mission where Surface to Air Missiles were being lofted toward our aircraft. I was sitting in the dark at the bombing station trying to discern the exact point where I was to release the bombs. The pilots were upstairs looking out the cockpit windows seeing the trails of the missiles and seeing the explosions of the anti-air flack close to our aircraft. The co-pilot was giving a narrative of what he saw. First, he said a missile was coming to our level and getting closer then he declared that he lost it below the aircraft. Just about that time a loud explosion shook the aircraft, and I was convinced that we were hit! I said to the crew member next to me, “Prepare to eject!” But we were not hit and my mental defense mechanisms imagined that I was in a game where we were trying to avoid the attacks and those on the ground were trying to make a hit. It seemed rather surreal to say the least! In times like that, the feeling of peace was definitely far from my thoughts. The closest feeling of peace was the relief that I got when we landed and were safely on the ground.
Another experience that may be easier for most of us to relate to is when a loved one is going into surgery and we are waiting with a bit of fear. We try not to give in to fear, but it is there. When
Alexandra was 2 years old she needed tubes put into her ears. Juliet and I saw her after she was given anesthesia and she looked so helpless. Fear develops from the feeling of the uncertainty of the outcome. The emotion of peace comes when the doctor says all is well and you can relax now. Our first words generally are, “Thank you God!”
Perhaps these thoughts can help us to identify with the disciples as they were in fear of being arrested like Jesus was before he was crucified. Then Jesus entered unexpectantly, and their fear was heightened until he gave them a clear identification of who he was – the risen, triumphant Lord! Their fear turned to exuberance and joy! Jesus was alive. Jesus visible appearance delighted them with the calming word of “Shalom!” That word of peace was like a breath of fresh air and in Jesus presence a sense of calm returns. The disciples were totally devoted at that moment. Then Jesus gave them a purpose for going on. The disciples’ peace was not a simple or ecstatic rapture, but peace— “the peace of God, which passes understanding.” The first “peace” was given to all who were assembled with the new revelation of the risen Lord. Then they received a second “peace,” —a summons to service!
Try to imagine what you have felt after an intense fear has been removed. After my plane landed, my first thought, since there were more missions to follow, was now I can go on. When the doctor said, all was okay after Alexandra’s surgery, and I expect after anyone goes from fear to calm after a loved one’s successful surgery, is a new view of the future. Now we want more earnestly to give our love and nurture. We have a new purpose and closeness to our loved one. For the disciples, a surprised identification of the physical Jesus with the risen Lord resulted in an enthusiastic response. The realization that he was alive prepared them for the purpose that Jesus gave them. Jesus wrapped up his life’s purpose by saying that he received a commission from the Father and it still continues and this the divine mission is not merely in mortal hands. Jesus is sending his disciples on a mission to continue his work on earth.
The excitement of following their risen Lord replaced the fear that had completely enveloped them just moments before. What does it take for us to make that kind of leap from fear to complete devotion? I think it is more like the transition from the fear of imminent death to realize you are alive – from total fear to complete peace. This contrast of emotions, must have left the disciples completely pliable in the hands of their savior. In the opening we asked, “Spirit of the Living God, breathe afresh on us. May the Spirit of the Living God, melt us, mold us, fill us, and use us.” Is this our prayer? Are we ready to be molded into the ministry that God is calling us to do in the near future as we seek the will of God during the search for a new pastor?
To make it clear that the mission was not to be accomplished just because of their exuberance and joy, Jesus breathed on them. In the words from the Message, “Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ” The word that John uses to describe Jesus breathing, emphusáō, is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. It is interesting to note that the Old Testament that was being read during the time of John’s writing was the Greek translation, the Septuagint. The word that John used is the same one that was translated in to Greek in Genesis 2:7, “The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” It has been said that Gen. 2:7 describes the essential distinction between the living soul of Adam and the living soul of all other animals. So, just as God breathed into man the breath of life and he “came to life,” Jesus also breathed into his followers the new breath and let the Spirit loose among his followers so that they might be empowered to do his will.
Following Jesus breathing on his followers, again from the Message, “he said. ‘If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?'” Compare that last statement with the one from the Common English Bible, ” If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” Does this give us special authority and the power of forgiveness? Probably not! However, we do become involved in the forgiveness of sins as agents of the Holy Spirit.
This is a curious thought that Jesus says to the disciples at the end of this passage about sin. If we forgive someone, their sins are forgiven, but if we hold on to the sins, they are retained. Jesus does not say who retains them. Do you ever wonder if the bad feelings we have towards other people who have wronged us is what Jesus means?
Perhaps one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is our capacity to forgive. When we harbor resentment or anger towards someone, it is usually you and I who lack peace in the relationship. Again, Jesus is offering the Holy Spirit to guide his followers, sending them into the world to carry on the ministry he began. This mission is driven by two commandments: to love God and to love our neighbors. We cannot do either very well if we cannot forgive. What relationships do you have where you have not forgiven someone, regardless of whether they have asked or not? Perhaps we can now take a moment to claim this gift of the Spirit, this spirit of forgiveness.i
This forgiveness mission is the same as the mission of proclaiming the good news of the Gospel. This mission demands that Jesus’ followers are to make the Gospel so clear that it is evident where people stand on the nature of sin. When these texts are understood in this perspective, it is clear that Jesus’ commission to his followers is not one of privileged judgment but of weighty responsibility to represent the will of God. We need to recognize the significant role that declarations of forgiveness can have in freeing people. When the forgiveness is experienced, past sins and feelings of guilt are removed. Now our attention turns to the joy of living with the risen Christ under the direction of the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the day when the infant church became dramatically aware of the inexhaustible resource which we call the Holy Spirit, “poured out on all flesh.” The Holy Spirit is God’s own presence with us. Not God in some distant heaven. Not God on some loftier plane of existence. Not some sub-god or archangel paying us a visit. But the One God, holy beyond comprehension, truly with us and within us in unique power. Like when Jesus was around, but the Holy Spirit is even more widely available and the peace of knowing Jesus is here with us!
The disciples and their friends had been a small and vulnerable community. But on the day of Pentecost they no longer felt either small or vulnerable. They were ready to take on the world. The Holy Spirit did this. They had a personal experience of the awesome, lavish, intimacy and power of God. It was so amazing that they later struggled to convey what happened. It is beyond words yet they had to attempt to describe it in words. The picture is that of one great flame representing the Spirit, which separates into many tongues of flame with one resting on each individual.
Already the national barrier had been overcome and the gospel would be shared with “every people under heaven” Pentecost foreshadowed the worldwide mission. The most important statement in Peter’s Pentecost declaration: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Jesus Christ is the heart of Peter’s sermon. Everything that followed in the sermon—Christ’s death, his resurrection, his exaltation—pointed in the same direction. Whoever calls on his name, whoever confesses him as Lord, will be saved. Let us declare that God is sovereign and the wind of God blows everywhere! The breath of God is blowing today as it did on the day of Pentecost. Remember the promise of Jesus that he will come to us when we open our hearts to him. God’s breath is blowing, and we must admit that at times the wind is blowing and our sails fail to catch it! Breath on me, O breath of God!
i Brian Foreman, d365 Devotional, www.d365.org