Breathing Space

By Bruce G. Epperly

2nd Sunday of Easter

Psalm 150
John 20:19-31

Today’s reading joins Easter and Pentecost in one brief moment of time. It is the day after the Sabbath, two days after the crucifixion – in the several hours since morning, wild things have happened, things that defy logic, yet rekindle hope – the dispirited followers of the crucified Jesus don’t know what to do or think in light of what they have heard their trusted companions. Mary of Magdala is a changed woman since morning, her shock and depression replaced by joy as she tells the story of meeting Jesus in the Garden. Peter and another disciple seemed dazed – they have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but they tell the story of an empty tomb and linen cloths left behind. This is all too much, even for Peter and Mary of Magdala, to fully ingest; too much of an emotional roller coast; too stark a juxtaposition of despair and hope; too much wonder for the mortal mind. You see, good news can also leave us in a state of shock and disbelief!

There is hope, but there is fear; and just to be safe, they are still hiding out, staying out of the public eye, worried that they too might be arrested.

But, then surprise; more than that, amazement! Can you imagine how they must have felt – Jesus is with them, out of nowhere he appears, wounded yet raised, clearly their teacher, yet free to materialize at will…to break the barriers of space and time.

“Peace be with you…Yes, peace be with you. As God sent me, so I send you!”

And, then he does a remarkable thing – Jesus breathes on them…more than that, he breathes in them… they inhale his spirit as he proclaims, “receive the Holy Spirit.” Is this some form of spiritual mouth to mouth resuscitation or divine CPR? Suddenly, the whole room is alive with Jesus breath; he is risen from the death, and he has revived them from their own spiritual death by his Holy Breath!

Breathing Space! In her book about ministry [Breathing Space] in one of the worst neighborhoods in the Bronx, Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark describes what can happen when we can no longer breathe. She describes an apparently healthy tree that falls unexpectedly right in front of the parsonage. On closer examination, it is rotten to the core, the victim of toxic air and environmental pollution. As she ponders the scene, Pastor Neumark wonder if she, too, is suffering from spiritual suffocation, despite her apparent health!

Have you ever struggled to breathe? Have you ever fought for that next breath? That’s all that matters, the next breath, as we gasp for life. We can’t go beyond our fight for survival. Nothing else matters until we get that next breath – the war in Iraq, our plans for the evening, even our loved ones—fall into the background as we yearn for the simple gift of breath.

Simone de Beauvoir describes this same suffocating feeling during the days preceding her mother’s death. [A Very Easy Death]  Shuttling back and forth from their apartment to the hospital, talking only to doctors and nurses and their dying mother, de Beauvoir notices how everyone began to resemble medical personnel even at the bistro where they stopped for a much needed break and meal. “The world,” Simone de Beauvoir notes, “had shrunk to the size of her hospital room.”

In the hours following an unexpected tragedy – the death of a friend or spouse – we cannot ponder anything but the loss we have experienced and the necessary funeral arrangements that have been thrust upon us. Nothing else seems real, and even the tragedy itself seems like a dream.

In the aftermath of 9/11 when the air was darkened with smoke and ash, Heidi Neumark wonders if she and her family might be breathing the ashen remains of those who died that day.

Breathing space! And Jesus breathed upon them, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Receive new life, awaken to new possibilities, open you mind and heart to God’s new thing. As the Psalmist says in the reading for Easter Sunday, “this is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” In the midst of despair, I called on God, the Psalmist confesses, and God rescued me, giving me a new life, giving me a new day, and I rejoice in this breath, this day, this possibility, and this hope.

And Jesus breathed on them and in them, and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Mouths wide open, the disciples sucked in the air of resurrection; inhaled the wisdom of the spirit; and came to life; they breathed Jesus.

“Let everything that breathes praise God,” rejoices Psalm 150. Think of that – all things alive, open to God – all things breathing, and dancing, and praising God. A living universe in which wonder and beauty meet us around every corner – in which God speaks to us in all creation. Resurrection, new life, is not an outside job; the work of a God who shows up once in awhile; but the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” The God who breathes in and through us, even when we don’t know it. The God whose resurrection in Christ is now and forever our deepest inner reality – the God who gives us resurrection possibilities with every breath. God breathing in all things, and all things breathing  in God.

“Let everything that breathes praise God!” Many of us are put off by superficial understandings of “praise.” When we hear somebody talk about praising God, we think about a God whose ego needs stroking, who needs to hear our “hallelujahs” in order to be happy, a God who may even get angry if we don’t give God our proper praise and confess our nothingness in just the right way.

I would suggest another meaning to the word “praise.” To me, praise is an act of gratitude that connects us with God and all creation. Rabbi Joshua Heschel once noted that one of the primary religious virtues is “radical amazement,” wonder at our one wild and precious life, joy at God’s good creation that gives me and all things life.

Do you remember last Monday night (April 2) – clear, warm, a bright moon through the trees. As I took my evening walk, for a moment everything seemed right in the world – peace had been declared in Iraq, Israel and Palestine became good neighbors, the children in Darfur were enjoying their evening snack, every American had adequate health care and housing, and every child went to bed grateful for a day of security and love. Perhaps, we fight because we don’t praise; perhaps, we forget the poor because we lack gratitude; perhaps, we choose profits over people because we have forgotten the beauty of a spring evening!

Let everything that breathes praise God. Now, I’m going to ask you to do something you do all the time….take a moment to breathe…take a few deep breaths…how does it feel to do the simplest and most necessary of actions?

Now, I’m going to ask you to breathe again…and when you breathe, simply say “thanks” – thanks to God, to a loved one, to the first responders, to a companion animal….what would it be like if from now on you told yourself that every breath is a gift from God and that deep down every breath you make is a prayer. As a glorious hymn affirms: “for the giver and the gift, praise, praise, praise!” [Al Carmines, “God of Change and Glory”]

Breathing space! Thomas missed out on everything that Easter night, and when he returned, he couldn’t believe the news. He wanted proof, he wanted to see Jesus. How miserable he must have been – the only one left out of the resurrection, the only one whose last image of Jesus was that of a lifeless corpse. Thomas has been much maligned, as if chose not to believe in the Risen Christ. His doubt has been identified with faithlessness. You know, doubting Thomas; don’t be like him. But there is much more to Thomas than meets the eye.

Thomas is actually rather remarkable. Despite his doubt, he stuck around…he did not run away. He waited until something new might be revealed to him. And, the disciples did something remarkable, too; they did not chase Thomas away. His doubt didn’t threaten them. Even though they, no doubt, became bored at telling him the story of the resurrected Christ “one more time” or having to respond to Thomas’ questions or hearing his feelings of doubt, they did not abandon him. With all his doubts, he still had a home in the community of faith.

Madeleine L’Engle tells the story of a question she received following one of her lectures, “Do you believe without any doubts?” her eager young questioner asked. To which the author replied, “I believe with all my doubts.” An element of doubt is essential to healthy faith – doubt is the Lysol that protects us from religious charlatans, outdated and outmoded doctrines and world views, and images of God that glorify power and violence rather than love.

Thomas had lively doubt. He lived his pain, praying for an answer. And, when Jesus came, he rejoiced, for now he lived the spirit of Easter, “my Lord and my God!”

Many years ago, I had a student at Georgetown University, who came from India, but had a very interesting name, “Sosamma Samuel.” One day, I asked her, where did “Samuel” come from, and she told me that she was a “Thomas Christian.” For, according to tradition, Thomas journeyed to the East – to Persia, Pakistan, and India – to share the story of the Risen Christ. Perhaps, only a person of complex faith, a person who scorned easier answers and unhelpful platitudes, could preach the gospel along the Ganges River; perhaps only one who asked deep questions and struggled with great doubt could enter into a truly “give and take” conversation with the erudite Hindu yogis or gurus or brahmins. When Jesus breathed on Thomas, his world was transformed – life became big enough to embrace a resurrection, strong enough to include doubt, and confident enough to listen to the spiritual experiences of others. He became a mahatma, a great souled one, whose spirit could embrace the wondrous otherness of India while affirming the way of Jesus.

Today, we need breathing space, and we need to receive God’s holy spirit – and to breathe in Jesus resurrection life….today, we need to come alive with each breath – to plant a seed in our minds, in our unconscious – that will remind us that every prayer is a breath and that with each new breath God’s spirit awakens, enlivens, and energizes us to share the good news of resurrection life! Thanks be to God.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.