By Paul Koch –
We find the disciples gathered together on that first Sunday since the authorities had crucified their Lord. They have the doors locked tight, fearful of every odd sound outside and strange creak of the floorboards. They didn’t know if the angry mob that rallied their support behind the chief priest and scribes was still on the war path. They didn’t know if perhaps they too would face the horrors of crucifixion for simply being associated with Jesus of Nazareth. Some nervously pace back and forth, some sit quietly in the corner, unsure of what to do next, no one really says much. And then to the sudden shock of everyone in the room, they turn and find Jesus standing right there! Imagine their joy and celebration. He who was dead now lives! “Peace be with you,” he says as he shows them all his hands and his side, proof that this was the one who was crucified. This is no ghost or spirit only but their Lord and Savior in the flesh.
Now Jesus didn’t just show up to bring comfort and assurance to his frightened disciples. He does that for sure but he has come to get them out of that room, he has come because there is work to be done and they are the ones that are going to do it. “Peace be with you,” he says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” They can’t stay locked away, they are to be sent out by Christ himself. Now and old friend of mine used to say this is one of the scariest lines in Scripture. To be sent as Christ is sent is not necessarily an easy way to go. After all his sending was one through suffering and death on a cross. But ultimately his sending was to victory and the risen one now sends out his church.
Now what he does next seems quite strange. We are told that when he had said these things he breathed on them. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” He breathes on them, and with that breath he gives them the Holy Spirit, and with that Spirit he gives them the authority to go out into the world and forgive sins. Anyone who has their sins forgiven by them, why, their sins are actually forgiven in heaven itself. If they do not forgive sins, why, then they do not have forgiveness. This breath of our Lord establishes a location, a place, where salvation itself is to be found.
I have always thought this interaction was bizarre. But it is not the first time that God has used his breath to work a profound and lasting change. In fact, the story of the beginning of mankind is a story of the breath of God. In Genesis chapter 2 we are given the detailed telling of the creation of man and woman. And there we read, “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” God forms man from the dirt, he creates him in intricate detail: eyes, ears, nose, mouth etc. But different from all the other creatures he made, in order for this creature to live, in order for this lump of clay to be made in the image of God, God himself would have to breathe life into him. That breath fills the lungs and awakens the heart. That breath sends the mind racing as mankind moves upon the earth for the first time.
I’m reminded of another image from Scripture equally as rich and powerful as the creation of man. That is the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel. There the prophet is caught up in a vision where he sees a great valley full of bones, the remains of a great and mighty people of God. God asks his prophet saying, “Son of man, can these bones live?” He is then instructed to prophecy to them, to command them to come together, to stand up again upon the earth, to have sinews and flesh again upon them and to be covered with skin. And what he prophecies happens, the Word of God does not return void. The rattling of the bones is accompanied by the skin and flesh covering them once more. But, we are told (and this is the important part for us), there was no breath in them. Sure they stood up, but like that lump of clay on the 6th day there was no life in them until they received the breath of God. “Prophecy to the breath” says the Lord, “and breathe on these slain that they may live again.” And what happens? We are told they live. An exceedingly great army of God’s people filled by his breath lives again.
The breath of God turns those cut off from his blessings into his living children. The breath of God creates and recreates with the power and promise of life. We shouldn’t be shocked then when Jesus breathes on his disciples. He gives them the Spirit, and with the Spirit the power to kill and bring forth life, the authority actually to forgive sins. This act then makes sense; their work of forgiving is an extension of the breath of God himself. The breath of God that began it all in the garden continues even now in the church. Where the Law and Gospel is proclaimed God’s breath is still felt. Where baptism is faithfully administered the breath of God is at work. Where the body and blood of Christ continues to be delivered for the forgiveness of sins the breath of God creates new life.
Jesus says to his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” This means that those who come in contact with these disciples come in contact with a Word that can set them free from their sins. This whole message drives us to look outside of ourselves for hope and confidence. See, this is not the prevalent way our world likes to speak about faith and salvation. The normal practice is to talk about looking within ourselves. Have you decided to follow Jesus? Have you made a commitment to our Lord and Savior? Do you feel him at work in your life? Do you hear his call upon you, do you seek his will? And looking in we are told that we can find the assurance of our salvation. But salvation doesn’t bubble up from within, it is an external thing, something we hear, something that impacts us, something we feel from the outside, like the breath of God.
So as Christ was sent by the Father, so now the church is sent out to speak that Word of forgiveness. It makes sure that others feel the breath of God as it washes over them, rings in their ears, and fills their own mouths. We dare not abandon them within themselves, to search and search for confidence that cannot be found in ourselves. No, we are to forgive the repentant and condemn the proud, we are to be the ambassadors that God uses to bring dead bones back to life. In that room locked away from the world our Lord lays out the plan for the salvation of mankind. And the plan is quite simple, and there is no plan “B,” the plan is that you are going to do it. You are going to deliver the breath of God to bones that are dried up and returning to dust.
Now I know what you thinking. You’re thinking, I can’t do that. I have no business doing such a thing. I mean, maybe a pastor might dare to do it, but not me. Perhaps if I had a little more training, perhaps if I could have a more profound experience, that this is really what I’m supposed to do. Maybe if I saw him, yeah, what if is saw my Lord and I put my finger in the holes in his hands and touched the wound in his side…
When Jesus appears to Thomas he says, “Go ahead, go ahead and reach out your hand and touch the holes in my hands, go ahead and put your hand in my side. Do not disbelieve but believe.” And Thomas makes the confession that stands at the heart of our faith. Looking at the risen Lord, looking at the one who died so that we might live, who suffered the cross to give us the promise of salvation, he says, “My Lord and my God.” To which Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Just because we have not seen does not mean we have not been breathed upon. Blessed then are you. Blessed are the breathed upon. Blessed are the ones who have been washed in the waters of Baptism. Blessed are those who have heard the proclamation of their forgiveness. Blessed are those who gather around the altar and taste and know that the Lord is good. This is the breath of God and it has filled you with the promise of life and salvation. Your sins are forgiven. Your salvation is secure in Christ alone.
And now we are turned loose on the world, set free to do the work of the disciples, to set the captives free. So my friends what are we waiting for? Let us join together to be the tools through which our neighbors will feel the breath of God!