TEXT: John 20:19-23

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When I looked at the Gospel reading in the lectionary for Pentecost this year, I laughed out loud. What story does the lectionary give us while we’re all wearing masks and under stay at home orders and being horrified at people who think the whole thing is a hoax and invade other people’s spaces to breathe on them? What does it give us? We get the story of Jesus’ disciples, locked in a room out of fear, and Jesus somehow breezes through the locked doors, stands among them, and BREATHES ON THEM! John totally wins Pentecost this year.

For those of you who may be new to church life, the Christian festival of Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers. But Christians didn’t invent Pentecost. In Judaism, Pentecost is the festival that celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and is celebrated 50 days after Passover. In Acts 2, the other commonly used text for this day on the Christian calendar, Jesus’ disciples are gathered in Jerusalem with thousands of others specifically for that Jewish feast.

The story of Pentecost in the book of Acts is the story of a wild and uncontrolled contagion spread with a mighty wind and tongues of flame. Acts tells us that the Holy Spirit filled over 3,000 people that day. But this story in the Gospel of John comes much earlier, on Easter night. And it’s back here in John where we discover the original transmission of the Spirit that spread so rapidly fifty days later. It’s here in John where the disciples meet Patient Zero.  

The story John tells right before this is the story of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, where she mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener. He reveals himself to her merely by speaking her name and tells her to go and tell his disciples that he’s alive. Which she does. The disciples don’t believe Mary—oldest story in the book right there—and so come evening, the disciples are still terrified and have locked themselves in a house together, hoping that the authorities won’t show up to arrest and crucify them, too.

But no soldiers come. Instead, Jesus himself appears in their midst, locked doors notwithstanding. Once they settle down, we get to the meat of the appearance. Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He then breathes on them and says, “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.” Wait…what?

That part of this story always used to puzzle me. Isn’t the forgiveness of sins up to God, or at least Jesus? Now the guys who don’t believe the news and are too scared to show their faces get that power? I mean, I have questions for management about that. And what’s it doing here in this story—singled out from all the other things the disciples might do? It baffled me for a long time, but then I remembered a story that occurs in both Mark 2 and Luke 5 about Jesus healing a paralyzed man. You might remember the story. The man’s friends take off the roof of a house and lower him down on a stretcher to help him reach Jesus and ask for healing. The first lesson in that story is—get yourself some friends like that!

But the relevant part of the story for our purposes is that Jesus heals the man by telling him his sins are forgiven and the religious leaders in the room freak out and call it blasphemy. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they ask—just like I just asked. Jesus then proves his authority by commanding the paralytic to get up, take his mat, and go home. Which the guy does—no stretchers or roofs involved.

Blasphemy was the most serious religious charge that could be brought, and the religious leadership slapped on the label when Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins. That authority belongs only to God, they said. They were right, and Christians aren’t typically phased by the stories in Mark and Luke because we believe Jesus is God. But here in John, Jesus drops dynamite on the religious landscape when he not only takes that authority for himself, but passes it on to other humans—humans who have proven themselves to be “not God” several times over.

Part of the scandal of Jesus—both then and now—is the idea that God is willing to inhabit mortal flesh and work in and through human history, rather than just micro-managing the whole project directly from the Heavenly Office. But the scandal is bigger than that. The incarnation of God in the flesh isn’t only in Jesus. Here in John, Jesus recklessly passes on both his mission and the power to accomplish it to his followers. And once the Spirit breathes on them and spreads, all who catch it become the continuing incarnation of Christ in the world.

That’s what I think the forgiveness language in John 20 is about. It’s telling us that the disciples aren’t getting some watered down version of God’s Spirit. The verse giving them permission to forgive sins is there to tell us that they are being given God’s own Spirit in all its blasphemous fullness and power. And it was insanely contagious. In just 50 days that puff of breath had become a mighty wind, and the contagion of the Spirit went from that handful of disciples to over three thousand people in a single day.

Sounds great, until we realize that means we who have caught it have a huge responsibility. We’ve been given God’s Spirit so that we can do God’s work in the world. Healing the sick is our job now. Caring for the poor is our job now. Feeding the hungry is our job now. When people commit atrocities and we say to God in terror and disgust, “How could you let this happen?” I always imagine that God might be saying, “Yeah, how could you let this happen? What tools have I not given you? What part of love your neighbor was unclear? What are you doing right now to make sure this never happens again? I left you in charge and gave you the full power of my own Spirit. Why does the blood of my children call out to me from the ground? What have you done?”

“What? Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is now and always has been, “Yes. Yes we are.” Being stewards of the world and all that dwell therein is the human vocation, first given to Adam in Genesis 2:15 when God puts Adam in the Garden and tells him to care for and protect it. The connection to Genesis is right here in the text from John, hidden from most of us because of the limitations of English. Pardon me while I nerd out for a minute.

The Greek word for “breathe” here is emphysao, and that particular word appears only three times in the entire Bible. It appears in the New Testament only here in John 20:22. For the other two, you have to look to the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from the third century BCE. Emphaysao is the word those Greek translators used in Genesis 2:7 when God breathes into Adam’s nostrils and brings the first human to life. And it is the word used in Ezekiel 37:5 where God promises the dry bones in a mass grave, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” The only three times in the entire Bible. Creation of Adam, Resurrection of the dead, dry bones, and giving the Holy Spirit.

So this isn’t just any breath. Jesus, who Paul calls the “new Adam,” is giving his disciples the very breath of life. John 20:22 is Genesis redux. That first human vocation—to care for and protect the earth—is reaffirmed when Jesus breathes on his disciples and sends them out to continue his work of resurrecting the dry bones of a broken world.

Both Covid-19 and the Spirit of God are highly contagious. Covid-19 spreads disease and death, the Spirit brings healing and life. But there’s another important difference between the two. Covid-19 is able to spread even when people don’t have symptoms. That’s fitting for something that brings death. It has been said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Covid-19 proves that. No symptoms? It spreads. No mask? It spreads? No measures to protect yourself or others? It spreads. When we do nothing apart from our ordinary business, disease and death spreads like a wildfire.

But the life-giving Spirit of God is different. It’s a thousand times more contagious than Covid-19, but you can only pass it to others if you’re symptomatic. And what are those symptoms? John 14 is a companion chapter to John 20 in many ways, and in John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are those? When asked to name the greatest commandment of all, Jesus pulled together two different commands from the Hebrew Scriptures. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Those of us who love God in our hearts but don’t show that by loving our neighbors as ourselves are like the disciples who huddle in fear in a locked room. We may have caught the Spirit, but it can’t spread, even if we leave our isolation and go back to our normal routines. It’s only when we breathe the Spirit into others through our acts of love and mercy that it becomes contagious. It’s only when we love others as we love ourselves that we spread life and the world can be healed. “By their fruits you shall know them.” It’s the only definitive test for the presence of the Spirit of God.

We think we are loving God by rushing back into our church buildings to sing God’s praises. That may be a side effect of the Spirit, but that’s not how it spreads. Chances are, everyone in there already has it. The only real purpose of gathering in there is to activate the Spirit to the point where it can be contagious out here. Because it’s out here where death is spreading. It’s out here where hate rages. It’s out here where injustice and oppression are killing God’s precious children and threatening even the planet God gave us as our home. It’s out here where healing and new life are needed.

Every Pentecost we are reminded that we can activate that Spirit within ourselves through even the smallest act of love. If you water a thirsty plant or feed a pigeon; if you check in with a friend or neighbor to see if there’s something they need; if you wear a mask in public to show you are thinking of more than just yourself; if you stand up for those who are bullied; if you reach out across the political, racial, and religious divides to acknowledge and protect the humanity in others. That is how the world is reborn. That’s how death becomes life.

That’s why Pentecost is the capstone of the Easter season. The resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of a new creation; it was the light of the first day that separated from the dark. But it’s Pentecost that sets the new world in motion as Jesus breathes the Spirit of God into his disciples who then spread it to the ends of the earth through their love. There is nothing that ever has been or will be in this world that is more contagious than that. Amen.


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