So our scripture this morning picks up right after last Sunday. This is later that same day, after Peter and John had come back and reported the empty tomb, after Mary had come back and told them about her miraculous conversation with Jesus, who has been raised from the dead!
It’s a day of surprises! A day of miracles! A day to run around and shout for joy because their Lord and teacher who they had thought was lost to them forever is alive and well! But what is the disciples response to all of this wonder? They huddle behind locked doors as evening falls.
Now, I'm not judging them. They actually do have a lot to be afraid of. They could be accused of stealing his body. They could be punished for guilt by association with his movement. And I think the fear went deeper. Maybe they didn’t want to deal with the scorn of those who knew they had failed. They had even failed at protecting Jesus. In spite of all their earlier bravado, they were afraid of the cross. And ashamed. It's a dark world out there. Who are we to blame them for locking themselves in?
After all, we lock ourselves in with our fears fears all the time. We keep our hearts locked up tightly because we know the truth about ourselves, and the truth is that we are not what we want to be, or even what we pretend to be. We lock ourselves away from new experiences because we don’t know what might go wrong. We lock ourselves away from strangers because we don’t want to risk getting to know them.
Sometimes I think we have more faith in our fears than we do in God, in the Risen Christ. After all, it only seems reasonable these days to be afraid. To be afraid of the world around us. To be afraid of the unknown. How have you been locked in by your fears?
I think of those doors with rows of locks you see in sitcoms, when I’m listening to people describe how they cope with their fears. They are keeping their hearts behind a door with lots of locks because something out there makes them afraid. If someone tries to get in before they’re invited, especially if that heart has been hurt before, they will hear the "click" of the lock. It is hard to let people in.
But Jesus doesn’t care how locked away we are. He comes into the room anyway, offering us an alternative to being wrapped up in our all fears.
Despite their unbelief and fear, the disciples are rewarded with their own experience of the risen Jesus. He shows up speaking peace into their fears, offering a true encounter with his scarred body to shore up their faith. And then Jesus offers the gift of the Holy Spirit a source of peace to go with us when he is gone.
At the center of this gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us. He walks right through the locked door to find us and our fears cannot keep him away. He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness. Then he says, "Peace be with you." You are forgiven, peace is restored to your troubled soul, and you are free.
In response to our fears, Jesus brings us the Holy Spirit, who offers us peace. In this short passage, Jesus tells his disciples "Peace be with you" over and over again. This is the deep shalom peace of the soul. Like fresh air filling up one’s lungs, with the reception of the Holy Spirit, Christ grants the gift of new life that is meant to be shared through forgiveness and reconciliation. As John Wesley would say, the "fruit of this living faith is peace."
In the biblical world, breath is a manifestation of God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit is so closely tied into our breath that they use the exact same word in both Biblical languages, ruach and pnuema.
And so when God breathes over the waters, the universe takes form. God revives dry bones in a valley by giving them breath. The Psalmist proclaims, "Let everything that breathes praise God." The Spirit moves through Jerusalem on Pentecost and gives birth to a new manifestation of the Jesus movement, the lively spirit-centered movement that we know as the church. God’s Spirit still breathes through us as the source of possibility and the energy to achieve God’s vision in our time.
Our breath is tied into that Holy Spirit. Studies have shown that simply breathing your prayers has been shown to reduce stress and enhance immune system functioning. It also awakens your connection with creation, breathing in, around, and through you. When we breathe in God’s Spirit, we are contemporaries with Jesus’ first followers, and we can imaginatively – and realistically – hear Jesus say to us as he breathes in us, "Receive the Holy Spirit."
Rodger Nishioka is professor of Christian Education and a Presbyterian Pastor. He’s an engaging and informative public speak so I have taken every opportunity I could to hear him preach and lecture. And he begins each one of those talks the same way with an exercise I’m going to share with you this morning.
Close your eyes. Take a moment now and breathe in. Now breathe out slowly. Feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, filling and renewing you each time. That's just how the Spirit works. It fills and renews us, coming in to inspire us and going out to reach others. Breathe in peace, breathe out justice. Breathe in hope, breathe out compassion.
Fill yourself with the Spirit.
Now send the Spirit out to others.
When we lock ourselves away with our fears, when we can’t see past them to the joy in the world, it helps to remember this moment. Jesus offers us peace, offers us the Holy Spirit moving through us to bring us that peace. So when the fears start to take over, take a minute to breathe in the Spirit, and find the deep peace that our Lord offers us.