Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 11, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 04/11/2021)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

In the 4th Quarter of 2020, the Hershey Company reported that its sale of breath mints and gum declined by over 20%. One theory, was that fewer people were at grocery stores making last second impulse purchases as they wait to check out. Another theory is that constant mask wearing has made these products feel less necessary by consumers.

As the Hershey stated in its report admitting its decline in sales: “The functional  need for breath freshening continues to be impacted by social distancing.” If one used breath minds and gum to freshen one’s breath, but no one is smelling your breath, then why keep it fresh?In an attempt to reverse its losses, Hershey launched a “Mint Before you Mask” campaign that pitches mints as the solution to bad breath after hours of wearing a mask.

All is not lost, however, for the breath mint and gum industries. According to the National Confectioner’s Association, nearly 40% of those who responded to a survey report they now use breath mints so that they can stand to smell their own breaths under their masks! They aren’t using mints or gum to make their breath more fragrant for others, but so that they can stand it themselves!

For over a year now, we’ve focused on breath. We’ve learned terms such as social and physical distancing. We’ve become accustomed to wearing masks, staying six feet apart, arrows and other markings on floors or sidewalks keeping us apart from one another – and keeping us away from each other’s breath.  

That’s why, in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, it stands out that when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, he breathed upon them. Commentators don’t spend a lot of time focusing on this breath, more theological reflection is given to other aspects of this story because there is a lot going on: evening of the day of resurrection … the disciples locked in fear …Jesus appearing before them and showing them his hands and side … Thomas not there and not believing that Christ was raised until he himself could see and feel that the wounds of Jesus had been overcome.

But what about the breath? What is the significance that John found it important to report that Jesus breathed upon them? What is in Jesus’s breath upon the disciples? Three brief thoughts:  two of my own reflections and then what scholars see.

First, perhaps Jesus breathing upon the disciples was proof that Jesus was alive. Dead things don’t breathe, right? The disciples experienced Jesus in bodily form, doing what living bodies do: breathing. This presence among them was not a disembodied ghost or a spirit, but the crucified Jesus who died on the cross, alive, and breathing, and living!

In a CPR course I took a few years ago, our instructor pointed out, if a person is  talking, that means they are breathing. And if someone is breathing that means they don’t need CPR. There may be other serious medical issues going on that require immediate attention, but needing CPR is not one of them!

The body of Jesus that had been killed, was now living, and breathing, and appearing to the disciples. The disciples felt the breath and witnessed that Jesus was alive.   Perhaps the breath was offered as supporting evidence to the claim of the early church that the Christ they all saw was crucified, was now alive!

A second thought, apart from how John might have intended breath, in that breath I see a closeness and intimacy between Jesus and the disciples. To breath on someone you have to be physically close to someone. In this detail, I see the resurrected Jesus closing the distance that had been caused by his betrayal and crucifixion. Remember, the disciples had fled in terror after Jesus had been arrested, they denied knowing him, they hid in fear behind locked doors with the understanding anyone of them, or all of them, could have been next.

But here, the resurrected Christ closed the distance. Separated from his disciples by his passion, and the disciples separated from Jesus by their fear and shame, here in breathing on them, Jesus moved into an intimate and close relationship with them. All the distance his arrest, persecution, and crucifixion had created, had now been removed. Here was Christ, meeting the disciples in their locked door place of fear, meeting them where they were at, and restoring his relationship with them.

So those are two things I see in Jesus’s breath upon the disciples – the witness that Jesus was alive and breathing, and the grace of Jesus to restore his relationship with the disciples.

Now here’s what scholars see in the breath.

Scholars see a connection with the creation story told in the second chapter of Genesis. In Genesis 2:7, we read this: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the same Greek word was used to describe BOTH God’s breath upon the man in the creation story, AND Jesus’ breath upon the disciples in the resurrection story. In both cases the breath commissioned a new creation, a new beginning, a new phase, in the relationship between God and humans.

As a side note, in that creation story in Genesis, it was a rib bone from the man that was used to create the woman. Did the authors of that creation story understand the significance of breath, and that the bones that held the lungs that received the breath of God, would bring life to the woman? In this way, God’s breath breathed among humans is the breath of life breathed into all humans.  

And so, in Jesus breathing upon the disciples, we can see the resurrected Jesus breathing new life upon the disciples. And in that breath of new life was the instruction: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Lutheran theologian Erik Heen, however, points out this doesn’t make us judge and jury of each other’s wrongs. Rather, Heen suggests our understanding of sin is different than St. John’s.He writes: “Sin” in the Fourth Gospel functions differently than our understanding of sin today. In John, sin is understood not so much as our moral failure as our inability to receive the revelation of God in Christ. Sin is what makes it so difficult for us to perceive the activity of God in Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.” 

Heen proposes that St. John understood sin not as a listing of our personal failings, but rather as our inability to fully understand and appreciate God’s work revealed in Christ. Heen continues: If sin, then, is our blindness to God’s reaching out to us in Christ, what does it mean to “forgive” or “retain” such sin? John would answer, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, that the primary obligation of the church in this area is simply to preach the gospel.”

Forgiving or retaining sin is not about being judge and jury, instead, it is about whether or not be an evangelist; about whether or not to tell people about Jesus Christ.   

To forgive the sin of people, is to tell each other, and our neighbors about Jesus. To forgive others is to breath upon them Christ’s death and resurrection, his mercy and grace. To forgive sin, is to proclaim the Gospel and tell people about Jesus!   

To retain the sin of any, on the other hand, is to allow them to stay stuck in their sin, by not preaching the gospel. To retain sin, is to not tell them that Jesus was raised from the dead. Sin remains when we do not tell the stories of faith.

Our First Reading this morning gives us a powerful example of what happens when Jesus Christ is preached.

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” In response, the hearers did great things.  [Acts 4:32-35] There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

And while I suspect there was dramatic public preaching of the apostles that moved hearts and minds, I also suspect there was something else going on. I suspect, in this amazing community, that there was personal testimony of the apostles, and personal witness of the believers. I bet there was personal heart-to-heart sharing between people so close to one another they were breathing on each other.

In this breath, was intimate, real, and honest sharing of the difference the resurrected Jesus made in the lives of believers. In this way, breathing upon each other their hopes and dreams, their fears and sorrows, their faith in Christ’s power in their lives, a new community of abundance and sharing and generosity was created in their midst.

Jesus breathed upon the disciples, the disciples went and breathed upon their early communities, and those early communities of faith have been breathing the breath of life, Jesus Christ, down through the ages. 

The Good News today, is that we have received that same breath!

We have received that breath in the faithful who have preached Christ to us …
We receive that breath today in water & word, and in bread & cup …
We receive that breath in those who proclaim Christ to us through their fellowship and love and service … 

In faith, we are invited to breath the life of Christ upon others. We are invited to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love. And as we breath upon each other the stories of Jesus – just think of the amazing ways Christ will lead us … the surprising new beginnings and creations in store for us as we breath in the life of the crucified and resurrected Christ.  

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

He is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!