Breathed In

A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on April 26, 2020

•John 20:19-31•

I have always enjoyed this particular reading, but today it holds a certain poignancy. We know, in perhaps a way we didn’t know a little over a month ago, what it is means to be locked in a home. We know the toll it can take on our psyche as we have been forced to confront the false illusion of our own control. 

For very different reasons, the disciples are facing what we face — they are behind a closed door as well. The disciples entered Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. They entered to a parade and celebration. It had the illusion that they were poised to wrestle control away from the Romans. And then seven days later everything came crashing down. Jesus died a horrible public death. And if the authorities could get to their leader, then they were not safe either. And so the disciples crowded together in a room with the door locked, when suddenly the shades were pulled back and Jesus showed up and stood among them. 

Jesus showed up even while as their own imaginations were working overtime imagining  the horrors and pain they assumed were out there in the dark waiting for them. The disciple’s collective fear and uncertainty left no space for anything that resembled hope. But then Jesus showed up, said, “peace be with you” and it was so.

The immediate result was rejoicing as the resurrected Jesus showed up in the room carrying the marks of crucifixion with him. And then Jesus breathed on them, gave them instructions to get on with it and left as quickly as he had come. 

From fear to rejoicing. From uncertainty to elation. From panic to delight. Jesus showed up and transformed the disciples in amazing ways. Well all except for one, because Thomas wasn’t in the room when all this happened. We don’t know where he was, but he was someplace else. And that fact alone has led Thomas to be the subject of countless sermons. 

Is Thomas’ response to the disciples certainty doubt? Is it unbelief? What is going on with Thomas? And I suppose we could go with another “Doubting Thomas” sermon, I am feeling more drawn to the disciples encounter this morning. Because today the image of them huddled in a room. Stuck. Staying in place. Unmoving. That feels real and based on conversations I have had with many of you, I imagine it is real for a lot of us.  

But before I get to their encounter I need to tell you about my Greek professor. Ironically he was actually a seminary student himself. He was second career — his first being that of a Classics Professor in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. When we started the class he told us two things. First, we could call him Joe. He told us he had received his doctorate over 20 years ago and was confident in who he was — so his first name was fine. The second was much more profound. He told us Greek was a lot like underwear. It was good for the support it offers, but you didn’t need to go around showing it off to everyone.

And while he is right for the vast majority of the time, I also believe there are moments when it is helpful to bring the Greek into the conversation. Not to flaunt it like my daughter who seems unable to keep clothes on during the Stay-At-Home order, but instead as something that might give us new insight — that might open up the text to us in a new way. And so today I want to continue by focusing on only one word — the word translated: on. As in he breathed on them. Because I have come to believe that is the wrong translation.

Now you may wonder what difference a single word might make in this passage, especially one as small as on, but I ask you to consider what prepositions do. Prepositions are words that are used to indicate location. As an example I will share three statements with you and you consider what image comes to mind as I do. The dog was on the trash can. The dog was in the trash can. The dog was beside the trash can. How many of you had the same image for all three statements? Even without seeing you at this moment I know the answer — no one. Because by simply changing one small word — one preposition — we get three very different pictures.

And whereas the NRSV translates Jesus breathed on the disciples, a better interpretation might be — Jesus breathed in. Someone who has kept up with their Greek a lot more than I have wrote “the verb ‘breath-in’ is a rather rare verb in biblical Greek, appearing once in the New Testament and nine times in the Old Testament Greek.  Significantly, in the Old Testament it shows up in Genesis 2, when God breathes into the humans — in 1 Kings when Elijah revived a boy — and in Ezekiel 37, when God’s Spirit breathes into the bones.”(1)

On versus in. There is a difference. We put clothes on, but we also take them off and that is really true of anything. Anything put on, can be taken off at some point. Having something put on feels temporary, whereas something being put in us feels much more permanent. There is a difference — it is much harder to take things out of us once they are in.

Jesus knew this and Jesus knew those Old Testament stories as well. According to John, Jesus was there in the beginning with God, when God breathed life into the dirt — when Elijah breathed in and revived the boy — when Ezekiel breathed life into the bones. And in this moment — this resurrection moment — when Jesus is quite literally breathing life beyond death in to the disciples. 

Breathing in to disciples lost in grief. Breathing in to disciples cowering behind closed doors. Breathing in to disciples caught in the uncertainty of the future. Jesus showed up, right where they were and breathed life — new life — in to them. Not in a way that could be washed or taken off — Jesus breathed in them so the Spirit would take hold in their life and flourish. 

As I think about where we are in this moment of time — a time in which we often find ourselves behind a closed door, where we can be overcome with grief, where the uncertainty can feel overwhelming — we are in need of a resurrection moment. Something that cannot and will not ever come out of us. And here is the Easter news. That is exactly what Jesus does. Jesus breathes life in to us.

I was reminded of this promise as I participated in a meeting this week in which difficult decisions were being made. The dreams of this group felt as though they were being dashed. The energy waned. We felt trapped by circumstance. When one person spoke up and said, “I want to be realistic, but also optimistically hopeful. After all if God can leave the tomb empty, then certainly God can surprise us right now.” That comment changed everything. In that moment, the Spirit was not breathed on the group, the Spirit was breathed in. There was new life among us. There was renewed vigor. The transformation was palpable as our imaginations opened to what God might have in store in the days ahead.

Jesus showed up where the disciples were and breathed the Spirit in to them. Placing the Spirit deep inside their souls where it would take root and never be forgotten. Whatever else happens to them, whatever sufferings they may experience, whatever challenges they may face, whatever fearsome things they encounter — the Spirit was still within them. 

May we recognize, in this time, as in all times, it is so for us as well. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.


(1) Found at http://lectionarygreek.blogspot.com/2010/04/john-2019-29.html on April 9, 2015.

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