Learning to Breathe

Sermon – June 8, 2014
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church – Heidlersburg, PA
John 20:19-23


“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When Jesus had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Breathing. We can’t live without it. It’s something our body does involuntarily. We breathe without even realizing it. We don’t have to will ourselves to breath. It’s just happens. Our body knows what to do to take care of itself. And so with our breathing taking care of itself, we are left to do other things. We work and play without having to focus on our breathing. When we are tired we fall asleep and don’t have to worry about breathing. It happens on its own. Unless of course, we have some type of breathing problem. In that case, we may have to rely on the assistance of a machine to breath for us so we can fall asleep and be at peace. Sometimes we need help in order to breathe.

When a baby is first born he or she needs help to start breathing. The disciples in John’s account of the first Pentecost needed help breathing too. They had forgotten how to breathe. Oh yes, they were physically breathing in and out, but not very efficiently. They were stressed – locked up behind closed doors – for fear they would be arrested or killed for being followers of Jesus. Fifty days earlier Jesus had just been crucified. They did not want to be the next ones. So they were afraid. Really afraid for their lives. They went into hiding. And like anyone who has ever been under stress – and we all have been there at one time or another – they weren’t breathing right. Their breathing was probably shallow. They weren’t breathing in deeply. They weren’t getting all the oxygen they needed into their lungs. They were just surviving, but they weren’t living. The disciples were trapped. Trapped in their own fears and their own stories of what might possibly happen next.

They couldn’t go out and share the good news of the resurrection story because they were still buried inside a tomb of doubts and anxieties. They were literally like people buried alive and they couldn’t breathe.

Haven’t we all been there? Hasn’t there been a time when we have found ourselves in a situation when we felt paralyzed? When we felt like we were buried alive beneath a mountain of fears and anxieties piled on top of us with no way of escape? And the longer we stay trapped inside the worse it seems to get. Our breathing gets shallow. We can’t even do the things we normally did in the past. We forget things and we can’t remember what it was like before this great weight pressed down upon us. Worse yet, we don’t see any way out. We can’t eat right, or sleep, or even pray. We may wonder, “what’s going to happen next? Is there a way out? And if there is, how do I ever get there?”

John’s gospel says, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” There’s a real word of hope here because the disciples must have been wondering what to do next, but notice what happened, Jesus came and stood among them. In the midst of their anxieties and worries, their doubts and their fears, their inability to carry out their daily activities, Jesus came to them. Jesus did not wait until they figured it all out. He didn’t wait until they had a plan or a way out. Jesus was and is the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Jesus is the answer to all that we are seeking and we do not have to look for Him. Jesus comes to us. Jesus, Word made flesh, comes to us. This was the whole reason for God sending Jesus into the world. We cannot go to God, God comes down to us and meets us where we are.
God, incarnate in Jesus, comes to us in the midst of our pain and suffering and breathes into us new life. That is the good news we hear today, but ….it can also be frightening!

It can be frightening because the breath of the Holy Spirit is a life giving and powerful breath. It is the very breath of the triune God. It is the breath in the beginning of creation that breathed life over the nothingness. It is the breath that breathed life into the dust of the earth into humans made in the image of God. It is the breath that breathed new life into the dead bones in Ezekiel. It is the breath that breathed new life into the crucified Jesus, and raised Him from the dead and that same Spirit will raise us on the last day too! It is the breath of the Holy Spirit that intercedes for us when we have lost the words to pray. That breath, that wind, is a powerful force and it indeed is something to be feared, but not in a sense of anxiety, but one of astonishment and awe.

The breath of the Holy Spirit can be a frightening thing because it is so powerful it can take our breath away. Like sticking your head out the car window driving fast and trying to breathe in – it takes our breath away. But we as Christians want the Holy Spirit to take our breathe away! When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples, He was breathing into them new breath, new life. That mighty wind was so powerful that it blew out the old fears and doubts and filled them with courage and excitement! The breath of the Holy Spirit filled them with new dreams and visions! It filled them with the breath of the resurrection! And once they received that breath they would never be the same again. This first Pentecost was the beginning of the church.

We, the church today – who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit through our baptism – are not the same either. In our baptism we were buried and raised with the resurrected Christ. This new breath of the Holy Spirit is within us and working within us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. This breath, this Spirit, changes us from people of fear into of hope, and love, and forgiveness. As Christians, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can forgive. We can do what seems impossible, because the power of the Holy Spirit is within us. We are no longer breathing on our own, but we have the breath of the Holy Spirit that breathes for us. And that gives us peace and courage!

It gives us the courage to be the disciples that Jesus called us to be. We are able through this powerful breath of the Spirit to forgive, and love, and feed the hungry, and visit the sick, and clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned, and tell the story of what wonderful things God has done for us and through us, and carry this gospel to the ends of the earth. Through this breath of the Spirit we no longer worry how we are going to accomplish the work of the kingdom, because the kingdom of God is here among us and in us and uses us to bring it to others who know nothing about God’s kingdom. The breath of the Holy Spirit is a powerful force, but not One to be feared. We need this breath to live and to overcome those things that we fear.

It is time to allow the Holy Spirit to take over our lives and our church. It is time to allow the breath of the Spirit to blow out the dust and mold and dryness that has taken hold of us and breathe new life into us. We may worry, “Where will the Holy Spirit take us? What if it is somewhere we don’t want to go? What if it is dark?” The Holy Spirit will never abandon us, but will lead us where we are meant to be. And the light of the fire of the Spirit will be our guide.

That breath will fuel the fire that will light our way and light the way for all the world. That fire will burn away the darkness. Something may be torn down, but something else will be built up. Something may die, but something new will rise up. We are children of the resurrection and we need not live in fear. The fire of the Holy Spirit cannot be extinguished for the nature of the constant breath or wind will keep it burning. We need the fire of the Spirit. We need this Holy Wind to open the locked doors and transform and energize each one of us who make up the body of Christ, the church. The Holy Spirit is alive and moving among us whether we want to acknowledge it or not. It is time to stop fighting it. Breathe deeply and receive the Holy Spirit! Amen!




Covered in Prayer

Sermon – Sunday, June 1, 2014
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church – Heidlersburg, PA
John 17:1-11

It’s not every day – in fact it’s rare – that you have the opportunity to listen in on the private conversation between a person and God. Intimate prayer like that is kept confidential. Yet in a dimly lit room, illuminated only by primitive lanterns, a solitary figure lifts his head and prays. He doesn’t pray for himself. He doesn’t ask for a miracle to get him out of the difficult situation he is in. He doesn’t curse God for all the pain he’s suffered and all the pain yet to come that will inevitably end his life. Instead, he prays for his friends. And he prays for countless people he’s never met. This single voice prays for a connection between all people – a unity – as closely knit together as the threads in a shawl – a prayer shawl – and for Jewish men who pray in the synagogue – also called a tallit. This prayer was a surprise to those in the room who had only a few minutes before engaged in conversation with this man, this teacher.

They all had dinner together – the teacher and his students. They sat around the table – eating, drinking, and enjoying the night together. It was the last time they would all be together. It was the last time they would see their beloved teacher. He was going away and they couldn’t go with him. No longer were they going to be one close-knit group – they were soon to be unraveled by this significant loss. What would they do now that their teacher was gone? He was the one who had all the answers, the one who knew what to do next. How were they going to figure it out on their own? They had spent years studying under him and yet there was so much that they still had to learn. They weren’t ready. They weren’t ready to say goodbye. And now their teacher was talking about sending someone else, someone who would take his place and never leave them. It didn’t make any sense. They were confused and afraid. Wouldn’t you be?

Wouldn’t we all be if we were there when Jesus spoke to the disciples on the evening before his betrayal, suffering, and crucifixion? And maybe you’re confused right now, wondering why we are talking about the night before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion on the last Sunday of Easter. Let me try and explain. You see, our gospel text today is a long prayer by Jesus to the Father. He prayed this prayer after the last meal with the disciples. After he washed their feet and gave them a new commandment to love one another, Jesus stops – lifts His head – and prays.

When was the last time you stopped what you were doing and just prayed? Right in the middle of doing something else – in the middle of traffic when you just wanted to lay on the horn, or waiting in the line at the grocery store when you just wanted to scream because it was taking so long, or lined up to get a ticket or pay the fee at the toll booth? It’s not normal to just stop and pray. It goes against our human nature. That sinful part of us that wants to fight instead of apologize. The sinful part of us that wants to hate instead of understand. The sinful part of us that wants to blame instead of taking a look in the mirror to see if we might be at fault too. No, stopping what we are doing and praying is not something humans naturally do. Yet, the Holy Spirit – whom Jesus promised to send to us – helps us to pray and leads us to Jesus and to God. We are led into unity.

My cousin Debbie lives in Texas. She is not Lutheran, but she is a Christian and she often asks me when we talk on the phone together to pray for her. She doesn’t just expect me to say yes and let it go until a later time. We pray, right there and then over the phone, for our particular needs. She’s taught me over the years the importance of stopping whatever I am doing and praying – even if that means over the phone – because prayer is a powerful thing. It isn’t some last resort as we often hear spoken, “Oh, there’s nothing left to do but pray.” No, prayer is not something we do as a last resort. Prayer is our very faith. In our first reading from Acts we heard, “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Prayer for the early Christians was not something that they did if they had no other resources left. Prayer was their resource. The early Christians faces ridicule, imprisonment, suffering, and even death, and prayer was the rock to which they clung. Prayer was the energy that kept them moving. Prayer was the force that propelled them forward. Prayer was the thread that tied them together with each other and with God.

We – like the early Christians – may not face death on a daily basis for being followers of Christ, but we do face other persecutions. In a world that increasingly does not believe in God, we can be ridiculed for our faith. In a society where we face economic hardships we may worry how we are going to meet our budgets whether individually or as a congregation. Sickness and diseases still threaten us. Homelessness and violence are increasing and it is easy to become paralyzed by fear. We may wonder how we can survive such challenges.

And that’s what’s so significant about today’s gospel text. Jesus showed us what to do when we are faced with challenges. Jesus – who was both fully human and fully divine – stopped what He was doing and saying and turned to God the Father, the Creator, in prayer. He turned to God as if He were turning to another one of the people in the room. And we – generations later get to listen in on this private conversation between Jesus – the Word made Flesh – and the very Word – God Almighty Creator of the Universe. It should make us pause at this moment of unspeakable glory and revelation because Jesus is praying not just for the disciples, but for each one of us today. Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” Jesus is praying for us! Right before He was about to be killed He prayed for us. He prayed for our protection. He prayed for our peace.

We are covered in prayer by the Triune God. What an image of glory! We have no greater protector than the God of the Universe! We have no greater mediator than Jesus – the Crucified, Risen, and Ascended One! We have no greater advocate than the Holy Spirit who speaks on our behalf when we have no words to say. We are covered in prayer by each other – the body of Christ – when we lift our voices to God in truth. The prayers God wants to hear our the ones that come from our hearts. Like the voices of prayers from the Psalms – scream to God, tell God when you are angry, tell God when you are afraid, tell God when you are disappointed, tell God when you are overwhelmed with joy. Whatever you are feeling you can tell God. God knows our hearts and wants us to pour them out before our Creator.

That solitary figure that prayed in a dimly lit room thousands of years ago is still praying for us today. Jesus died, rose, and ascended so that we would have eternal life, yet this eternal life is not something we need to wait for. It is here today. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Prayer is how we can know God. It is how we stay in relationship to God. Prayer is what empowers us to be disciples of Christ and show God’s love in this world. We need not be afraid for we are covered in prayer, not only by praying for one another, but by the very prayers of Christ who continues to pray for us each and every day. This may be the last Sunday of Easter in the church year, but it is not the end of our Easter celebration, because Christ truly is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!