Sunday, May 19, 2024
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“Jesus’ Bad Breath”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, May 19, 2024
Reading: John 20:19-23

Before we hear from our scripture readers just a quick word. The gospel of John sometimes speaks of “the Jews” in a negative light. This is reflective of the time when John is written more than of Jesus’ own day. Christianity and Judaism are becoming separate communities, both critical of one another. Even so the Gospel of John is quite clear on one thing: “Salvation is from the Jews.” God has chosen a people, Israel, and cannot un-choose. Scholars suggest a variety of translations for oi Judaioi in John: some say, “the Judeans,” people who live in the land of Judah. Some suggest, “the religious authorities.” I prefer “Jesus’ own people.” For Jesus is put to death by the very people he comes to save—his own family and kin. I think more than a few of us can relate to that, can’t we? Plus, it has the virtue of being true. God comes to God’s own beloved, and we, his people, execute him. And do you know who he forgives? His executors. Hear this word in a dozen beautiful languages from all around God’s world.

19 "When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

One distinctive of Christianity is that we have always translated our scriptures. Most religions have a holy language you really should learn: Hebrew for our Jewish elder siblings, Arabic for our Muslim younger siblings. I respect and admire this—you can’t really translate the Koran for example, it has to be in the language God gave it to the prophet Muhammad. To really read scripture in Judaism you must read it in Hebrew and the rabbis who comment on it in Hebrew. But our Bible is in Hebrew and Greek, and from the earliest days we translated it into every language we could find. When missionaries met a people with no written language, we helped them invent one—the beautiful Cyrillic script you see in the bulletin that Ukrainians and Russians share is named for St. Cyril who invented it to put the Bible down on paper for the ancient Rus’s in Kiev. Why? For us, every language can bear the weight of divine words. I’ve told you this before, right now in every village in Africa or Asia there’s a young missionary, nearly always a woman, trying hard to master the verb tenses so she can translate John 3:16 into her new friends’ heart language, their mother tongue. And right now, in that country’s capital there’s an American executive with a pin on a map determined to teach that village English to sell them hamburgers. I hope she wins, don’t you?

Pentecost. Fifty days after Easter. It’s originally a harvest festival. Rabbi Yael had me come teach on Pentecost to Holy Blossom Temple last year. It’s also a minor feast in Judaism. I asked, have you heard our Pentecost story? Fire from heaven, a rush of a mighty wind, disciples speaking in languages they never learned? Blank looks. Nope. I was honoured to tell them our story, they listened and asked good questions. In Judaism Pentecost remains a minor harvest festival. It’s associated with the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Fire and earthquake and pyrotechnics there. And they eat cheesecake. Why? They don’t know. It’s a big festival for dairy. Want some?

Pentecost is a minor festival for us Christians too. None of you had your family fly in for Pentecost. Schools and businesses don’t shut down. But it used to be major. This is the birthday of the church. There used to be parades in the streets. At the Pantheon in Rome the church dumps rose petals through the oculus in the ceiling to indicate the tongues of fire. The church often forgets God is Holy Spirit—wild and free, and frightening. So, God raised up the Pentecostal movement to remind us all, hey, you can’t domesticate me. In 1905 there were zero Pentecostals on earth. That movement started in 1906 with black and white worshipers together in Los Angeles. Today we are approaching one billion Pentecostals. That’s pretty good growth—even y’all stock professionals would agree we should buy, right?

Today’s story from the Gospel of John is a quieter version of the Pentecost story, without the pyrotechnics, no earthquake, no wind, no languages, no tongues of fire. No chaos and cacophony of holiness. Just the disciples behind locked doors. Their leader executed; their movement snuffed out. Just some rumours from the women that he’s alive. This is sometimes cited as a reason for the truth of Christian faith. If you’d made up the resurrection you wouldn’t say he appeared to women first. Women were considered unreliable. They couldn’t be witnesses at trial. But the first ones Jesus appears to are his women friends. The men aren’t sure, don’t believe them. Okay, Jesus says, I’ll do this myself. And he appears to them behind locked doors. No barrier can keep Jesus out. He just walks through the walls. Hey guys, what’s up. Here I am, look at my hands and feet. And, he says, “peace be with you.”

This is the most remarkable moment in the story. In five verses Jesus says it twice, “peace be with you,” it looks like an editor made a mistake. Nope, it’s in there twice. In ancient language they don’t have punctuation. If something needs emphasizing, you say it multiple times. “Holy, holy, holy” means holy with too many exclamation marks, like an email from grandma. “Peace be with you” twice is two exclamation marks. Why? Well, these guys have abandoned him. Betrayed him. Denied him. They’re embarrassed by him, and they flee when he needs them most. What’s he going to do? Well, in every story we know, he’s back to avenge himself. The mafia knows what to do with rats. Nobody likes a weasel. Politicians brag about counterpunching. Get rid of these losers and start over. Every movie I grew up on dispatches the villain at the end with a witty line, an appropriate riposte, hasta la vista, baby. What’s Jesus do? Offers them peace. Here I am. Look at my wounds. Believe. Be healed. Jesus undoes all our stories of revenge. He leaves us instead with restoration.

I’m struck by how many of my conversations with you are about a wound that won’t heal. A fissure that won’t close. An impossible break in a family. Jesus has gone through death. He comes back out with healing precisely from the wounds that kill him. I’m no counselor, I tell everyone this who comes to me. My parents were pros at counseling, I rebelled against them by becoming an evangelical. Now what do I spend lots of my time doing? Counseling. I listen, powerless. I pray for you. And then we have these stories on Sundays of life overcoming death. Salvation swallowing up sin. Jesus receiving our violence and giving us back friendship. This is the truest story there is. Jesus doesn’t stay dead. He comes back with life. And I wonder how he’ll do that in our lives, with our worst hurts. I have no idea how. But he will. I promise.

Jesus breathes on his disciples. A stunning gesture. Remember in COVID? If a stranger breathes on you, they’re trying to murder you. My wife of nearly a quarter century, mother of my three children, won’t drink after me, won’t share a straw or a cup. I often say, uh, we share other things. She says, I don’t care. Get your own cup you germ machine. Jesus breathes on them. What could this possibly mean?

In the beginning God creates us from dirt. The word Adam is related to the Hebrew word red. God makes the first person from dirt. Then God breathes life into the dirt, and it lives, a human creature. This is why we have no fear of death. We will become dirt again one day, and one day after that, God will breathe life into us again. All we are is dirt. All we’ll ever be is dirt, breathed on by God. When my kids were young and huge Lord of the Rings fans they would try and make urukai warriors out of dirt. But thankfully, there was no God almighty around to breathe life into them. I love that the image we have of God in Genesis is God playing in the dirt and making us earthlings. Well, Jesus breathes on the disciples to say he is recreating all humanity. Making us new. Sure, now we’re broken, damaged, damaging. But the risen Christ, who is God himself, is remaking us. That’s what salvation is. Humanity done right this time, starting with Jesus, extending to all of us.

Then Jesus says this strange thing. In my Bible study folks asked about this several different ways, and in emails afterwards too. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any they are retained.” Wise questioners weren’t so worried about forgiving sins. We do that a lot around here. Every Sunday at 11:00 someone stands up here and promises our sins are forgiven. Every Lord’s Prayer we mumble along, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Uh, yeah, sure we always do that. The part my students asked about is the second: what’s it mean to retain sins? Well, we forget how scandalous it is to claim to have the power to forgive sins. Only God can do that. It’s one of the things that gets Jesus in the most trouble, when he goes around willy-nilly forgiving sins. Uh, sorry, that’s in God’s job description alone. This is what’s extraordinary about Jesus. Every power and authority he has he doesn’t keep to himself. He gives it away as fast as he can. Earlier in John he promises this: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

Greater things? So, in John Jesus turns water into hundreds of gallons of the best wine. He gives sight to the sightless. He raises dead Lazarus. He forgives sins. And then he promises—this is extraordinary—he promises we’ll do greater. Once he’s done breathing on us, we’ll astound him with the miracles. Not sure that’s happened yet. If we always had the best wine flowing here, if the blind saw the moment they stepped in, if every funeral became a resuscitation, well, the kingdom would be here, wouldn’t it? No death no disease no thirst, just Jesus and his never-ending party. That’s what he’s doing with this promise. He’s giving away to us the power to forgive sins. Reckless if you ask me. I was at a United Church event once where we apologized for our role in residential schools. This is a frequent event these days as you know. And an indigenous man got up to the mic and said he forgives the church. I was struck, this was interesting, not what I expected. Does he have the authority to do this? Has his band or tribe empowered him to do it? Don’t know. But he didn’t retain our sins. Jesus shared his authority with this man. What sins does Jesus retain? None of them. Neither should we. 

That’s a lot out on the table. Jesus bodily raised with his life-taking wounds become life-restoring. Disgraced disciples not punished or shamed but re-graced, made agents of grace, healing, resurrection in the world. Jesus handing out his Godly power to forgive such feckless ones as us. Not sure he’s thought this through; there he is recklessly making us his forgivers for others. This is the thing with Pentecost. It’s too much meaning. At Christmas you can concentrate: There’s a baby. Who doesn’t love a baby? At Easter you can focus: Empty tomb. One image. Every good writer would say less is more. Editors streamline: Take away the excess, let your readers concentrate. Pentecost doesn’t get the memo. It’s about fire! And wind! And languages! It’s about breathing on and forgiveness and walking through walls. If you ever get to go to a Pentecostal Church, you’ll see it’s a bit disorderly. People speaking in languages that sound like gibberish. They expect signs and wonders. This is how you grow a church from zero to a billion: live in the world of miracles. Some more conventional churches spend time explaining why God is out of the miracle business. Others say no, God still does this sort of thing, want to see? Is it any wonder which is growing, and which is not?

We lost a couple of great Canadians recently. Rex Murphy for one. Alice Munro for another. I read of Ms. Munro that she was a champion at saying no. She never learned how to drive. She tried teaching, which most writers do, but found it wasn’t to her liking, and so never tried it again. She didn’t do interviews or publicity. She just wrote short stories and Ontario gothic was born. Oh, and she turned down the Order of Canada. If any of our OC luminaries is listening and they decide to honour me, their humble servant, I will not say no. But Ms. Munro did. She was a master of the domestic and all its undomestic-ability. The ordinary is shot through with the extraordinary. So, in her words, “every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting.” That’s Pentecost. There are no ordinary people. We’re all bound for extraordinary existence—resurrection, life with God and one another and all creation in glory. And as Ms. Munro puts it there is no ordinary atom. They’re all made by God and being breathed on, remade by Christ. There is no ordinary language. Everyone of them is a conduit for divinity. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: 

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

The way to be people of Pentecost is to forgive sins. Breathe on others not with death but with Jesus’ own life. And see every particle in creation as something God is remaking, as part of his making all things new. Amen.