June 4, Breathe...just breathe

 Breathe…just breathe

John 20:19-23

My family is one that overtly expresses affection – at least that is my nature with those who live in my household – with my spouse and my children; the exchange of hugs and kisses, touches along the way: I wake kids up in the morning by rubbing a back or a head. I ask my spouse for a hug in the kitchen when I am passing through. I kiss my children good night – that sort of thing.

That affection is returned in different ways: Sometimes one of my children will kiss me on the neck, and breathe a few breaths there as well.  There was a time when that would have made me flinch, but now I actually don’t mind it at all. Like some people, I used to be sensitive to the feeling of someone’s breath on my neck, ticklish even, but not now – at least not in those moments when one of my children tucks their face into that space.


Now I don’t mind that warm breath on my neck. It is intimate – yes – but not at all uncomfortable to me. In fact, when someone in my family tucks their nose into my neck, I feel all of a sudden that all will be well. When I feel breath on my neck, I feel a deep level of assurance in such a moment of vulnerability and intimacy.

Feeling the in and out movement of someone else’s breath close upon us, smelling it even, is like that: You either like that degree of intimacy or you don’t; you either find that kind of vulnerability reassuring, or you don’t.

Is that the way it was when Jesus suddenly appeared in the locked room with the disciples late in the day of his resurrection? Certainly they had already been feeling vulnerable – from the moment of his arrest, through his crucifixion, through the days after that, and on until that very moment when he reappeared. Certainly they had been despairing, depressed. Certainly they were scared.

Did his sudden appearance, did his words, did his breath, revive their courage? Was it like a loved one breathing into their necks? Did it give them assurance in the midst of vulnerability? Or was it that Jesus suddenly showing up among them, breathing the breath of the living…was it an unexpected jolt; perhaps almost too much for their still quite tender selves to take in, to process, to accept? The text says they rejoiced when he appeared and they knew it was him, but did it almost immediately flip into more uncertainty; initial excitement followed by “what now?”

Verses 21 and 22 of John chapter 20, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version, have this to say of that moment: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

My friend Bob Bowman shared some of his thoughts with me about the text this past week, and as he unpacked verse 22, he noted, “I really don’t know what to do with “breathed on” them…” Through his study of the original language of the text, he was able to point out that the preposition translated in the NRSV as “on” (“breathed on”) appears in front of the verb (“breathed”) and not after it, so it may simply be an intensifier.

If so, a more accurate translation (than “Jesus breathed on them”) could be “And Jesus breathed deeply,” or “Jesus took a deep breath.” In fact, Bob went on to tell me, the word “them” (in the NRSV translation of “breathed on them”) isn’t even in the text. The word “them” isn’t actually there, even though many translations supply it, so that “breathed on” makes sense. Breathed on what? Breathed on them.

With those thoughts in mind, Bob offers this translation of verses 21 and 22: “So Jesus said to them once more, “Peace be with you. Just as the Father has commissioned me, I also send you. When he had said this, he drew a deep breath and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.””

Now that’s different – at least it feels different to me. “Jesus drew a deep breath and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” versus “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And if so – if it is more accurate that Jesus took a deep breath before invoking the Holy Spirit, then so much for the image of Jesus breathing on the disciples’ necks, or even in their faces, so that his breath mingles with theirs; so much for this idea that when he says “receive the Holy Spirit” he is actually breathing the Spirit into them, which is (to tell the truth) the way I’ve always pictured it!

But if I have to revise the picture of this scene in my imagination, if I have to imagine instead, Jesus taking a deep breath and then saying “Receive the Holy Spirit,” instead of Jesus mingling his breath with theirs and breathing Spirit into them, does that take away anything of the sacred connection that happens in that moment?  That is, if the Holy Spirit is invoked for the disciples rather than breathed on the disciples, does that make it any less amazing, any less meaningful, any less significant? Or is it just a different picture?

Bob helps me again with that question, because he points out that the scriptural allusion in this passage may not be the familiar and assumed Genesis allusion (from Genesis 2:7; “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being”).

Instead, the “breath” scripture alluded to may be another (also quite familiar) text -- an allusion to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (from Ezekiel 37:9-12a; “Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal and…I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived…Then he said to me, “Mortal…they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people…”)

Now of course those are both “breath” scriptures – from Genesis and Ezekiel -- but they are not of the same sort: the first one (Genesis) is the breath of creation, while the second one, Ezekiel, is the breath of resurrection. The first is the breath of life from the beginning and the other is the breath of life revived, breath resurrected. Genesis is the first breath and Ezekiel is the breath that comes after you thought you might never breathe again.

It might sound like two completely different kinds of breath, but on second thought, maybe the breath of Genesis and the breath of Ezekiel aren’t really different kinds of breath at all. Maybe the breath of creation and the breath of resurrection are exactly the same breath, just at different times. Maybe all breath is the same.

Maybe the breath breathed into your neck by someone who loves you is no different than the breath breathed into your nostrils when your lungs have stopped working on their own is no different than the breath breathed into your deadened soul in a dark and difficult time. It’s all creation and re-creation. It’s all revival; it’s all resurrection.

And in this story, maybe Jesus taking a deep breath is the same as us taking a deep breath; maybe it is true that we are that connected to God, we are that affected by God-breathed presence and affirmation, that when Jesus takes a deep breath, our lungs fill up as well. And maybe then it is also true that all breath is life-breath and all breath is Spirit-breath…

Pentecost. It’s Pentecost today – the birthday of the church according to the story as it is told in the book of Acts. Pentecost is the day when we remember and celebrate the way that the Holy Spirit came as a rushing wind and blew through the assembly of those first Christ-followers, filling them, and then stoking the faith of thousands. It’s a story full of expression and excitement. Many are swept up in the wind and the words, and as a result, thousands join the church.

That familiar Pentecost story from Acts is quite a contrast to the John scripture read for us today, isn’t it? The Acts version of the coming of the Holy Spirit is a story that has a crowd of thousands, while John’s story just has Jesus saying “Peace be with you” to his closest followers and then taking a deep breath, and invoking the Spirit upon them.

What do we do with two such different stories, each claiming to recount the coming of the Holy Spirit? Is one the real story and the other not?

I prefer to think of them as the same story – the same Holy Spirit story, just told in two different ways, at two different times. Just like Genesis and Ezekiel speak of the same breath but in two different ways, at two different times (creation versus resurrection) we have John and Acts as two different “Holy Spirit” stories (small group versus large crowd, intimate breathing versus rushing wind).

Different versions, yes, but not one against the other; instead it’s the breath of God, the Spirit of God, coming in all its forms. It’s breath that lets us breathe in different ways – breathing for the first time, and breathing again; and it is Spirit that comes upon us in different way; sometimes with a quiet word and sometimes with a rush of wind.

Does the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of such Spirit things matter? I’m not sure the differences in the how and why of those stories matter as much as whether in this moment, in this life, we can get all the breath we need. I’m not sure the differences in the how and why of the coming of the Holy Spirit matters as much as us realizing that every breath is Spirit, so every breath is sacred.

In her memoir, “Here if You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup, a chaplain with the Maine Warden Service, tells a story of an accident involving her two children – her small daughter and her teenage son – along with her adult cousin.

She writes, Two summers ago, Woolie and Zach were badly burned when the gasoline my cousin George was using to ignite a pile of backyard brush essentially exploded in their faces. Being burned in a fire is one of the classic images of hell, and it’s a pretty powerful one. Being burned hurts a lot.

As I drove my burned loved ones to the hospital, I had the 911 dispatcher on the cell phone. She kept asking me whether anyone was having trouble breathing. What she knew and I didn’t was that if George and the kids had inhaled the scalding air at the moment of ignition, the insides of their lungs would begin to swell and shred, and they could die very quickly. 

So she kept saying, “Are they breathing?” And I would hold the cell phone up in the air, so she could hear the hellish sounds of them cursing and crying.

George was cursing and crying because his burns hurt and because he knew that the fire that had injured these children was his mistake, his fault. He was the adult who had decided to use gasoline to start the fire, and his was the hand that struck the match. 

“Are they breathing?” the dispatcher said, and I held up the cell phone. 

George, beside me in the passenger seat, said. “Oh no, oh no, I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”

(My son) Zach was sitting behind him in the backseat. In the middle of his own loud litany of pain and anguish, Zach leaned forward. He reached out a burned arm, an arm blistering and shredding before my eyes, and put his burned hand on George’s shoulder.

“It’s all right George,” he said, “We love you.” (“There If You Need Me,” p. 135-136)

You might think that Zach’s statement and his gesture are remarkable: that the burned child forgives the mistake-making adult. You might think it remarkable that love is what is spoken in that moment of pain and anguish. And if so, you are probably right – those things are remarkable.

But I don’t think those things are the only important element, or even the most significant part of such a situation. The 911 operator has it right: The most important part is always the breath – the most important thing is that there is enough breath to speak; that there is enough breath to live.

So long as we are breathing, there’s still hope for things to turn out right. Still hope for healing. Still hope for forgiveness. Still hope for love. Breath is what gives us life in the first place and every breath ever after is what gives us life again. And the Holy Spirit is God’s expression of breath.

We have someone in our congregation who was just recently discharged from the hospital after a double lung transplant. It wasn’t all that long ago that she took her first breath with her new lungs; lungs gifted to her by someone else who took their last breath. And we have someone in our congregation who had a baby born this week – a little boy who took his first breaths in this world. And we have several dear ones in our congregation who, in the last several weeks and months, took their last breaths. They each came to the end of this life with one final breath.

And it’s all connected, right? All these kinds of breath are expressions of life and new life and next life; of creation and resurrection; of God’s Holy Spirit at work. So, to experience the holiness of it all, we just have to breathe, right? Just breathe – and the Spirit of God is in us and the Spirit of God is with us.




Breathe…just breathe…

And may God’s holy purpose fill you,

May the compassion of Christ fill you,

May the courage and strength of the Holy Spirt fill you.

Breathe…just breathe…



Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

June 4, 2017