John 20:19-23 | Pentecost, Year B
The Breath of Life
I was struck by the phrase in this gospel “he breathed on them” (v.22). During the past year, we have all tried so very hard not to breathe on people for fear of infecting them with covid. A friend of mine was knocked out flat by the second dose of the vaccine, and when she described her symptoms to me, I commented, “Maybe it would have been better just to get the virus.” She responded, “Nope. Not being able to breathe doesn’t seem worth it.”
Breath is such a vital, yet mostly involuntary, function of our bodies. We breathe in and out thousands of times a day and, assuming all is well, never know it. Covid has reminded us of this essential function—both for the ill, whose lungs suffer from the disease and the effects on the lungs, and for the healthy, who wear masks to avoid spreading it. Covid has brought about an increased level of fear everywhere we look.
Immediately after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the disciples were in a similar place—mired in fear: “the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear…” (v.19). At that moment, even with knowledge of the risen Jesus, the disciples didn’t see a way out, couldn’t fathom what was going to happen next. I think that state often describes Christians. We have knowledge of the risen Christ, yet we are stuck, can’t see what’s down the road. For many of us, that open space is induces fear.
But, we aren’t supposed to know the gritty details of what’s coming next. The disciples had the general outline, as do we, and that was supposed to be enough. Jesus understood their fear, and ours. So, He appeared in the Upper Room and “breathed on them.” He strengthened them by giving (again) of Himself and sending the Holy Spirit to His disciples, which includes us. He didn’t tell them the future, but He gave them what they needed to face it.
Breath has been vital from the beginning. God “blew into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the disciples, and perhaps that moment is when they too became “living beings”. When we are paralyzed by fear or indecision or any other anxiety, we can’t truly live; we are merely alive and only exist within that fear. But, when we know deep in our bones, with every breath we take, that God is with us, then we can push past our limitations and produce fruit. When He breathed the Holy Spirit into us, He breathed that new reality into us.
Jesus did not promise to reveal gritty future details to us, but He did give us the resources and the strength to meet whatever those challenges are. Knowing the future without having the strength and wisdom to deal with it is a death sentence, perhaps not physically but certainly mentally and emotionally. Jesus gave us exactly what we need. In His breath, Jesus gave us His everlasting presence. We are blessed.