Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon: "Spiration" (John 20: 19-22)

Yesterday, I joined over 1,000 other people here in Long Beach for a March for Science. Similar marches took place all across America, drawing hundreds of thousands of people.
It could have been called the March for Truth. Because science presents truth that is found through observation of the world around us. To deny science is to deny truth. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, science is true whether you believe it or not.
Since much of religion is also about seeking truth, science and religion are very compatible.
Diana Butler Bass is a theologian and a church historian, but in her book Grounded, she talks a lot about science.
She writes that about two billion years ago, ancient organisms called cyanobacteria appeared on the earth. Cyanobacteria survived by photosynthesis, something no lifeforms had done before. They used energy from the sun, combining it with carbon dioxide, and gave off oxygen as a byproduct.
Cyanobacteria thrived. The oxygen they gave off changed the atmosphere, old forms of life died off, and new life forms that breathed oxygen evolved into being.
Scientists refer to this as the Great Oxygenation Event. The Great Oxygenation Event makes possible all lifeforms that breathe oxygen, including humans.
After describing the Great Oxygenation Event, Diana Butler Bass says that the second verse of Genesis reads like a poetic version of the Great Oxygenation Event.
According to Genesis, in the beginning, “The earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
A wind from God. God’s breath. Air.
God is literally the air upon which all earthly life depends.
In the Biblical languages, air and spirit are linked. The Hebrew word ruach means wind, air, breath… and spirit. The Greek word pneuma means wind, air, breath… and spirit.
Respiration and inspiration are the same thing. Following the example of the Biblical languages, we could get rid of the prefixes, and just call them both spiration. That’s actually an English word that the dictionary says is obsolete, but maybe we should bring it back. Spiration: it means, “breathing as a creative or life-giving function of the deity.” Spiration.
Breathing in the breath of God, breathing in the air, we breathe in God’s spirit. Breathing in the breath of God, we become alive.
Spiration.
Today, as Diana Butler Bass points out, we are un-oxygenating the earth. Human activity is spewing out massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is changing the atmosphere at a remarkable rate. The Great Oxygenation Event of two billion years ago is an event that took millions of years to unfold, but the changes we are inflicting on our atmosphere are unfolding in just decades. We are rapidly undoing the oxygenation event. We are rapidly undoing Genesis.
I guess we could call that “un-spiration.”
How long will it be until we are no longer able to breathe? Until all oxygen-breathing lifeforms die off?
And could it be that we are doing this, because we have found it harder and harder to breathe God’s Spirit into our lives? We’re no longer connected to God. We’re no longer breathing deeply the breath of God.
Unspiration.
The disciples found it hard to breathe in the days following Jesus’s execution. It wasn’t that they lacked oxygen; it was because they were filled with fear.
Rome had crucified Jesus. With his talk about a new kingdom, Rome identified him as a leader of the resistance movement, and Rome did everything it could to prove that resistance is futile. So Rome - with help from religious leaders who collaborated with Rome - crucified Jesus.
A person who is crucified often dies from suffocation; as he hangs on the cross, it becomes harder and harder to breathe. And the body is deprived of oxygen.
The disciples had been followers of Jesus. They were part of the movement he led.
So, after Jesus was crucified, they hid. They were hidden away in a room, with the doors locked, because of their fear. The door was shut. The windows were barred. There was no breeze, no wind.
It was hard to breathe.
They could feel a tightness in their chests, constricting their lungs, preventing the flow of air, depriving them of oxygen.
In a situation like that, it feels as if the walls are closing in, that the room is getting smaller. It’s hard to breathe; the breath is rapid, but it is shallow.
Panic is close at hand.
Many people feel this way whenever the storms of emotion rise up within them. Fear, rage, depression, despair come into the room like a toxic gas, pushing out the breathable air. Panic sets in.
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But God’s spirit opens the doors and removes fear.
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This scripture - this story - appears every year. Most scriptures in the lectionary appear once every three years, but this one appears every year, on the Sunday after Easter.
It must be a story we need to hear repeatedly.
In that locked room - in that LOCKED room - Jesus appeared.
And he breathed on them. Spiration!
In their fear, they had forgotten to breathe, they had found it hard to breathe, but Jesus came and breathed on them. He breathed for them. He breathed into them.
It was, in that tiny, locked room, a great oxygenation event. It brought life.
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I don’t know how to interpret these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. How, exactly, did he come back from the dead? Did he appear with a physical, flesh and blood body? Was it more of a spiritual presence? Was it simply a dawning awareness on the part of the disciples, that they didn’t have to be afraid, that they didn’t have to let death win?
You can read scripture and find support for any of these interpretations. Scripture doesn’t quite know the details of specifically how Jesus came back to life.
And I suppose that’s more of a “scientific truth” kind of question. The theological truth of scripture is that Jesus is alive, that love is victorious, and there is no need to be afraid.
With so many different ways of describing Jesus after his resurrection, scripture seems to be saying, “If you need to believe that Jesus was resurrected in a flesh-and-blood body in order to believe that he’s alive, here’s a story for that. If you need to believe this his resurrected body was more of a spiritual presence, here’s a story for that. Just know that Jesus is alive. The kingdom is alive. LOVE and peace and justice and kindness have won, and will reign forever.”
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This is the truth that the disciples had not yet realized when they were hiding in that locked room. They thought fear had won. They thought Rome’s violence and domination and oppression had won.
And so they hid. And they kept quiet. Out of sight and out of hearing.
Which means no one was telling the story of Jesus. No one was telling the story of his kingdom and all he stood for. No one was telling people about his healings, about his love, about his compassion. No one was bearing witness to the gospel. No one was speaking the truth.
Which means that the only voice being heard was the voice of Caesar, the voice of Rome.
And THAT voice said that Caesar was the savior of the world. THAT voice said that Caesar was the way, the truth, and the giver of life. You think alternative facts coming from the government is something new? You think fake news being used to misinform the population is something new? Caesar was a master at it.
Jesus proclaimed the real truth. Jesus himself WAS the truth. He was a REAL savior, and since this truth contradicted the alternative truth coming out of Rome, Rome had no choice but to kill him.
The disciples could have been proclaimers of this truth… but they were silent. They were hiding. Caesar didn’t have to go after them. They were already dead! Their hearts were still beating, but the life in them was gone…..
Until…
Jesus came in and breathed on them… It was the breath that hovered over the waters at creation. It was the breath that brought life to the valley of bones that Ezekiel saw.
And in that breath, life began again. It was a great oxygenation event, taking place right there in that room, because right there, in that moment, life began. A new form of life. The life that began there would go on to change the world.
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Many years ago, a young girl at the church where I was doing my student ministry asked, “Why does everyone sigh after the morning prayer?”
I said, “People sigh after the morning prayer?”
So at the next worship service, I paid attention. During the prayer, the people were silent. But after the amen… *sigh*
It was as if people were holding their breath during the prayer, as if they were trying so hard to be silent that they weren’t even breathing.
Just like the disciples when they were hiding in that locked room.
My friends, it’s time to start breathing. It’s time to start breathing in the breath of God. Breathe DEEPLY the life-giving breath of God.
Can you do that? Just take a breath. Right now. Breathe in the Spirit. Let the Spirit enliven you.
Why do we keep silent the truth we have within us? Why do we not tell people about God’s kingdom of love? Why do we not tell people about the church? WHY ARE WE SILENT?
Why do we not speak out about the values that God’s kingdom lifts up? Values like kindness, equality, justice?
The climate needs protecting. God calls on us to be protectors of creation, yet we keep silent. WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?
The poor need to HEAR some good news. The world needs people who will DEMAND equal and fair voting rights for ALL. The leaders of the world drop bombs on innocent people, and their approval ratings rise. WHY ARE WE SILENT?
Have we, like the disciples when they were in that locked room, given up on God’s kingdom? Have we let fear silence us? Are we holding the truth inside us instead of sharing it, because we are afraid?
It’s time to start talking. It’s time to be HEARD. It’s time to speak the truth BOLDLY and LOUDLY so all can hear.
When Jesus breathed on the disciples with the breath of the Holy Spirit, he said to them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…”
We are called. We are sent. If we are silent, no one will know. If we hide ourselves inside a room, a house, or even a sanctuary, it will appear to the outside world that the forces of oppression and domination have won.
But when we breathe in the Spirit, we let others know that that is a lie. The Spirit tells us something different. The Spirit tells us the truth: that God’s kingdom of love, the kingdom of justice, the kingdom of equality, the kingdom of the beloved community… IS ALIVE.

And that kingdom has no end. Because in Christ, LOVE has conquered hate, and LIFE has conquered death.