Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

It is a beautiful thing to hear that proclaimed with such conviction! Many of us have indeed come to believe without having seen. Two millennia of history—of Scriptures written and interpreted, of theologies developed, of experiences of the divine in beloved community with each other—two millennia have given us and billions of others reason to make this proclamation.

For the disciples, though, on the very day of the resurrection, it was a different story. Peter and John had seen the empty tomb, but they didn’t quite know what to make of it. It says earlier in the same chapter that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”[1] Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene, perhaps the most faithful and effective disciple of them all, but the men had only seen the absence of a body. 

Today’s sermon is entitled “From Resurrection to Resuscitation.”

Picture it. All of the disciples are huddling together in an unspecified hideout, fearing for their lives. They had just been through a week of hell, witnessing the humiliation, torture, and execution of their leader and friend. They were also contending with their own shame and feelings of failure—their denials, their disappearance in the time of greatest need, that all-too-common nagging thought: “Surely we could have done more! If only we had done this or that in a certain way! If only we were better!” We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

And surpassing all this fear and shame, of course, was their grief. Their leader, teacher, friend, and brother was dead. They saw his body on the cross, and some had seen it in the tomb. Some surely believed in the resurrection Jesus had been so regularly teaching about, but there is believing and then there is BELIEVING. There is the acceptance of something as possibly true in the abstract, and then there is truly trusting at an intimate, personal, CONCRETE level. Peter and John had seen the absence of the body, but they had not met the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene had told all the other disciples that she had seen her rabbi in the flesh and that he had talked to her about ascending into heaven. For some reason, though, we see no rejoicing at this news.

Instead, we see that scene of the disciples huddling together in fear. Shouldn’t they have been celebrating the most significant miracle in the history of the world? Shouldn’t they have been thrilled with the confirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Son of God, who had power over death? Shouldn’t they have been shouting from the rooftops, spreading the word?

Not yet.

They were deflated, defeated, and despairing. They were still in shock, in survival mode. Jesus had been executed, and they were his co-conspirators. I’m sure that they wanted to believe, but it would be a very human thing to see this report from Mary as fantastical, wouldn’t it? They were men in a patriarchal club. I can see them patronizing her and assuming she was just seeing things. After all, how could it be that Jesus would choose to appear to her before appearing to them?

And it wasn’t any simple despondency they were dealing with. For you see, they were also facing the death of their movement, of their dream. Remember that they had given up everything to follow Jesus. They had left behind their families, their jobs—all that they held dear and familiar—and spent three years wandering the countryside, all for the sake of this man and his teachings. All of them were ALL IN. And now they had to regroup. They had to rethink everything they had believed and committed their lives to over the past three years. Indeed, in the next chapter we see them back out in their fishing boats, apparently trying to catch the lives they had before. Of course, they caught nothing. Because they DID have purpose rooted in those three years. But we’ll get to that.

So, there they sat, huddled in fear. And I get it. Even with the two thousand years of reflection on the resurrection, I get it. I get the deflation, the defeatism, the despair. There’s a reason that the liturgical calendar observes seven full weeks of Easter. The resurrection is the focal point of our entire faith. And yet, here I stand one week after the celebration of that resurrection saying that the despair makes sense.

I can honestly say that it’s been a rough week for me and the ones I love. This week has seen my family stumble through a terrifying few days for my beloved aunt who is facing complications in her treatment for advanced liver cancer. This week has seen an especially difficult second anniversary of a life near to my heart taken by a gun in the systems of violence in Chicago. This week has seen me going through feelings and interactions that seem entirely devoid of the hope of the resurrection.

And I know I am not the only one. Across the world, there is this general sense of doom. Atrocities on top of atrocities are being committed. Old, persistent injustices are coming to light. Communities are still being decimated in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan…much of it due to our own complicity. Things are getting worse and worse in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Zambia’s leader seems to be taking notes out of his neighbor’s book. Venezuela is on the verge of collapse. Famines are slowly choking out life in Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Nuclear attacks are being threatened. This country has just dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever on an Afghani village. Saber-rattling is no longer the right word. We drop super bombs and kill people to make a point. And we still kill our own citizens to make a point, as shown by the execution of Ledell Lee this week in Arkansas, the very first act of a now 9-member supreme court.  Let alone the extra-juridical executions of people of color that so regularly happen.

And this weekend of Earth Day we must recognize, as Paul did so long ago, that creation itself has been groaning. We have caused the climate to change at catastrophic, untenable rates. We are seeing dozens of species going extinct each day.[2] Dozens! Each day! The so-called “natural” phenomena that keep striking—floods, landslides, those very famines mentioned—have their roots in the harm we are causing this world. Experts with evidence feel the need to march on Washington to even have this acknowledged. Yes, my friends, deflation, defeat, and despair ring true, even in light of the resurrection!

I know we can feel it here at MAPC. We get stuck on the numbers. We look at the pews this week compared to last week and sigh. We are disheartened by current finances. We are still trapped in the legacies of past pastors. We look forward with hope but also with trepidation to a future pastor. In both this legacy-longing and future-looking we are persuaded by the myth that the congregation is dependent upon a pastor in order to be the church.

So yes, there the disciples sat. And here we sit.                                                                                

Into this morass of fear and grief and despair—of death—Jesus came seemingly out of nowhere and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Friends, hear the good news! When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

That, at least, is how the NRSV translates it. But let’s look at this word “breathe.” The original Greek used here is ἐμφυσάω. It is unique to the entire codex of original Biblical manuscripts. The only other time it is even used in translation is in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. And there it is used once, as the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew naphach. This occurs in Genesis 2, when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils and gave him life. The Septuagint would have been the author of John’s Old Testament.

The author chose this very specific word with its unique usage to describe what exactly Jesus did when he was in that room with the disciples. He breathed the Holy Spirit into them, just as God breathed life into Adam. And in that moment the disciples, the whole movement, what we now call the Church, came back to life. It was resuscitated. I use this word intentionally, because I want you to picture conventional cardiopulmonary resuscitation. This type of CPR involves literally breathing your air into somebody else’s lungs for the purpose of bringing them back to life.

This movement of Christ-followers effectively died when the leader died. The core of it was still small. The wider following was fickle, as seen with the Hosannas becoming crucify him! It seemed as though Rome and the religious establishment had accomplished what they had set out to do.

The Christ had the power to come back to life in glory, as we so joyfully proclaimed last Sunday and at the beginning of this sermon. But the disciples, as with all the rest of us, required the intervention of somebody else. We need the inbreathing of air that we cannot produce ourselves. We require resuscitation.

And that breath from the risen Christ was the rarest of airs! The breath of God that blew across the waters at the dawn of creation, that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils, was respired into the disciples in that room. And Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” With that, he not only brought the movement back to life, but he empowered the disciples to perform the action that had been uniquely his: the forgiveness of sins. This is significant, for it was this more than anything else that proved Jesus was indeed the Son of God. It was this that got Jesus in trouble for blasphemy. In bringing them back to life in this way, he was ensuring them that though he would soon ascend to heaven, God would still be with them. God would be within their very spirits. Good would be empowering them to do as their master had done.

And there is no question that the movement came back to life, that it was resuscitated. Yes the disciples had their fits and starts, as can be seen by their immediate attempt to go fishing again. But then they got rolling. They were filled with new life, a life breathed into them, a life that cannot be defeated.

We see it clearly in our reading from Acts today, when Peter boldly stands in front of the people of Jerusalem—the very people from whom the disciples were hiding in that room—and proclaims, “God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power!”[3]

This inbreathing of new life was the resuscitation of the movement that grew to be billions large. It is the movement to which we belong, MAPC, and that same life-giving, divine breath is still within us. The Holy Spirit has always been with the Church and will always be with the Church. The Holy Spirit is perpetually blowing into our deflated, defeated, despairing rooms, our sanctuaries. And I see it here! Yes, I along with you have hope for what the future holds. More importantly, though, I see the power that you have now. I see leaders from this congregation making our children’s ministries to thrive, our outreach ministries to persist, our worship services to bring glory to God. We, MAPC, regardless of who is in charge, are empowered to bring the good news to the people of this world. We are empowered to act on the many situations of horror and death mentioned before. We can use our words and our resources to stop bombs, yes even super bombs. We can be the force of reconciliation and forgiveness in this world. Actually, we must. For we have the breath of the risen God within us.

We very rarely focus on the breaths we take, on the mechanisms of our body inhaling oxygen and exhaling CO2, the expansion and deflation of our lungs, the dispersion of molecules throughout our bodies. May we start to see that for what it is: a miracle. And may we ponder every single time who it is that gives us that breath, that gives us life.

Let me close with Peter’s words in his first letter to the churches: “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”[4]

 

[1] John 20:9

[2] Chivian, E. and A. Bernstein (eds.)  2008. Sustaining life: How human health depends on biodiversity. Center for Health and the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, New York.

[3] Acts 2:24

[4] 1 Peter 1:3-5