Jesus says to the hiding, huddled, frightened disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination at a hotel in Memphis. He was 39 years old. On this anniversary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was there when Dr. King was killed, offered his reflections on that tragic day. Jackson writes, “As the news of Martin’s death spread, as many Americans moved from shock and sorrow to rage and flames, we had a choice. To surrender to our own anguish and anger, or honor the slain prince of peace by picking up the baton of nonviolent direct action. We took that baton and with deep breaths we continued what King had begun.” Jackson continues, “Martin Luther King, Jr. has been our moral guidepost for 50 years. His spirit is alive today with the high school students of Parkland, Fla., as they push the country toward sensible gun control. It is alive with the Black Lives Matter movement. It is alive with the Dreamers who work to find a path to American citizenship.”
Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It isn’t just coincidence that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked a non-violent movement for racial reconciliation and equality and ultimately gave up his own life in the fight to bring economic justice for the poor. He was a Baptist minister, deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith, deeply convicted by God’s compassion for the poor and marginalized, deeply moved by the suffering of his people. He had deeply inhaled the exhale of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of love.
So it isn’t just a turn of phrase when Jesse Jackson writes, “we took the baton from Dr. King and with deep breathes, continued the work he had begun. And is isn’t just a turn of phrase when he says that the spirit of King continues to move people to non-violent direct action to bring abundant life to all persons. Jackson is naming a spiritual reality. The Spirit who moved King’s spirit, the Spirit whom King inhaled, the Spirit in whom he lived, moved, and had being is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Creation, the Spirit of life, the Spirit of Jesus—this being who both gives us life and compels us to care deeply about the lives of others.
When Jesus appears to the disciples alive after being crucified, dead, and buried, then breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” the gospel writer John is signaling that with the resurrection of Jesus human life begins again. He is announcing the advent of God’s new creation. In the very beginning of the Biblical story, God forms the first human being from the dust of the earth, then bends and breathes God’s own life into that earth creature. It is intimate. Moist warm breath, like the breath of a lover, is slowly exhaled onto the skin, into the mouth and nose of this human being who is awakening to life. The Hebrew word for breath is “ruach.” Literally it means, “air in motion” and the same Hebrew word is used for God’s Spirit. So if “ruach” describes both God’s breathe and God’s Spirit in motion then the creation story is about God’s life and God’s love in motion. In creation God’s life and love are being poured out, shared, freely given, producing beauty and abundance and delight.
Now, the Bible isn’t a science book, and this story is not relating a historical event. The Biblical story is told in conviction that God is the source of all life, and that human beings exist in a unique relationship with God and the rest of creation. Human beings are created in beautiful intimacy and blessed by God to be God’s partners in the ongoing joy of creating and caring for the earth and the neighbor.
Creation is John’s frame of reference as he tells the story of Jesus. In love for creation, in longing and love for all the world’s people, God is exhaling God’s own life and love in the person of Jesus. And Jesus is inhaling like mad—just sucking in all that holy Spirit breath—so that through him creation and human beings can get a fresh start, a re-launch, a new beginning and way to live. Fresh from the grave, with lungs full of Spirit in motion, with wounds still visible on his body, Jesus gets as close as he can to his frightened disciple, releases some long whooshing breaths on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” And I wonder, what did they do in response? Did they try not to breath in? Did they cover their faces? Did they shrink back from Jesus? Or were they like a baby whose mother blows in his face so that he gulps his lungs full of air before being dunked under the water? Did they gasp in surprise and take in that Holy Spirit breath without even meaning to?
And I wonder if they knew that day what it would even mean to inhale that Jesus-Spirit holy exhale? I wonder if they knew that it would make them fearless? I wonder if they knew that it would draw them into a community in which no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but held everything in common? I wonder if they knew that they would become a community in which everyone was welcomed, regardless of social class, skin color, nationality, gender or personhood? I wonder if they knew that they would face opposition, and even death if they inhaled that God—Jesus—holy Spirit exhale? And I wonder how far into his non-violent fight against racism, poverty Dr. King realized that his inhale of God’s life and justice-seeking love could cost him his life?
No doubt the disciples had a clue about some of this stuff. They had seen what life immersed in the Spirit of God had meant for Jesus. They had witnessed how he lived and loved and died. And they had experienced him very much alive again. As the story unfolds we can see that they inhaled God’s life and love in motion, without reserve, and lived into God’s new creation as creatures re-born, sent into the world like Jesus was sent.
But really it turns out not to be so easy as one nice big gulp of Spirit breath. Once and done. Because we breathe in other spirits. The spirit of consumer capitalism. The spirit of pasts that have wounded us. The spirit of American individualism which says what you earn and possess is yours. The spirit of racism. The spirit of national protectionism. The spirit of fear. We breathe in other spirits.
It is, as Jesse Jackson writes, a matter of choosing. In the days after Dr. King’s assassination, he and others had to choose whether to give in to a spirit of anguish and anger, or to inhale and co-operate with the Spirit of the Prince of Peace. We have to choose which spirits we will receive and let direct our lives. And our choosing requires us to live in mindfulness of the other spirits that daily beckon us. We gather here every week to find support for our choosing. To open ourselves to the Spirit. To hear God’s love story. To offer our praise to God and our prayers for ourselves and the world. We gather here to inhale the eternal Spirit of life who is as near as our own breath, and inspires us to be less afraid and more courageous; inspires us to forgive more and be more generous with ourselves and our possessions. We go out from here as people exhaled into the world by the endless re-creating life and love of God. We are God’s life and love in motion.