Text: John 20:19-23
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
28 May, 2023
The first time I saw a person die was at my father’s deathbed 14 years ago. In the final moments of his life, Dad was blessed to be surrounded by family and friends. We were at North Kansas City Hospital, standing around his bed and sharing memories, when I noticed that he stopped breathing. Unlike Hollywood depictions that mark the moment of death with great drama, there was very little drama when Dad died. There were some muffled sobs but mostly silence. Part of it was the culture of my family. We don’t show emotion in public. But it wasn’t just that. What struck me most about my father’s death was that he simply stopped breathing. It was so peaceful, almost unnoticeable.
Breath is life. We draw our last breath when we die. This is not just a biological fact; there’s some fascinating theology behind the connection between breath and life. In the account of Creation in Genesis, we read “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). It was the breath of God that gave life to Adam and birth to the human race.
In today’s Gospel from John, we have another story of breath and life. Following Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples are in hiding for fear of their lives. It is Sunday, two days after Jesus’ death. Earlier in the day, they had heard a strange story from Mary Magdalene about seeing Jesus alive at the tomb. The disciples are confused. And then suddenly Jesus appears to them in the room. He stands in their midst and greets them: “Peace be with you.” He then shows them his hands and his side. This account of Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to the disciples concludes with his breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23). This is a direct recalling of the Genesis story of Creation. Just as God breathed life into Adam, now Jesus breathes new life – a life of the Spirit – into his disciples.
The Holy Spirit’s descent in John’s Gospel, sometimes called “the Johannine Pentecost,” is not as well-known as the account in the Book of Acts. We are more familiar with the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples and other followers with the sound of rushing wind, tongues of fire, and speaking in tongues (Acts 2:1-11). So, the disciples seem to have received a double dose of the Holy Spirit, the first time when Jesus appeared to them on the day of his resurrection, as recounted in John’s Gospel, and the second, after his ascension, in the Book of Acts.
What about for us here today? When and how did we receive the Holy Spirit? Unlike our Pentecostal and charismatic sisters and brothers, we Episcopalians and other mainline Protestants don’t talk a lot about the Holy Spirit. Of the Three Persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit seems the most difficult to grasp – mysterious and elusive. But the Holy Spirit is an integral part of our theology, liturgy, and daily walk of faith. Indeed, the Holy Spirit dwells in all of us who call Jesus Lord and Savior.
It is in the waters of baptism that the Holy Spirit comes to us. Just as the disciples received the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them, we receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, when we are baptized. This is reflected in our liturgy. Some of you may have noticed that at our Easter Vigil a few weeks ago, during the blessing of the water in the baptismal font, Fr. Charles blew on the water. This ancient practice of ritual blowing represents our belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, in the waters of baptism. I have heard that in the Orthodox Church, the priest actually blows on the face of the baptismal candidate, an even more direct allusion to Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples.
When we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, our lives are changed forever. In the waters of baptism, we die to our old selves, and we rise to new life. We commit to live no longer for ourselves but for God and neighbor. We vow to love and serve, and to lead faithful and holy lives. As disciples of Jesus, we try to follow his teachings and the model that he has set for us. But we know how difficult all this can be in the face of the many struggles and temptations that come our way.
Fr. Larry Parrish, our Priest Associate, and his wife, Mary, are not here with us today, so I’m going to talk about them. I’ve noticed that when Fr. Larry celebrates Mass during the weekdays, he does something different at the dismissal. While most priests and deacons will say, “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” Fr. Larry, on the other hand, will say, “by the power of the Holy Spirit, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” And I recently found out, this past week in fact at a committee meeting, that it is Mary who has persuaded Fr. Larry to do this.
In my conversations with Fr. Larry and Mary over the years, I have learned a lot from their robust theology of the Holy Spirit, rare for Episcopalians – their previous Methodist background may something to do with it. Fr. Larry and Mary have taught me that all our efforts to love and serve, and to be faithful and holy are in vain if we think we can do them on our own. Even with all the hard work and spiritual disciplines, we will never be satisfied. We are doomed to failure. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us, that we can overcome the challenges and obstacles. The Holy Spirit is the source of our strength, wisdom, and guidance. The Holy Spirit is no less than the life-giving breath of God in our lives. We cannot live without the Holy Spirit.
On this Feast of Pentecost, we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. Pentecost is the birth of the Church. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles went out into the world to proclaim the Gospel and establish the Church’s foundations. In our baptism, we, too, have received the Holy Spirit, and we are called to continue the work that the apostles have begun. So, dear sisters and brothers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
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