Back in 1995, 20th Century Fox released a movie called “Waiting to Exhale” which was a huge box office hit. It was the story of four women, each one hoping to find the love her life. As they searched for “Mr. Right” – it was as if they each held their breath, thus the title of the movie. We know about such situations, our lives are full of them, looking for acceptance, wanting to be loved, and holding our breath. The need for love is a basic human instinct. Holding our breath tends to be learned.
When I was a girl, every summer my grandmother and I went to a lake, and the first thing I was taught in my swimming lessons was how to hold my breath. This came even before the “dead man’s float”. All we little kids, of about age six, had to be good at holding our breath, and once our counselors felt we’d mastered that, we could move on to the next step, to floating. But holding our breath insured we weren’t going to drown in those minutes we spent face down in the water. We trusted our caring counselors, and we held our breath in order to live.
Even as adults, we hold our breath for many reasons. For many years, my mother lived on the third floor of a garden apartment complex – one with no elevators. She loved that apartment and felt secure and happy there, but oh those stairs. As she grew older, and the climb became more difficult, she’d struggle to get to the top. At the end she’d always say to me, “I have no idea why I always hold my breath when I climb these stairs.”
We tend to hold on to what we care for, to whomever cares for us, to what makes us happy, and we hold our breath when we are faced with a struggle or with stress. We don’t let go of what we cherish, and we don’t relax until all obstacles are overcome.
It was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.
Unlike the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John’s recounting of the resurrection happens quickly after Jesus death. There is no long pause between Easter morning and the events that followed. Everything of importance happens on that one day. We join the disciples in a moment so close to the loss of their friend and Rabbi, Jesus, we can feel their pain.
They were heartbroken, terrified, and probably a wee bit angry. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! They had to be wondering, now what were they supposed to do? They were in a locked room struggling to find a reason to believe. They actually hadn’t needed faith when they were with Jesus. God just happened over and over again. But now the doors were locked. They were hiding. They were not waiting. It isn’t even clear that they were praying. Jesus was gone – and mixed with their awful pain was the fear of the Jewish authorities, the fear that they, the disciples, might be next.
If we pause for a moment and try to put ourselves in their place we can somewhat imagine the flood of emotions pouring through them. They loved Jesus, and love doesn’t die with the person we love. We go on loving them. They trusted Jesus, depended on Him, believed He was the Messiah. And then something too horrible to accept happened and the disciples want answers, some sort of explanation, some sort of comfort. Jesus was gone. They felt like such fools! No, worse! He was their friend - and they had done nothing. Could He forgive them? Could they forgive Him? What had He wanted from them? And then it happened.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
They can see Him. Then they recognize Him, and they suddenly know what they need to do. “As the Father has sent me so I send you.” They were to do as Christ had done. And then, in a moment that mirrored the breath of Creation, Jesus breathed on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Forgive. Call people to change. Help them be forgiving.
And did it happen? Did they rush from the room energized and enlightened, once again secure in their faith? No! The doors stayed locked and the disciples were still frozen in time and place. They couldn’t even convince Thomas! The disciples had recognized Jesus – but Thomas could not recognize the risen Lord in them.
These are the men who walked with Jesus, who saw Him perform what John calls “signs” and the synoptic Gospels call “miracles”. Up until His terrible death they had no doubt that He was the Messiah, but nothing He’d done before stuck with them once He was dead.
"Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.
In the Church, we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, fifty days after Easter, but here in John it all happens immediately, on the night after Jesus’ resurrection, while emotions and feelings are still raw. In Greek, the word for breath and the word for spirit are the same. Jesus breathes on the disciples and breathes the Spirit into them. But breathing in the Spirit wasn’t enough. They had to learn to exhale.
“Peace be with you.” It was that simple. “Peace be with you”. Do you still need proof Thomas? Then touch me. But better to become the proof you seek. Become the forgiveness you have received.
At our baptism each of us received the Holy Spirit. Symbolically we were sprinkled with water, as Jesus was submerged in the Jordan river, but the true gift is something we cannot see. It is the breath of life being breathed into our souls – the gift of grace and holiness, the Holy Spirit that enters, and with this gift Jesus expects great things from each of us.
We are the ones called to spread the good news of Christ Jesus, to spread the Gospel, for that is what Gospel means – good news. We are to help others to know. Teach others to truly live - not as people afraid – not as people stuck in the futility of their past or in the shadow of death. We are to live knowing that because (Jesus’ words) I LIVE you will live.
We, who are so deeply loved by Jesus, are the people called to exhale. Forgive as we have been forgiven. Hold people close even as they struggle. There are no points for losing people for whom our Lord has died. And Thomas touched Jesus and exclaimed, My Lord, and my God. Perhaps it was it then that the disciples unlocked the doors.
Trusting Jesus and then reaching out is the beginning of holiness. Before Jesus came among them, the disciples, in their fear, were together, reaching out to each other. Thomas had to reach out - in order to touch the wounds on Jesus’ body. But then came the gift, the breath of life, the Holy Spirit. Beyond all reason or understanding, we are loved. And the Holy Spirit fills us with love and peace and empowers us to do the work Jesus has called us to do. It is not a gift given to be kept. It is a gift that grows greater and stronger in being given away. We cannot simply hold the breath of God inside. We must exhale.
We are the people for whom the disciples learned to truly breathe. We are baptized and the Spirit fills us: yet all too often we live as in a locked room, stuck in our own sinfulness, our mistakes, and our missed opportunities, overcome with a fear that we are not loved and that there are no answers that lead past failure into life.
Like the disciples, we must learn to exhale. We must unlock the doors. We cannot bind the Spirit. We can only loose the Spirit, so that Jesus’ Risen Life is visible in us and available as the Lord’s healing and transforming Presence in the world. Old habits die hard, and it seems so difficult, so far beyond us. But by the Lord has this been done! And, like the disciples, by the Lord we too are sent. It is our calling to exhale!
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, source of all health and healing, the spirit of calm, and the central peace of the universe, grant to us a deep consciousness of Your indwelling Presence that we may have total confidence in You. In all pain and weariness, help us to trust in Your enduring care, make us aware that we are flooded with and surrounded by Your love. And because we are so deeply loved by You, teach us to exhale, that in Your Name we may minister to all who suffer, and may spread Your love and peace throughout the world. All this we ask for Your love and mercy’s sake. Amen.