Day of Pentecost – June 4, 2017/John 20:19-23
What, exactly, is this Spirit?
Wind, breath, tongues of fire – Spirit talk feels mysterious and crazy and a little like trying to understand a bunch of drunken talk. That’s certainly what those early witnesses thought. Not since their ancestors piled up stone upon stone to build a tower that would reach into heaven had they each been able to hear their own language spoken by others not from their region. They were amazed and perplexed, yes. They also figured these followers of Christ had sipped a little too much of the communion wine. That was the only reasonable explanation.
John’s account of the Spirit’s coming is a little less dramatic, perhaps. In his telling, the Spirit comes through a simple breath. With an exhalation of air that tickles the hairs on the disciples’ faces, Jesus breathes, and the Holy Spirit slips inside them, quietly but powerfully.
In the story of creation in Genesis, the breath of God fills a lump of clay and it becomes a living being. Poet James Weldon Johnson tells the story this way:
Then God sat down–
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
No other creature received the breath of God as it came into being. No other creature that God created became a living soul. Perhaps, when Jesus breathed on the disciples, he felt they needed a little soul food. And that food took the form of the Holy Spirit.
That food would nourish them for the job Jesus would give them. “At the moment in which Jesus breathes his Spirit into his gathered disciples, [he makes of them] a missionary society, a witness for Jesus’ way in the world.” As silently as a breath, the Spirit settles on the disciples, and with it comes Jesus’ commission to forgive sins. The gift of the Holy Spirit makes Jesus’ followers “a community in which forgiveness is firmly lodged.”
After this breath seeps into their souls, the disciples don’t run around jabbering in foreign languages they’ve never studied. In fact, if you read the rest of John’s gospel, they don’t seem very different at all. So what difference did it make?
Look back at the words Jesus says to the disciples in greeting. Coming and standing among them, Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” The disciples were gathered behind closed doors, afraid that the people who had come for Jesus, who had crucified him, might also come for them. They were frightened and on edge. Even though they had accompanied Jesus for three years, even though they had heard him preach and teach, even though they had witnessed incredible miracles of healing and feeding and exorcising, they were stuck. They had no strength to move forward in ministry. They had no desire to step out in faith in this Jesus who had died and, some said, risen again.
Jesus stepped into that space of fear and inertia. Not once, but twice, he offered peace. He offered direction to get them “unstuck” – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” He offered the Holy Spirit to strengthen and equip them for the mission ahead.
On their own, the disciples could not step out of their fear and leave that locked room. On their own, the disciples could not create a community in which all would be welcome because the sins of all would be forgiven. With a little soul food, Jesus nourished their commitment to their calling. With a little soul food, Jesus prepared them for the ministry that lay before them. With a little soul food, Jesus called them into community.
That community would live through the breath of Jesus Christ – just as Adam lived by the breath of God. Infused with the Spirit, the community would become a place of sanctuary and hope, of love and forgiveness, of ministry and discipleship. The gift of the Spirit would bring the gift of understanding.
Peter Gomes, former minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard, points out that “the gift of Pentecost overcame the curse of Babel.” While the Spirit made it possible for the disciples to speak in a way that people from all lands could understand, it did not erase the diversity that made them unique. “No, they did not become less than they were, they became more than they had been, for they became at one with all of those who heard and understood that God was alive and active in this world and eager that they, all of them, should participate in his purposes.”
John the Baptizer told people that his cousin, Jesus, would bring a special gift of understanding, but of course, the people didn’t understand what he meant. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16).
We may not have been present in that room with the early disciples, but we are not without the gift of the Spirit today. The Study Catechism of the Presbyterian Church asks, “How do you live in the communion of the Holy Spirit?” The answer states:
By the Holy Spirit, I am made one with the Lord Jesus Christ. I am baptized into Christ’s body, the church, along with others who confess him by faith. As a member of this community, I trust in God’s Word, share in the Lord’s Supper, and turn to God constantly in prayer. As I grow in grace and knowledge, I am led to do the good works God intends for my life.
Today we celebrate those of our number who graduate this spring. Whether from high school or college, you graduates may be filled with certainty about what the future holds for you. Or you may be filled with fear and trepidation, much like those early disciples. To you – and to all of us here this morning – I encourage you to remember that, like those early Christians, you are nourished by the soul food of the Spirit. Through the Spirit you receive the gift “of understanding, of knowing who and whose [you] are.” You do not leave empty handed. You do not leave without an assignment. You leave with the knowledge of the love of Christ and the gift of the Spirit to sustain you for the journey ahead.
Thanks be to God the Father, to Jesus Christ his only Son, and to the Holy Spirit, who makes us one. Amen.
 James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation”
 Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John, 283
 Gerard S. Sloyan, Interpretation: John, 225
 Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, 100
 The Study Catechism, 2
 Gomes, 101