Harrowing Of Hell
April 7, 2013

From Being Closed Up to Being Called Out

Preacher: The Rev Kate Wesch

Acts 5:27-32, John 20:19-31

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How often do you think about your breathing?  Is it only when it is compromised by allergies, or a cold, or endless coughing that keeps you up in the middle of the night? Maybe it’s when you sit down for meditation or prayer.  As you sit in stillness, listening for that still, small voice, letting your thoughts flow in and out, you feel your chest rise and fall…..rise and fall.

We become aware of our breathing when it is labored; when we are walking up a steep hill, or pushing our bodies in a difficult workout, or when we see someone in distress or dying.

Breath and breathing is often a metaphor for life.  In the creation story, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” and the first human was given life.  Also in Genesis, it is described that all of the great patriarchs of our faith “breathed their last” and died.  In each biblical description of death, for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they “breathed their last at a good old age” or “he breathed his last and was gathered to his people.”  She breathed her last and was gathered to her people.  What a beautiful way to describe death, a miracle just as incredible as that first breath at birth.

The verb “breathed” appears only five times in the four gospels.  In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus cried with a loud voice and “breathed his last.”  Only in Mark’s gospel is the verb used again, this time it is just after he “breathed his last” and the centurion watching all of this “saw that in this way he breathed his last” and “he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!”

John’s gospel is the only account that doesn’t describe Jesus’ death as “breathing his last.”  Instead, John describes the death in this way, “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”  Gave up his spirit, in Greek, “pneuma,” which can also mean breath.  He bowed his head and gave up his breath.  The only place in John in which the verb “breathed” is used is in today’s gospel reading. The risen Christ commissions the gathered community of faith with his literal breath, his literal spirit, and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Let us for a moment; try to imagine what it might have been like to be gathered in that room that night.  Your teacher, your mentor, your friend has just died, executed in a most brutal fashion at the hands of the despised authorities. His body was lovingly and extravagantly anointed in one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, wrapped in linen cloths, and finally laid to rest in the tomb.  The healing could begin, some closure after those turbulent and violent final days, but then Mary Magdalene discovered the missing body and the empty tomb.

And that was it, the grand finale, the punch line, the ridiculously simple explanation for why we are here today, this second Sunday of Easter, a missing body and a resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, that gave us eternal life.  But the story doesn’t end there, it actually begins again…

The disciples are emotionally exhausted.  The resurrection must have been terrifying.  It sent them right over the edge; so here they are, cowering behind locked doors waiting to see what surprise will happen next.  Jesus certainly doesn’t disappoint.

But it’s interesting. They are hiding behind closed doors and the Greek word for closed is kleisto.  Kleisto is directly related to the Greek word ekklesia, which means church.  Broken down further, ekklesia means “to call out” or a people “called out from the world and to God.”  So, in those terrifying moments between the dark, emptiness of the tomb and the startling resurrection, the disciples move from being closed up to being called out.

The community was gathered in a locked room, for fear of persecution because they were followers of Jesus.  They were panic stricken, scared, unsure of what to do next and then suddenly, Jesus appears in their midst.  He appeared in their midst and showed them what he had shown Mary Magdalene just that morning in the garden, that he was no longer dead, but resurrected!

Jesus announces his resurrected presence by showing them the marks on his hands and his side and when they rejoice, he sends them forth into the world.  Jesus commissions his followers with a gift of breath and the Holy Spirit.  Breath from the risen Jesus empowers the community to continue his work drawing on the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Way back in the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus promised this to his disciples and his followers.  He promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit, but said it wouldn’t happen until he had been glorified.  At the time, they had no idea what he was talking about.  When he had been glorified?  What is that supposed to mean?  But now, now that he has been resurrected from the dead, they are beginning to understand.

All of the things he taught them, all of the things he preached, the stories he told, and his sometimes unexplainable actions are starting to make sense in an entirely new way.

It’s like watching a movie with a totally unexpected twist at the end that causes you to rethink the entire plot.  The twist is so startling and brilliant that you want to rewind and watch it all again from the start.

This is the second creation story.  This breathing of the Holy Spirit onto a group of frightened disciples, cowering in a locked room is the new creation.  But this time, maybe things will be different.  This time, the Holy Spirit is the breath and that breath will sustain this new life, this new creation.

Through the resurrection, we are given new life, new spirit.  With a new breath, it is time to begin again.