When Jesus appears to the disciples they are huddled together in a locked room in fear that the Jewish authorities will come for them next. Jesus had said that when the shepherd is smitten the flock will scatter. They had scattered and now they are together again, I suppose, because misery loves company.
Jesus has every right to be angry and confrontational. But Jesus doesn’t scold or rebuke them does he? Jesus speaks a word of peace, a word of acceptance and hope.
Crushed, no doubt, by the weight of their betrayal, full of fear and guilt, it’s what they desperately needed to hear. I’m sure they at first wondered, Could this be true? Is God this forgiving and full of grace? Can we really trust this? He tells them again, a second time: “Peace be with you.” It is true.
Jesus wants his disciples to know that their betrayal, their breach of covenant loyalty, did not dissolve the covenant, did not result in their rejection. They are loved and accepted.
This is where we all have to start or, perhaps, come back to – that we are accepted in spite of all our failures and betrayals, that we are accepted even though we do not deserve to be accepted.
But to claim acceptance for ourselves means that we have to claim acceptance for everyone else. God’s gift of peace is not just for our group, it’s for the cosmos, and we who have heard that word and accepted it, are called by God to spread that word.
Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And then the text declares that Jesus “breathed on them” and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The imagery here evokes the description of God breathing on the human creature in Gen. 2:7 where the human creature became a living being.
But here it is Jesus breathing on his disciples. The point here is that the very Spirit that sustains human life is the Spirit that empowered Jesus, and that Spirit is now in us.
The story of Jesus as passed on to us in our sacred tradition is our definitive revelation of God – this is why our Scriptures refer to Jesus as the Word of God and the Wisdom of God and the fullness of God.
The theological term we use to talk about this is incarnation. Jesus reveals in flesh and blood, through his human life what the Divine is like.
But incarnation is not a once-for-all single event; it is ongoing. When Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he is charging us, his followers, with the responsibility and privilege of carrying forward this process, of continuing this movement of incarnating God tangibly and materially, in human life – in human relationships and interactions.
In his book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It Robert Fulghum tells bout the remarkable work done by a remarkable man named Alexander Papaderos. He leads an institute that is devoted to healing the wounds left by war. The institute was built on land where Germans and Cretans killed each other in the conflict that was WWII. At the wars end this man came to believe that the Germans and Cretans had much to give to one another and learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could.
Fulghum attended a seminar at that institute led by Dr. Papaderos. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Papaderos invited questions. The seminar, says Fulghum, had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but in the final moments there was only silence. So Fulghum broke the silence, “Dr. Padaderos, what is the meaning of life?”
Laughter followed as the participants stirred to go. But Dr. Papaderos took the question seriously. He held up his hand and stilled the room. He took his wallet out of his pocket and brought out a very small mirror, about the size of quarter.
He explained that when he was a small child, during the war, his family lived in a remote village and they were very poor. One day, on the road, he found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had wrecked in that place.
He tried to find all the pieces and put it together, but that, of course, was not impossible. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone, he smoothed the edges and rounded it. He began to play with it as a toy and was fascinated that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun did not shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for him to get light into the most inaccessible places he could find.
As he grew up, he realized that the game he played with the mirror as a child was a metaphor for what life was calling him to do. He realized that he was not the light, not the source of light, but the light of truth and understanding would only shine in many of the dark places if he could reflect it.
He said to Fulghum, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of the world — into the black places in the hearts of people — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about.”
There is light and darkness in all of us, and sometimes we have to see the light reflected in others to see the darkness and the light in us.
God cannot force us to reflect the light; we have to be willing. If we are willing God will reflect grace and truth through us, maybe even in some very dark places. We will each one do that in different ways and in different degrees. But that is what we are about.
We are all broken pieces of the mirror. And that, too, is part of what we share. Just at it is the broken bread that is shared in Holy Communion, so it is our broken lives that are shared with one another. Paul said to the Corinthians that God’s wisdom is demonstrated through our weakness, not our strength.
Maybe this is the meaning of Jesus showing them his wounds in his hands and side. God uses broken, wounded vessels who are humble, vulnerable, are honest about their weaknesses and limitations.
It’s interesting that forgiveness is highlighted in v. 23 after Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Is this the first and primary work of the Holy Spirit? Maybe so. It was central in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Certainly our capacity to be divine image bearers, to reflect the light and love of God, is directly tied to our capacity to forgive. Jesus, modeled this, when the first words he said to the disciples who deserted him was, “Peace be with you.” There is no peace without forgiveness, there is no hope, no future together without forgiveness.
But what does it mean to retain sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Sin has to be admitted in order for forgiveness to be experienced, even if forgiveness has already been granted. The only sin that can keep us from God is our failure to acknowledge our sin. This is why spiritual blindness is so detrimental to the spiritual life because it keeps us from seeing our faults and shortcomings and engaging in self-judgment.
If we live an incarnational life animated and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, we will be known as a forgiven and forgiving people. To live in the breath of the Spirit is to inhale and exhale forgiveness; it’s the atmosphere in which the Divine Life is lived – it’s the air we breathe.
I love the story of the little girl who woke up during a thunderstorm and was afraid. After a bright flash of lightning and loud roar of thunder she ran to her parents room. Her mother awoke and asked her what was wrong. She told her mother she was afraid. Her mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid, sweetie, God is with you.” Very astutely her daughter responded, “That’s nice, mother, but I want some one with skin on her face.”
Isn’t that what it means to live an incarnational life and to be an incarnational community and to engage in an incarnational mission and ministry? We are called to be the skin on the face of God.
How can we be skin on the face of God in our church, in our workplace, among family and friends? What needs to change, what needs to happen in my life, your life, for us to be skin on the face of God?
Our good God, we humans are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. We partake of both dust and divinity. Help us to realize that because your Spirit gives us life, we will never know our full destiny and purpose until we are filled and empowered by your Spirit, until we awaken and fulfill our calling as divine image bearers. May the fire within us be kindled and the light set free to shine so that our lives, our conversations and relationships reflect your character and point others to the grace and truth that became incarnate in Christ. Amen.
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Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of “Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith.” (http://nurturingfaith.info/Being-a-Progressive-Christian/)