Second Sunday of Easter
John 20: 19-31
By Ron Berezan
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “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. John 20:19-22
Living in fear can be hazardous to your health. Refugees, women subject to domestic violence, the imprisoned, the poor, the conquered and the otherwise oppressed and marginalized live with this daily. Not knowing who might burst through that locked door at any time and what violence they may inflict. Not knowing what tomorrow holds. Never sure who you can trust. Shallow breath, tension, always on edge. Exhaustion. Fear and locked doors.
Such was the state of this huddled group of counter-cultural Jewish radicals left in confusion and fear for their lives after the brutal murder of their teacher and friend. Into this breech Jesus enters, we are told, and declares the words, “Peace be with you.” Shalom. Was it enough to calm their fears? Doubtful, I would think, as words alone rarely are. And so Jesus undertakes an action that goes much deeper, and that, as so often was the case in his ministry, cuts through convention and shifts the interaction completely: he breathes on them and declares “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And that changes everything.
For the Jewish faithful steeped in the Torah, we must remember the deep connection between breath, spirit and life. The Hebrew word vayinnafash, to draw breath, is closely related to nefesh the Hebrew word for spirit or life principle. When the first human Adamah (“earthly one”) is formed from clay he is breathed into being by the divine source of all life. Breath is synonymous with being. It is both its source and its sustenance. Thus the psalmist exudes in wonder:
All creatures depend on you to feed them throughout the year;
You provide the food they eat.
With generous hand you satisfy their hunger.
You turn your face away and they suffer.
You stop their breath, they die and return to dust.
You give breath, fresh life begins.
You keep renewing the world.
– Psalm 104: 27-30
This line of Biblical panentheistic (all things in God and God in all things) wisdom affirms a divine presence in all beings, a continuity between humans and all creatures who are likewise animated by nefesh. Indeed, respiration is a biological act that we share with all life on this planet. From orcas to grizzly bears, banana slugs to fungi, Douglas fir to bald eagles, the first and most essential need of all life is respiration. The air we breathe travels through the fluids of our bodies joining the elements of earth we have ingested to ignite the fires of metabolism within us. And so we live, move and have our being.
It is a condition of this life that we are caught up in a great conspiracy – a great “breathing together”. From the earliest origins of life on Earth some four billion years ago, we have been linked into a symphony of reciprocity that has played out through an infinite number of breaths: inhaling the oxygen given to us by plants and returning the carbon dioxide that plants need for their life. With every breath we draw life and we give life as well. Balance, relationship, interdependence. Both from the biblical wisdom tradition and from our ecological lens today, salvation is with all creation and not from creation.
But there is an ethical dimension to the biblical vision of breath as well. The origins of Sabbath reside in Yahweh’s pausing and taking of breath on the seventh day (Exodus 31:17). And Sabbath ethics become the foundation of Jewish identity and the defining mark of the covenant. The ideal of Sabbath recognizes the imperative for the relatively powerful in society to allow others (human and non-human alike) room to breathe:
For six days you shall do your work, but stop on the seventh day, so that you ox and your donkey may rest and the son of your slave girl have a breathing space, and the stranger too. (Ex 23:12)
For life to flourish, imbalances of power and resources must be kept in check and corrected when necessary. The Peace that Jesus proclaims is rooted in this Sabbath and Jubilee tradition. When Jesus breathes on the disciples, he evokes this deeper reality of the reign of God that defies empire and offers the possibility for “fresh life” to begin. When the chains of fear are broken, peace becomes possible.
To be faithful to this life giving vision means to be attentive to those, human and non-human alike, whose breath is denied, who are being suffocated by the dominate culture. It means to conspire with the indigenous keepers of this land in solidarity for liberation from colonialism and a return to balance. To remember that to violate the sacred trust of reciprocity is to threaten the well-being of the land, waters and all creatures. We commit ourselves again to drawing deeply from the Breath that creates and sustains us so that we may in turn do our work of healing and sustaining the world.
Ron Berezan draws his breath from the traditional Coast Salish territory of the Tla’Amin first nation on the BC coast. His people migrated as peasant farmers to the prairies of Alberta from Ukraine and Poland in the 1920’s. He settled on the west coast with his family seven years ago where he is a permaculture teacher and practitioner and a soon to be ordained “eco-deacon” in the Anglican church.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, Priest in Charge of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.