Text: John 20:19-23
Speaker: Mark Rup
I don’t think I ever truly learned how to breathe until last year during my sabbatical. Sure, I’ve been regularly taking in air for more than thirty-three years at this point, and sure, I was a music major with a focus on voice in college where I learned the importance of “proper” breathing technique.
But all that time, I was mostly taking breath for granted or submitting it to my will as a tool, as a means to an end.
During my sabbatical, though, one of the things I did was begin practicing yoga, which has, over time, opened me to recognizing the beauty and power of breath. I had explored yoga before this, but never in a regular, sustained way. I decided that I wanted to use my sabbatical to really commit to this practice because, as someone whose personality tends to live in a constant struggle between the head and the heart, I saw it as a way of finding balance not just in the literal, physical sense but in a deeply spiritual sense as well. And so, with all sorts of time on my hands, it became an almost daily practice for me during those two months of my sabbatical.
Those two months have now turned into almost a year and a half, and the practice has continued to transform me in deeply spiritual ways.
I’ve done my best not to be “that guy” because I’ve heard the jokes about how most people don’t realize that it’s possible to do yoga without telling anyone about it. But when I was at the MCUSA Convention last week, I heard a rumor that at some point in previous convention history the idea of offering yoga as one of the early morning group activities was rejected because of some non-specific fears about Eastern religion. Instead, they now offer Zumba every morning, which seems a bit ironic that sexy Latin-inspired dance would go unquestioned by those same people.
I would have my own fears about offering yoga during convention, but they would be more about cultural appropriation and commodification of non-Western traditions that erase the history of racism embedded in the way dominant powers have sought to control and suppress non-Western traditions like yoga.
I wonder if these were the same fears that convention planners had...
It can be hard to walk the line of appreciation versus appropriation, but I want to claim that practicing yoga with roots in the Hindu tradition has deepened my appreciation for breath as not just a physical but also a spiritual life force. The union of breath with movement and the intentional and sustained focus on breathing throughout the practice has helped me develop a greater awareness of the power of breath to transform life both on and off the mat. Over the last year and a half I have found myself becoming less reactive when stresses enter my life, reflexively breathing deeply rather than instantly feeling the need to rush into a response.
Learning to breathe means I have begun to learn how to respond to the world around me in ways that stem from the core of who I am rather than from places of fear. It has taught me to better appreciate the embodied, incarnate experience of spiritual reality; body and soul in union rather than in contrast with one another. The very word “yoga” is a sanskrit word meaning “union” or “yoke” as in the device that joins cattle so they can work together.
And while the practice of yoga is what helped me finally learn to truly breathe, it is not as though there aren’t plenty of connections to the idea of breath as spiritual force in our own tradition. The Hebrew word ruach, meaning breath, wind, or spirit is found in the opening lines of Genesis: “The ruach of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” And a few verses later God breathes life and spirit into the dust to create humankind. The Divine breathe is creative energy, bringing order out of chaos, beauty out of the dust. Even the name of God first given to Moses at the burning bush that is sometimes written in bibles as the letters Y-H-W-H or translated as the name Yahweh is thought to mimic the sound of breathing.
With every breath we take, we breathe the name of God.
When was the last time you breathed deeply? When was the last time the Spirit and power of the Divine felt as close as breath?
This same Spirit continues to blow through the stories of the New Testament, and in the passage for this morning we find Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit over the disciples, telling them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
This passage is the one that was used during all of the worship services during the MCUSA convention last week in Kansas City, and I wanted to spend a little time this morning reflecting on my experience there. I think Joel will also be preaching on these same verses in a few weeks and talking about his experience. But I figured that those of us at the convention sat through seven worship services that used the same scripture, so I’m hoping Columbus Mennonite will be ok with just two.
Each of the speakers during convention unpacked the story in a different way, drawing out different aspects of the text. But when I read it and think about the convention and the state of our denomination, and even further, the state of our world, I can’t help but focus in on this idea of breath.
The passage opens by letting us know that it is evening on the first day of the week. It is what we would know as the evening of Easter Sunday. Only days before, these companions of Jesus had watched him get put on trial, sentenced to die, and eventually crucified. Many of these people had left homes and families to follow Jesus, and suddenly a future that felt so full of possibility was thrown into a pit of uncertainty. And if this were not enough, earlier on that first day of the week, Mary Magdalene had come back with stories of an empty tomb and a living Jesus appearing to her.
This “first day of the week” was a time of uncertainty, a time of mourning loss, a time of discerning identity in the face of new realities. And, as we read, it was also a time of deep fear.
The text says that the disciples had closed themselves off behind a locked door out of fear of “the Jews,” but we should be clear that this is referring only to certain Jewish authorities. Any reading that tries to set this up as a narrative with all Jews as the antagonists not only misses the reality that these early disciples would have still considered themselves to be Jewish, such a reading also reflects a dangerous anti-Jewish bias that is all too prevalent in Christianity. There is no need to cast all Jews as the enemy to be able to recognize the very real fear that exists in the face of anyone who uses power in violent and oppressive ways, regardless of the belief system or ideology they represent.
This first day of the week found the disciples filled with this very real fear.
Fear naturally makes our breath shallower and faster. As our fight or flight systems kick in, our breathing often speeds and our heart rate accelerates. In many ways this natural reaction is a necessary survival mechanism.
But it is not sustainable.
A community filled with fear in a locked room can lead to a lack of oxygen that makes that community unsustainable. Fear and isolation serve to create spaces that cannot support life but leave communities gasping for air.
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
It is into our spaces of fear that Jesus shows up and breathes words of peace. With those words, “Peace be with you,” which Jesus says twice to the gathered disciples, it’s almost as if a rush of fresh air enters that room.
But he doesn’t just show up to offer comfort, to bring fresh air into that space of fear where the air had gone stale. He also gives them purpose. Or, more accurately, he reminds them of the purpose they have been preparing for all along. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
And with this, he breathes the Holy Spirit over them, commissioning them to continue the work of bringing peace to the ends of the earth.
Breathing in and breathing out.
I think I read this text and focus on the way Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit over the disciples because it sometimes seems like the Church has become a community of fear hiding behind locked doors, in desperate need of someone to throw open the windows and let the winds of the Spirit flow through the room. Glen Guyton, the Executive Director of MCUSA and one of the convention worship speakers said that too often we find ourselves “locked in our holy huddles, afraid that the world is going to contaminate us.”
Four years ago, MCUSA gathered in the same convention center in Kansas City, and it was during this 2015 convention that the disagreements over matters of sexuality and identity came to a head. By the end of that convention, the delegates had passed two resolutions that said opposing things; the first a resolution saying that we as a denomination would “forebear” with one another across these theological differences but the second saying that we reassert the official position of the denomination as one that does not affirm LGBTQ people or support their full participation in the life of the Church.
After that convention many congregations and conferences chose to walk away from the denomination. Many were deeply wounded by the theological violence done to LGBTQ people within and beyond our denomination. All were confused about what the decisions really meant for the future.
It was a time of confusion, uncertainty, mourning, loss, and fear.
When we showed up these four years later, more than one person commented about how the corridors and hallways and meeting rooms still seemed to carry a heaviness within them.
We were a people in need of fresh air and breathing deeply of the Spirit.
It would be nice to say that there was a moment where Jesus showed up unexpectedly and made everything right. It would be nice to say that four years later everything had been made right. But I don’t think either of those things are true.
What I will say, however, is that my experience at convention this year has given me renewed hope for the future of our denomination. Windows have been cracked and the winds of fresh air seem to be rushing in. During the convention this year the delegates voted to grant participants in the youth delegate program full voting rights, giving a bigger voice and more power to the younger voices of our denomination.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
This year a representative from the denominational leadership announced that they would be consulting with the various LGBTQ advocacy groups within MCUSA about how to move forward with a process to address the harm done by the second resolution that was passed four years ago. This is a monumental shift considering it was not that long ago that these same groups were denied official space within conventions.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
This year a group of delegates organized a grassroots campaign to write and present a resolution to the delegate body titled, “A Churchwide Statement on the Abuse of Child Migrants.” This last-minute resolution contained seven commitments, including the commitment to, “Recognize that no situation is so complex as to justify the building of internment camps and the abuse of children.” The resolution passed almost unanimously, and I heard that one of the few dissenting votes was because it didn’t go far enough.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Our hope should never be in our denomination or our churchwide statements because our hope comes from God. But what I saw at this convention is a community of people learning to breathe deeply once again and using that breath to breathe peace back into the world.
Beyond denominational politics and concerns there is plenty to be afraid of in this world right now. Today, likely as we sit here, our president is using his power to enact terror on people across this country, ripping families apart and disregarding the humanity of immigrants and asylum seekers. Indeed, no situation is so complex as to justify the evil that is being done. We are afraid for our friends and our neighbors and ourselves. We are angry at what is being done in our name. We mourn those who have been killed. We are confused about what we ought to be doing or what the future holds.
But we must not allow ourselves to become a community that is only held together by fear, locking ourselves behind doors and refusing to believe that new life is possible. As we figure out where God is calling us in these troubling, fear-filled times, we must all learn to breathe deeply. We must learn to respond to the world from the core of who we are and to offer peace back into the world with every breath.
The good news is that the presence and power of God are as close to us as breath, and the deeper we breathe of this Divine Spirit the more we are able to offer peace to the world.
Glen Guyton closed his sermon with the challenge to think about how we are going to “bring the peace,” and this week I used the Midweek Blog to invite your responses to that challenge. Some of you are going to bring the peace by reaching out to loved ones to nurture delicate relationships. Some of you are going to bring the peace by offering your care and concern to immigrants and their families. Some of you are going to bring the peace by being a non-anxious presence. Some of you are going to bring the peace by listening deeply.
How will you bring the peace? And, perhaps just as importantly, how will you make space in your life to breathe deeply the Spirit of God that empowers you for this work?
In a few minutes, we will be taking communion. The word communion has roots that mean those who are made one. In a similar way, the word companion has roots meaning those who break bread together. And finally, the word conspirator has roots that mean those who breathe together.
My wish for us, my friends, is:
- That we would become conspirators for justice, breathing deeply of the God of peace who is as close to us as breath
- That we would become companions on this journey, knowing that in order to go far, we must go together.
- And finally, that we would become a communion of those who are made one by the God of reconciliation who is able to bind every wound, repair every breach, and make the world whole once again.