"Breathe"

25 April 1999 Sermon

John 20:19-23

Mastering the spiritual disciplines of study and meditation, sustaining a fulfilling worship life, walking the walk of spiritual truth and purity, which is both moral and truthful, is rather like swimming. It doesn’t work if you don’t breathe! And more than that, what you breathe is critical to your success. . .swimmers need good air, Christians need the breath of Christ. We need His spiritual breathe of life, and of empowerment to make it.

And why is it so tough? Well, as Christians, we have to make it successfully in two worlds. That’s right. We have to make it, so to speak, in the spiritual world which we know as the Kingdom of God, the realms wherein we walk with God, the church in the broadest sense. And we need to make it in the world of the lost, the place where worldliness reigns and that is because we are not only saved, we are sent. Our "sentness," or our mission is the topic before us today. Everyone of us has a calling. Many of us also have a career, a job, or work. As Christians we live as if the latter is necessary as an excuse for the former: we have employment so that we can faithfully live out our calling as the "sent ones." The scriptures talk about our sentness in various ways, too: as a calling, a commission, an ambassadorship, a divine appointment, a testimony, or a witness. All of us, young and old, male and female, are "sent out ones." Our callings must not be limited to what are known as ministries within the church—we all have those as well! Remember, we hold dual citizenship! But our work inside the church must never be allowed to displace our calling to the lost, the world where God has sent us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, and the gospel of grace. Sometimes I think that those who are most active within the church feel stretched and stressed because:

1.They have forgotten how to breathe

2.They have been negligent in winning the lost and recruiting more worker/worshippers. (Friendship evangelism only works where the saints are diligent to have friends among the lost—and that means deep and wide community involvement, working for truth and justice everywhere and not just in the political arena. Frankly, when things get political, they have probably gone too far!)

According to our text, certain duties fall to the spirit-filled church as a whole. These duties relate to the matter of dealing with sin. We are obliged to deal with those who continue in sin, and those who do so must know that their sins are retained—that it held up for them to deal with, held up in the hope of repentance. Just as anyone who rejects Christ and His words (John 12:48) must know that a judge has been appointed and that "the very word I spoke will on that day condemn Him." We know the name of that Judge, even Jesus Christ! (Romans 12:16) And we also know that the royal law of love and the standard of divine mercy will prevail on that day:

James 2:8, 12-13: Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law (of love—see verse 8) which gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

The spirit-filled church will have discernment from the Holy Spirit to assist it and to qualify it for this work. It is their job, for mercy’s sake, to note those who are in a gall of bitterness and the bondage of iniquity—for they do come together—so that they may confront that condition as a matter of kindness. And they are to do so humbly, without a sense of superiority, pride or vengeance. All are under the standard of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of God’s grace! We stand or we fall by Christ, by His mercy, by His deliverance. So sin retained (that is, not forgiven) is retained only to bring that person to him/herself, to a better spiritual place through sound doctrine and strict discipline. In this way, the general rule of the gospel is brought to bear, by the church, on particular persons to bring forth healing, freedom, love, mercy and truth. The penitent, those willing to stop sinning and grieved by their sin, are warmly welcomed to the Lord’s table and so escape judgment. . .the impenitent are refused. They condemn themselves and have already entered into judgment merited by sinful choice and stubbornness of the flesh. This duty, too, takes our breath away. Oh, Lord, breathe on us that we may breathe! Quicken us that we may quicken others. . . keep our motives pure and powerful, for it is your Name and under your authority that we do these things. The really good news in this respect is that it’s never too late to take a deep breath, it’s never foolish to entreat the Lord to breathe afresh on us.

So our passage today turns out to have tremendous relevance. What happened on the evening of the first day of the week, resurrection day, is that Jesus made plain and first hand what had been hearsay up to that moment in time. How we need to be reminded that our Christianity must be first hand, and not based on hearsay! Jesus’ physical and factual resurrection needs to be as fresh and real to us today as it was that night. Our testimonies are to be built on the present deliverances of the Lord. There’s a danger to live on past glories. But our testimonies are like the daily manna in the wilderness, just enough for the present need for everyone—no hoarding, or storing over except for the Sabbath when the surplus meant that the Israelites were freer to worship having set aside a day to worship God!

It may help in witnessing to seekers to note that the first response of the ten disciples was not instant belief. They were incredulous. Sure, they had heard the testimony of the women but their incredulity may have translated that news into rumor, hearsay, or wish fulfillment. Being men, they may have suspected that the women were reacting hysterically, but they had the wisdom not to say so! Anyway, they are gathered in a kind of "if this be true, or how shall we make sense of this" stage to pray about next steps. Suddenly, without notice, Jesus appears, acting out Matt. 18:20 "Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there I am in the midst of them." It was a tense and apprehensive moment. It was an early Christian assembly solemnized by their combined presence. They didn’t know if they should stay together, remain in Jerusalem, or scatter. . .such was their justified fear of the Jewish leadership which had shown itself to be corrupt, opportunistic and ruthless. No wonder the doors were barred. You may recall that their explanation for the resurrection was that the disciples had stolen the body in the night—but the guard knew better, and no one ever found a "body," or perpetrators of the projected body snatching. And if they had, we can be sure that we’d know about it—for nothing would so disprove the Messiahship of Jesus as a corpse, or grave robbing.

Jesus greets them with what, to the casual observer, would be a normal Hebraic greeting, "Peace be with you!" But the occasion lent it special meaning, especially given John 14:27-29 where Jesus connected His return to them with an understanding of His peace: total well-being and inner rest of the spirit, such as characterizes a spirit in complete, and restored fellowship with Father God. Christ’s peace, like a gentle and life-giving breath out of Eden, filled the room and sweetly transformed the whole atmosphere. The disciples breathed in a deep sense that things were much better than okay, or fine! There is in Christ’s peace, the grand and splendid leisure of Eden and there is work that is soul-satisfying! Leisure to do what is essential and to do it well. That kind of work isn’t a job, or a living but real soul-fulfillment. And we can find that kind of satisfaction here in being in the right place, or right spiritual space with God. If I might play on this concept a bit, I would say that what such peace brings is a "purpose attack"—the very opposite of a panic attack—a purpose attack comes when we have an overwhelming sense that we are the right person, at the right place, at the right time.

Jesus’ clear, irrefutable evidence of resurrection life, along with the wounds proving his personal identity, are a source of tremendous consolation and spiritual security to them. Because the signs of His suffering appear here, we may safely assume that they will also be there at the resurrection of the dead, full evidence of His resurrection triumph. These signs, performed in His body, established the significance of His suffering and sealed His identity: Jesus Christ, I am He! With their faith confirmed, and their peace secured, they did indeed rejoice! And so should we every time we think on it. What a triumph of divine grace! What display of His infinite mercy and love! The testimony of our faith signifies victory over death and the grave, and over any tyranny that would employ them to oppress God’s people anywhere, any time. How strongly the resurrection declares that all God’s promises are true. . . as true as all the messianic prophecies that were exactly fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

As wonderful as all this is for us, the importance of all these realizations may be summarized succinctly: God’s peace precedes our commissioning. Before we embark on our ministry in the kingdom and our calling in the world, we need that peace. Before we rebuke a sister, or a brother, we need His peace, before we send in that check supporting this or that urgent compassionate cause, before we witness to that co-worker, or our boss, we need His peace. A lack of peace, especially among those not given to procrastination, suggests that we are not ready. . . that more prayer, more waiting on Him and breath of empowerment are needed. Yes, we are all commissioned as Christians. Yes, we are all sent. And because He knows that our obedience will bring troubles, persecution and suffering along with success, prosperity and pleasure, He gives us His peace.

Mark 10:29-30: I tell you the truth, no one who has left home, or brothers or sisters, or mother or father or children of fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.

Matthew 5:10-12: Blessed are the persecuted because of righteousness, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Response: Rejoice and be glad.

      1. Great is your reward in heaven.
      2. So they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

And further on persecution:

John 15: 18, 20: If the world hates you, keep in mind it hated Me first. If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also. Why? Because the world is in darkness and ignorant of having rejected the Father. They foolishly believe that they can justify themselves and their evil actions by killing you. This will prove their autonomy and "liberty."

2 Timothy 3:12: Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

John 7: 7: To Jesus’ own brothers. The right time for Me has not yet come; for you any time is right. The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify that what it does is evil. To even suggest that someone’s behavior is evil is scandalous to this generation!

All true believers in Jesus Christ have the same testimony, and that testimony has the same effect. But the Lord’s command in the face of the inevitably negative reception from those who are perishing remains: Rejoice and be glad. (Matt. 5:12) If you are being persecuted for Christ’s sake, you know you are called, sent, being used of God. Are we not all of us at His disposal? And if we resist risking persecution is that not a sign that our grasp of this world exceeds our grasp of the next? Anyway, a spiritual goal for us all is to be like Paul (2 Corinthians 12:10), to delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions and difficulties. Our delight in these things is a testimony in itself! There is no better demonstration of standing in the power of God than this.

Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

We are commissioned, and we are "sent." Christians come into each and every situation marked Special Delivery—we are crushed grapes to be new wine for the world, we are broken bread to feed the hungry, we are a care package sent from heaven to those miss heaven most, especially those who cannot bring themselves to admit it! Mankind is possessed of a great homesickness. We are sent to be consumed by the exertions of our faith in the great mission of our Divine Sender, sent to proclaim with every ounce of strength and every fiber of our being God’s overcoming grace. . .we are sent to be a testimony, as Paul puts it in Acts 20:24, of the gospel of God’s grace. That phrase is found earlier in Acts, describing the evidences of God’s grace made manifest in Antioch where Barnabas discovered a great spiritual awakening among the Gentile believers! That gracious move of God led Barnabas to send for Saul, our own dear Paul, to come and teach these believers. And led him to send a good report back to Jerusalem. It was here that the followers of Jesus Christ first came to be known as Christians.

Our commission is from the Lord Jesus Himself. He sends forth under an authorized, divine warrant: to treat of peace, that is, to sue for peace between God and man on God’s behalf. We are official, authorized agents to proclaim that peace—just as official messengers sent out to bid guests to come to a wedding. (Luke 14:12-24) We are sent out, as Christ was, prophetically though not as mediators, but as publishers of what our Savior has accomplished. Furthermore, we are sent to the world, and the lost for they are the object still of God’s rescue mission. Those who receive us, receive Him and those who reject us, reject Him.

As to the particulars, when the Lord announced His sending, He breathed on them. This act symbolizes the transmission of His Spirit and power ("His life"). It is a creation act which resembles the first creations acts recorded in Genesis 2:7 wherein man, by God’s breath, became a living being. So the picture we have is that of an Almighty Savior bringing "life" to His ministers and the beginning of a new world. What they received with His "Receive ye. . ." was an earnest of the outpouring yet to come at Pentecost. So we observe that these spiritual blessings are added on gradually. And that the more Christ is glorified, the greater the release of the Holy Spirit (John 17:3-9). In many places in the Old Testament (Isaiah 11:4, 30:33, 2 Samuel 22:16 and Exodus 15:10), the breath of God is used as an image for His righteous indignation and wrath; but, on this side of the cross, God’s wrath having been fully satisfied and His justice vindicated, the breath becomes again what it was in Eden, and agency of and for life. Jesus therefore works a new creation in His disciples and, due to His work on the cross, there is the hope, in that shift from divine threatenings to divine love.

Thereafter the disciples convey the Holy Spirit by the lifting of holy hands in prayer (their hands acting as messengers) and then the laying on of hands. This Jesus accomplished by breathing on them. Regardless, we need to receive His motions and we need to move in Him now more than ever. What with a world on the verge of war, with the urgency of the last days growing upon us, we need to receive His life, His powers and we need to make full use of them.

Ephesians 3:16: I pray that out of His glorious riches, He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being! That is breath indeed for the spiritually starved swimmer!

Our fervent and frequent prayer, in our church ministries and in our calling in the world, needs to be, "Holy Spirit, breathe on me!" Our cry needs to be, "Lord, give me breath. . .give me your power, your life. . .I’m in a crisis of relationship. Breathe on me. I need to witness to a friend, a business associate. . .Lord, breathe on me! Lord, I have fear of failure, give me breath. I have fear of dying, give me life! I’m out in swift waters, I’m caught in the rip tide of current events. Breathe on me God and quicken my soul, empower me to serve you with all I am all of my days!"

Amen