Jesus’ breath over the disciples in today’s gospel (Jn. 20:22) echoes back to that first breath of God in Genesis: hovering over the dark waters, the formless waste. Just as God breathed life into creation, so God breathed God’s life into human beings, bringing us fully alive.
Just as creation was in chaos, so too the friends of Jesus were disrupted, definitely NOT their best selves, cowering in fear behind locked doors. As God once brought peace and order to creation, so Jesus brings peace to them.
When Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit,” whom does he send? In the Hebrew scripture, the Spirit of God was called SH’KEENAH, God’s dwelling among the people. This vibrant presence accompanied them to encourage them, to be the compassionate one in their midst, to give them vitality in their struggles.
Today we invite the Spirit to come again, continuing this work, because creation isn’t a one-time event. We call among us the spirited energy we need to heal, free, playfully lure us into the depths of love. Come, Spirit: inspire joy, care for the environment, and the transformation of systems that oppress and destroy.
First we need to overcome the mental block of taking today’s gospel too literally. If we think of cults who play with snakes and drink Kool-aid laced with cyanide, we’ll find the passage repulsive.
Another way to think of the gospel is through the lens offered by Irish theologian Donall Dorr. He says that the one word which best describes Jesus’ effect on his friends is “energize.” Some unlikely folks were drawn to him and did extraordinary deeds because of his influence. In this reading from Mark, he gives his friends their marching orders. They respond by proclaiming the good news, confirmed by signs the Lord sends.
The great theologian Thomas Aquinas said, “we can only name God from creatures.” If we want to see the friends of Jesus continuing his work, we need only look around with some sensitivity. In hospitals and clinics, we’ll see the sick touched, treated and recovering. In schools, we’ll see students learning foreign languages. In retirement communities, we’ll see staff and visitors bringing good news and entertainment. On committees and in offices, we’ll see people introducing new angles or creative perspectives on difficult, deep-rooted problems. So Jesus continues to energize all those he holds dear.
Plenty to consider in the questions this gospel raises… What would it take to believe it and how might it transform us?
Obviously, it’s a stretch. Of course God lavishly loves Jesus, the beautiful, compassionate, only son. But love us the same? Impossible!
Yet how can we conveniently delete this passage? Do we prefer the sad “take up your cross” lines? If so, why? Is this passage too good to be true?
If we believed we were God’s friends, not some lackeys of a distant, punitive deity, we might act with more confidence. We could relax. We would engage with God in the kind of easy conversation we have with friends, and never name it “prayer.” We would lean back into Christ as the beloved disciple did at the last supper, knowing we’re at home. We could be our lazy, irreverent, sometimes sloppy selves and it would be perfectly OK with God.
What was the purpose of Christ’s teaching? To create selfless martyrs, who grimly do titanic deeds? According to John 15:11, he came “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
That line alone could make us rearrange our stuffy faces and stodgy lives.
To stroll through a peach orchard in August reveals what Jesus describes in today’s gospel. The fragrance, the colors of sunset on the round globes, the sense of abundance, finally the taste: sweet juices oozing from mouth to elbows. It’s so sensual it’s not seemly in church—let alone the Bible!
Jesus has no delusions about our worth, even our best efforts: “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5). Deep down, we suspect we need help; Jesus confirms that intuition. But he can make us as fruitful as Katherine Anne Porter describes in “Another Sarah”:
A wave of living sweetness
A nation of white petals
A dynasty of apples.
Or peaches. Hidden in the wonderful, organic vine-and-branches metaphor is a caution: don’t get detached from the vine. We can be so caught up in our charitable works, our marvelous endeavors or our efforts to save the world, we overlook the source of our energy.
Ever feel the saints were too distant, too perfect to understand? Read on. The April 30 edition of eCatechist has printed an excerpt from Kathy Coffey’s WHEN THE SAINTS CAME MARCHING IN that suggests their human flaws and failures. Limited humans, they serve as practical role models for those of us who are sadly sure of our own warts. Read more here:
How often we allow the “thieves and bandits” through the gateways of our homes and ourselves. Advertising which makes us feel inferior, broadcasting filled with violence and greed, people who demean us, even the messages we send ourselves: “you’re not good enough, bright enough, smart enough, etc.” It’s as if we allow a dump truck full of garbage to unload in the living room.
In contrast, Jesus offers himself as a guide who brings us into green pastures filled with abundant life. Can we hear this deeply good shepherd calling our name, or are we too buried in busy-ness and distraction? Jesus never coerces or forces himself. Instead we are drawn to him as to a friend who’s fun and sympathetic, someone we want to be near.
Sometimes we’re confused about what we need most. How consoling to have One who knows better than we do what we need. One of the loveliest responses to this gospel comes from Sofia Cavalletti’s book The Religious Potential of the child (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992). There she describes a three-year old suffering from leukemia. The little girl’s one consolation during painful treatments was that the shepherd called her by name and she knew his voice. To appreciate her insight, remember someone beloved calling your name, in tones warm with affirmation. Now magnify that sound, so it drowns out all the destructive influences and negative voices. Jesus is pleased with you, delights in you, protects you. That is what we celebrate today.
Today’s gospel defies all the self-help books about achieving inner peace. Peace is a gift, according to Luke. Furthermore, it comes unexpectedly, during confusion, mourning, fear and anxiety. The disciples find it too good to be true.
To alert them to reality, Jesus asks for something to eat. He reminds us of adolescents who are always hungry, or long-awaited guests whom we welcome with a special meal. This touchstone in human nature apparently convinces the skeptical. Wisely, Jesus starts with bodily needs, then “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (24: 45)
How ironic that he tells the poor, uncertain, wavering crew: “You are witnesses of these things” (48). They are hardly the finest spokespersons, but then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had. Jesus always seems to choose the most unlikely prospects.As Desmond Tutu says, Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine.”
But to all, he extends the same invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we too know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection.