Breathe, You Have Been Pentecosted – A Sermon on John 20:19-23 for the Feast of Pentecost

The readings and collect for the Feast of Pentecost may be found here. The appointed gospel is John 20:19-23.

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. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”


“If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Forgiveness is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when we think about Pentecost. Mention Pentecost and most of us probably recall the story from Acts. We see the disciples gathered in the upper room. We hear a sound like the rush of violent wind filling the house. We imagine divided tongues, as of fire, appearing and resting on each disciple. We picture drunken chaos in which people are speaking, hearing, and understanding strange new languages.

I suspect many, perhaps most, of us wish for such an experience of God. We want something tangible, a sign, a sound, a vision, that reveals God’s presence, that guides our life, and reassures us. For St. John Pentecost is more about what is happening within us than what is happening around us. The sign of Pentecost for St. John is forgiveness that opens locked doors, recreates life, and sends us out to be like Jesus. While forgiveness is not the whole story of Pentecost it is an important and often ignored piece of Pentecost.

One of the most difficult things we ever do is forgive another. We know we should forgive. It is the right thing to do. It is the Christian thing to do. It’s what Jesus would do. But it’s always easier to see another through the lens of their behavior and its effect on us than it is to see them as God sees them. Even more difficult than forgiving another is to forgive ourselves, to set our self free to return to the likeness of God.

Over the last week I have read about Representative Weiner and watched portions of his press conference. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he will be forgiven by his wife, staff, constituents, other members of congress, the women who were affected by his actions. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he will forgive himself.

Forgiveness does not excuse or justify what he did. I am not suggesting there are not or should not be consequences to his actions. There are but that’s a different question. The question of forgiveness is about whether others will give him the opportunity to reclaim the original beauty of his creation. The question of forgiveness is about whether will he give himself that opportunity. To put it in Jesus’ words, will his sins be forgiven or retained? Will he be allowed to move forward with life or will he be imprisoned by his past? Those are not just questions for Representative Weiner. They are questions for each of us.

If we look deeper into the story, beyond the photographs, text messages, and tweets, we come face to face with the reality of darkness, his as well as our own. We may not have done what Representative Weiner did but if we are really honest we each could name the secrets, the lies, the actions, the betrayals that hide in our darkness. It is a darkness that fragments our lives, separating us from God, others, and ourselves. Ultimately, however, that darkness is not about our behavior, the things we have done or left undone. Those are just the symptoms that point to the darkness. The darkness is our mistrust of divine love, the denial of our original beauty, the refusal to see our life and the world as God sees them. That is the real sin.

That darkness has left the disciples hiding in their house. The doors are locked for fear of being found out. I suspect that they are hiding from themselves as much as from the religious authorities.

Have you ever done that, hide from yourself? We deny what’s really going on. We make up cover stories. We pretend everything is all right. We leave no room for the Spirit of Truth to blow through our lives, to inspire and recreate us. In the end we choose to retain our own sins and live in the darkness, to live in a state of “unforgivenness.” That is our choosing not God’s choosing. The fear of being found out keeps us locked in the darkness of our house.

The only thing that can overcome that darkness and open the doors to new life is the Spirit of Truth: an Advocate who will stand on our side and not leave us orphaned; one who will teach us everything and remind us of all Jesus said (John 14:26); one who will guide us into all truth (16:13), truth about God and truth about ourselves. We need pentecosting. That is exactly what Jesus does. Jesus comes and stands in the midst of our locked houses. He gets in our face and breathes. His holy breath sends forth the fire, the wind, and the tongues of Pentecost.

The fire of Pentecost illumines our hearts and pushes back the darkness. The wind of Pentecost unlocks and opens the doors to new life. The tongues of Pentecost proclaim the great deeds of God and call us to live in a state of forgiveness; to remember and reclaim our original beauty, to turn our gaze back to God, to reshape and form ourselves in his likeness.

Christ’s pentecostal breath resuscitates our lives. Again and again he inspires and fills us with the Holy Spirit. Pentecost recalls the day of creation when God gathered dust from the ground and breathed God’s own life into us (Gen. 2:7). Pentecost is an act of re-creation, freeing us to leave the darkness, to step out of our house into a new world and a new life. Nothing is retained against us so let us not retain against ourselves or another. We have been pentecosted, God and humanity sharing one breath, one life.

So what are we to do with this holy breath of God? Breathe. Just breathe.


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