Easter 2a, April 23, 2017

April 24, 2017

The Germ of Life

John 20:19-31

 

19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

This story of Thomas and his refusal to believe without seeing is one that many people find some level of kinship with. I can see myself in Thomas to some extent. It’s not that he didn’t trust Jesus – it’s more like he was having trouble trusting his friends. Or maybe it was just that he felt like he had missed out on something and he wanted what they had. That’s certainly an emotion I can find within myself. Few of us are as demanding of proof as Thomas was, and fewer of us have such visceral experiences of the resurrected Christ. Most of us find reason to trust this story without extraordinary encounters with the risen Lord of Life.

 

But some people have powerful experiences that convince them of the resurrected Christ. The Christian writer, Ann Lamotte, tells the story of how she felt like Jesus was following her in the form of a cat for a couple of days, and then as she lay in bed recovering from years of alcohol and drug abuse she had this sense that Jesus was crouched down in the corner of the room watching her. She said he wouldn’t leave her alone so she gave up her old way of living and started following him.

 

I’ve never had an encounter with what I considered to be the actual man, Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and raised from the dead, but I do believe I’ve encountered people who were infected by his spirit and they passed the germ on to me. And that’s what Jesus did to those disciples who were gathered in that locked room out of fear of their religiously persecuting peers – he breathed on them and infected them with the Holy Spirit.

 

This is a really interesting image for me to ponder – this experience of being breathed on by Jesus.

 

Getting breathed on is something most of us do our best to avoid. I don’t really know how it is in other countries, but we Americans do our best to keep our breath to ourselves, and to avoid the breath of others. And when we do share our breath with other people we want it to be pretty scrubbed.

 

And of course we know that you can catch things from the breath of other people. I love my little granddaughter, but daycare has provided her with some powerfully infectious breath. She happily shared her breath with Sharla back in the fall and she was sick for weeks. We adults know to watch out for infectious breath. We don’t always succeed at keeping our safe distance, but understand the concept.

 

So if find this image of being breathed on by Jesus to be pretty intriguing. The idea of catching something from Jesus is a powerful concept, and it’s an easy way for me to imagine the Holy Spirit being transferred. We generally think of infectious breath as being a bad thing, but could there be anything better than being infected by the germ of Jesus Christ?

 

I’m remembering something along these lines that happened in the wake of my mother’s sudden death. People were bringing all of this food over to my parent’s house, and we were needing more refrigerator space than we had. My mother was a person who had trouble throwing things away. She kept a clean and neat house, but every drawer, closet, storage space, and refrigerator was stuffed to the gills. And of course she had more than one refrigerator. There was a refrigerator in an outside storage room that had items of all sorts of unknown origins and dates.

 

A neighbor came over and offered to help in some way and I took her out to that refrigerator and I told her to throw out anything she wouldn’t eat because we needed space for the good food that was pouring in. After a while I went out to check on the situation and as she was telling me what she had done she pointed to this one mass of white goo in the trash bag that she said she had no idea what it was, and I suddenly felt ill because I realized she had thrown out my mother’s sour-dough starter.

 

Now it’s not like that was starter that had been passed on to her from her ancestors in the old world. Her sour-dough starter was from a recipe that I knew about. I’m not sure how long she had kept that particular batch of sourdough going, but her sourdough bread and pancakes were something that my sister and I both loved, and having some of her sourdough starter is something I knew we would both cherish.

 

But I was looking at it in a trash bag with lots of other things in and around it. I tried to act calm, and I thanked her for what she had done, but I told her not to throw anything else in that bag. I went inside and got a spoon and a bowl and I managed to salvage about a cup of relatively pure sourdough starter. Over the next few weeks I fed that small amount of starter until I had enough to divide between my sister and I and we were both so happy to have it. It felt as if we were somehow preserving some of her germs.

 

We both kept our batches going for a few years. I kept mine at the Wesley Foundation where I regularly made bread to lure students in to a Bible study. Unfortunately I came in one day and discovered that someone had thrown my starter away thinking it was old pancake batter. That student saw a new facet of my personality that day. It was fortunate that before I said or did anything truly regrettable I remembered that I could get more from my sister.

 

It may have been an unhealthy obsession of some kind, but I loved keeping that starter going for a long time. I cherished the idea of keeping some of her good germs alive. My sister and I both let it go at some point. I think our children are pretty happy that they don’t have to keep their grandmother’s sourdough starter alive.

 

We don’t generally like to be infected by anything, but what we see in this passage of scripture is that we are invited to become infected by the breath of Jesus Christ and for that powerful germ to become the dominant force within our lives.

 

Given the gruesome way in which Jesus was killed, I can’t see that anyone would have continued to speak his name if people hadn’t caught something that brought them back to life. It’s entirely believable to me that those original disciples were assembled in a room behind locked door, but they didn’t remain in a state of fear and seclusion, and it makes sense to think that they caught what Jesus had.

 

We’re gathered here on the first day of the week, but we’re not behind locked doors. We don’t feel threatened by our association with Jesus, and I’m happy about that, but I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t somehow developed some immunity to whatever it is that lived in the breath of Jesus. I mean, has the world really become a place that’s more accommodating to the spirit and truth of Jesus Christ? Or have we somehow made the message of Christ more accommodating to the world?

 

This isn’t an easy question for us. I know there are people who have very clear answers to this question. There are people who can point to the exact ways in which the message of Christ has been coopted by the changing morals of society, and how this needs to be remedied, but I don’t think it’s so simple. I don’t believe the problem with the church today is our failure to adhere to the moral codes of previous generations. I’m not saying that we haven’t lost some valuable traditions over the years, but there are other traditions that needed to be lost. Our challenge as Christians is to continually redefine what it means to be faithful to Christ in our time, and this is never simple.

 

I’m sure there are ways in which all of us who call ourselves Christian fail to live as morally upright as a perfect follower of Christ would do. It’s important that we seek to define what it means for us to be faithful to Christ as individuals and as a faith community, but I don’t think this is ever a simple task. I believe the spirit of Christ calls for us to engage in the struggle to define faithful living, but we must always pursue this with humility and grace.

 

It’s a very personal struggle for each of us to figure out how to live in relationship with other people as we respond to the call of Christ in our lives. It’s just not easy to define how faithfulness to Christ should play out in everyone else’s life. I believe the rule of love calls upon each of us to treat one another with a near impossible level of integrity, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness, but I don’t believe it calls for us to decide exactly what that means for everyone else and then to judge them accordingly. I think we get lost in the weeds when Christianity becomes defined by many rules instead of the one commandment that Jesus taught – to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

 

This isn’t the one rule that guides the bulk of what goes on in this world, and the sad thing is that we are often more infected by those germs that guide this world than we are by the life-giving spirit of God.

 

It’s interesting to me to think about the competing germs that are in the air and how our lives are affected by these competing forces. It’s not as easy for us to identify the spiritual germs that are in the air as it is to culture the biological ones. We don’t have the spiritual equivalent of petri-dishes where we can take swabs from our mouths and see what grows, but I think it’s helpful for us to consider the what it is that’s guiding our hearts and minds to do what we do and to pursue what we pursue.

 

Like Thomas, we weren’t in the room on that first day that Jesus appeared to the disciples and breathed his breath on them. We haven’t had the extraordinary experience that Thomas had a week later, but we have had the good fortune of receiving this germ of life that came from Jesus Christ passed on to us. We haven’t had the actual breath of the resurrected Christ fall on our faces, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been touched by that holy bug that lived in his breath.

 

I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe it’s in our midst and can guide our hearts and minds in the direction of true life. As surely as we harbor all kinds of bacteria all over and in our bodies I believe we can harbor this holy germ within us as well and that it provides us with access to the kingdom of God.

 

I believe the church should be the place where people catch and share this holy form of infection that provides us with that kind of assurance and hope that those first disciples experienced. It’s not easy for us to maintain the kind of atmosphere where the air is thick with the presence of the Holy Spirit. We Christians have always found it hard to balance our spirituality with our materiality, but this is what we are called to do.

 

We have our obstacles, but we have a living advocate as well. This germ of true life that was in Jesus Christ is alive and well and in our midst. May we be infected by that same life-giving spirit that brought those first disciples and Thomas back from the brink of fear and dread. May the Holy Spirit that was in Jesus Christ fill our hearts and minds and souls and put us on that path of true and abundant life.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen

 

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