Ashes & Embers
Jesus came and stood among them, and he breathed on them.
That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Doesn’t that seem like a strange detail for John to record? I mean, when’s the last time you came into a room and made a point of breathing on people. Not socially acceptable, especially these days. Weird.
I understand that it’s been a weird day. It’s still Easter Sunday as our gospel reading begins. The empty tomb. People running back and forth. Jesus appears to Mary. Mary tells the disciples. “Bullshit!” they reply. And now it’s evening, and they’re huddled together behind locked doors, fearing for their lives, afraid they might be the next ones to be arrested, and Jesus comes and stands among them, not sure how he got in, . . . and he breathes on them. Weird.
Today we welcome some special guests to our worship, the CLAY 2023 Band and Drama Team who have been rehearsing at Trinity this week, getting ready for the big, and I mean big, youth conference coming up this summer in Waterloo. The theme for CLAY this year is “Ashes to Embers”. I kind of wondered about that theme at first, what does it mean? And then this week, for me at least, something sort of clicked. Because how do you turn ashes to embers? And how to you make those embers into a roaring fire? Well, if any of you have ever been camping, or if you have wood stove at home or at the cottage, you know what it takes to turn ashes to embers. You have to breathe on them.
You see the disciples in today’s gospel, in the wake of Good Friday, are barely alive. They’re afraid, hiding behind locked doors. They are ashes.
Then Jesus came and stood among them and breathed on them.
Still weird I know - but is it starting to make sense?
I went back and checked the Greek text because sometimes that helps me make sense of weird Bible verses. This time though, it just made it stranger. Because a more accurate translation would actually be “Jesus breathed into them.” Jesus breathed into the disciples. Odd . . .
Until you hear the echoes. Are you’re hearing them? Echoes of the beginning, echoes of creation, echoes of the book of Genesis:
“then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.”
And then another echo. Echoes of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones:
“The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone on bone. I looked and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
[Then] the breath came into them, and they lived.”
Jesus came and stood in the room among them. They were made of dust. They were like ashes, like dry bones. He said to them “Peace be with you”. Then he breathed into them. And they became living beings.
This is a birthing scene. This is people being brought back to life. This is ashes to embers.
I remember when my children were born. My wife had decided that at the time of our children’s birth, we would try to create as peaceful an environment for them as we could, something beautiful for them to be born into. So she spoke to the nurses and asked that just before the moment of birth the lights be lowered, and the PA system turned down and replaced by soft music, and she asked everyone to be quiet and to speak in soft voices. And that’s what we did. Just before the final push, the lights were lowered, soft music played, the usual hospital noises faded away, and it was beautiful, and peaceful. And in that place of peace, my son, and later my daughter, drew their first breath.
For me, that resonates with what Jesus was doing. He was preparing a birthing place. When he first appears in the locked room with the disciples, they are afraid. He says to them “Peace be with you.” When he shows them his wounds, when they see that it is Jesus who stands among them, they rejoice. In fact, the word “rejoice” may be an understatement. I imagine that it was pandemonium. But again Jesus says “Peace be with you”. There will be time for celebration. But now we have to get ready for a birth. For your birth.
Because the point of Easter is not that Jesus was raised to new life, though he was. The point of Easter is that we are raised to new life. That’s what the gospel of John says, right at the beginning, right in the middle and right at the end. All these things have been 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. Jesus came that you may have life and have it abundantly. To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of human will, but of God.
We are brought to life, we are born, we are born of God, when God breathes into us. When God breathes God’s Spirit into us, to animate us, to energize us, to bring us to life. And having received the breath, having received the Spirit, we are sent, we are sent out of the womb, out of the birthing place, and into the world.
“Peace be with you.” Jesus’ presence transforms a locked room into a birthing place. Jesus breathes into his disciples, and they are born to new life, life empowered by the Holy Spirit, life that is abundant, the life that we were created to live. Easter life. Life which has been raised from the dead.
But Thomas wasn’t there.
I bet you that the moment Thomas got back, the moment he walked into that room, he would have noticed the difference. People who had been dead were now bursting with life. He would have felt it the instant he got there, even before the shouts of “We have seen the Lord”, even before they told him the amazing story. And Thomas wanted it too. When you see someone who has been raised to new life, you can’t help but want that too. “I want what they’ve got.” Thomas wanted to have the same experience of Jesus that the others had.
And he gets it. One week later, once more on the day of resurrection, on the day of creation, on the day that God said “Let there be light”, the doors are still shut, but Jesus comes and stands among them, and says, this time to Thomas, “Peace be with you”. The birthing place is prepared once more. And Thomas sees Jesus, and he too is brought to new life, and new understanding, and he says “My Lord and my God!
First Mary sees Jesus. Then the disciples gathered in the locked room see Jesus. Then Thomas sees Jesus. And here I am thinking, I want what they got.
It’s almost as if Jesus can hear what I’m thinking, because then Jesus turns from his disciples, breaks through the fourth wall and speaks directly to us. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
When Jesus says this to me, I’m not sure I believe him at first. Because sometimes I think that it would have been easier, that my faith would be on more solid ground, that belief would be easier if I had been able to see Jesus raised like Thomas did, if I’d been there with that original group of witnesses. Wouldn’t we all like to have our own experience of Jesus raised from the dead? How is it that Jesus can say that those who have not seen are blessed?
We weren’t all there to see Jesus in that locked room. All we’ve got is the testimony of those who were there. But each one of us can experience what it is to have God breathe into us and bring us to life. These birthing moments, these birthing places, aren’t restricted to singular moments in time and space. If we are open to God, if we are ready to receive God, to receive the divine breath, God can breathe life into us here and now, at any time and in any place. And it is this rebirth, this inhaling of God’s spirit, this breath that turns our ashes to embers, this is our Easter experience. We didn’t get to see Jesus in that locked room in Jerusalem. But we experience Easter, we experience the resurrection here and now in the new life that we receive and the relationship that we enter into with our Creator as children of God. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Receive the breath of God.
Homily: Yr B Easter 2, April 8 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 2.14a, 22–32, Ps 16, 1 Peter 1.3-9, John 20.19-31
Image by Jan Van Bizar