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."
Like a lot of new pastors you will meet, I spent one summer during my college years working at a Lutheran Bible camp. Those places are like the minor leagues for the ELCA. Now, while the camp at which I worked was Lutheran by name, the camp directors themselves leaned in a more charismatic direction. Having drifted away from the church in my first two years of college, this summer was intended as a time in which I could renew and rediscover the faith in the context of a caring group of people. I was, then, ill-prepared for some of what I encountered that summer. I had not one whit of an idea how to answer some of the questions that were put to me by these folks: questions like whether or not I had had a baptism in the spirit, or whether or not I had ever spoken in tongues or dreamed ecstatic dreams. It was then that I was told my own tradition, good ol’ confessional Lutheranism was “lacking in the spirit.” Now, in the catechisms, Luther bids us to put the best construction on our neighbor’s actions, and surely some of the people that I met that summer were in fact wonderful people who were possessed by a genuine faith. I am still friends with the camp directors, though we clearly have our theological differences. However well-intentioned they were, it was that summer that I learned to associate the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s activity, with a perceived deficit in my own spiritual life. In a sense, then, one could say that it was that summer when I learned to fear the Holy Spirit.
Now, it is my guess that I am not the only one who has had this experience. Any contact with more charismatic or even emotive strands of Christianity can lead to this insecurity about our own faith lives, whether or not we “have the spirit.” Which could be a question about just about everything: liturgical worship, the rigor of our theological thinking, our insistence on seminary before ordination, or any number of other things. I am not, mind you, intending to turn this into some sort of apologetic for the Holy Spirit’s work in the mainline church. So rather than taking up arms against would-be accusers, or believing that we are somehow less than in our faith, it would, I think, be helpful to actually engage the Spirit, see what the Holy Spirit does, how the Holy Spirit works.
In order to do this, we must meet the first disciples when they are at their most fearful. In the Gospel reading, you see, the disciples sit in a locked room for fear of the religious authorities, and this was an understandable fear indeed. Their leader, Jesus, had just been put to death, been hung upon that cross, and there was good reason to believe that they might be next. If the authorities had executed Jesus, what would keep them from doing the same to the disciples, and finishing off this movement once for all? In addition to those external threats, there were some internal questions that required some answers: why had they denied and abandoned Jesus? Why had they left him to face his trial and death on his own? Also, what was next for the disciples? If they could make it out of Jerusalem alive, were they just to return to their lives, as though nothing had happened? Would they be embraced by the communities that they rejected and left behind to follow this traveling rabbi? Yes, to be sure, there were questions to be answered. No wonder they locked the doors.
And Jesus, you will note, does not politely knock on the door or ask the disciples to let him in. Instead, he stands among them, unannounced, he stands among his deniers and abandoners and offers not vengeance but peace. To this stilted and insecure band of followers, Jesus shows them his wounds, shows them that God has entered and conquered death, and then tells them again that divine peace is theirs, for that is what the wounds accomplished. Yes, those wounds, those marks of human stubbornness and rejection of God, those wounds are now the places from which divine peace will flow. And in order for that peace to continue, Christ must be present in the preaching and fellowship of the disciples, and so he gives them yet another unexpected, unrequested gift: his Holy Spirit which will be present even as Jesus returns to the Father. The spirit, then, will be the way that he remains present. And please head the intimacy of this scene, for it is central to our understanding of who the Holy Spirit is, what the Holy Spirit accomplishes. Yes, Jesus breathes on them, and this is how the gift is given. It is not given because of anything the disciples have done, nor is it some fervor that they are able to build for themselves. No, it is a completely gracious, and in some ways, unexpected gift, a gift as unexpected as Christ’s wounded and loving presence in the middle of the disciples fear. Yes, this Holy Spirit, this breathe of the divine, this emanates from no one other than Christ himself; for it is by his authority that the gift is given.
And what the Spirit works, in some ways, is prefigured by the way that the Spirit is given. For just as the spirit is given in this extraordinarily intimate way, this act of Jesus breathing on his disciples, so too this intimacy with the divine is what the Spirit works. For as St. Paul writes, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we may confess that Christ is Lord, and this confession is so much more than assuming some sort of intellectual belief. Instead, this confession is an act of being brought into profound intimacy with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is to rise daily into the forgiveness that was poured over us in baptism and to return as long as we have breathe in our lungs to those merciful waters. To confess Christ as Lord is to be overwhelmed by the divine and holy peace that He alone can bring. Like that first community gathered on Pentacost, to be gathered in by the Holy Spirit is to find ourselves in the strange company of the saints of all time and in all places. It is to know that we have been gathered up into God along with not just Medes and Parthinians, but Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Pentacostals. Yes, to be gathered in by the Holy Spirit, to make the good confession of Christ as Lord is to know that we are still united with our dead and the angels dwell in our midst, bringing us into deeper love for Christ and for one another. Yes, to make this confession, this is to find Christ not in some sort of emotional experience that we are finally responsible for conjuring up, but its is to be apprehended by the God who breaks into our midst with nothing but peace on his breathe. To be sure, this Holy Spirit remains a mystery, dwelling where He will and defying our boundaries and expectations. But fear not, dear people, for while we may not have authority over this Spirit, the very fact that we are gathered here today is evidence of his work. The peace and comfort that the sacraments bring in our midst, the love that is shown to us when we are in mourning, the presence that urges us into deeper service of the poor and the lonely, that nagging voice in your head that urges you to forgive someone who has done you wrong, that is the work of the Spirit, this is all the work of the Holy Spirit. For whenever and wherever Christ appears and grants you peace, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name, amen.