A Sermon preached by The Rev. Davidson Bidwell-Waite on April 28, 2019
Jesus breathed on them and said to them “Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is such a powerful image. Imagine for a moment that we are gathered, maybe even huddled together in the undercroft with the doors locked, sitting perhaps in small groups around the room in murmuring conversations, and suddenly Jesus appears in the middle of us. The first thing He does is say “Peace be with you” which is a logical opener since we would all be pretty freaked out. Then He shows us his hands and his side to confirm that the image we are seeing is not an apparition but rather that it is a person and that person is actually Jesus.
He then says a second time “Peace be with you” but rather than telling us again to stop hyperventilating, Jesus is changing the subject from greeting to command. He then breathes on us and we inhale, deep into our lungs, the breath of the Divine.
Jesus has often said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me, and so that same life generating, divinized air that has animated his risen body, Jesus has just pushed out to us, into our nostrils, penetrating our lungs transforming the oxygen that is sucked into our veins and pumped into and through the chambers of our heart. Just close your eyes for a moment and image inhaling the breath of Jesus.
I imagine that it might be dizzying like breathing in pure oxygen that you can feel permeating your body and flowing out to your toes and finger tips. Maybe it would be like breathing ether not just the giddy gas formerly used as an anesthetic, but the ether of ancient times which filled the upper reaches of the heavens, or the ether of current wave theory – the medium that permeates all space and transmits transverse waves oscillating through the cosmos.
This idea of breathing in and very literally internalizing the Divine has been percolating in my thoughts for the past week as I read Vince Pizzuto’s book “Contemplating Christ”. The Rev. Dr. Pizzuto is a professor of New Testament and Christian Mysticism at USF and is the founder of the New Skellig Contemplative Community in Inverness. In January, I spent a weekend in conversation with Vince at the Bishop’s Ranch during the School for Deacons annual retreat, and we did a deep dive into his concept of Divinization and Deification.
Dr. Pizzuto writes: “Deification is an ancient Christian doctrine that affirms the belief that through the incarnation, through which God took on human nature, so too humanity has been made, as Peter termed it in his First Letter, ‘partakers of the divine nature’ ”. Fr. Pizzuto goes on to say that “The spiritual life can no longer be understood as humanity in search of God, but God in search of humanity…” and “…discipleship is not about us serving Christ but Christ serving others in us.”
If you’ll permit another quote from Vince’s book, he says; “The tradition of discrete appearances of the risen Christ dissipates not because Jesus has gone away to some distant heaven but because He has made of us his very body through grace. Insofar as the church is the Body of Christ, we might also understand it as the embodiment of the Holy Spirit in the world. “
Now returning to the Gospel, in saying “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you”, Jesus is telling us that our mission is to take His peace-FULL-ness into the world to all with whom we will engage. Being bearers of Peace is how we most fundamentally enable Christ to serve others in us. This is the foundation of our and the church’s ministry of Reconciliation.
This idea was laid out succinctly in today’s Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.”
Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection reconciled Humanity and God. It created a new relationship, which is what reconciliation means, and that new relationship is of oneness with God through our Divinization. As Christ’s body in the world, filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are to seek reconciliation between persons, and groups, and between humanity and The Creation.
But in the next phrase, Jesus speaks about Forgiveness, and this for me raises the question of whether there is a difference between Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
After breathing on them, Jesus says “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.” We traditionally understand this as authority to given to priests in Apostolic Succession to administer the sacrament of Absolution.
Receiving forgiveness can enable one to move past the guilt or sorrow which has impeded the work of the Holy Spirit in them and to create new relationships, with God and others. But what about the retaining of sins? This, I would suggest, is not so much about the granting of an authority, but a description of how the human heart works. Sins that are retained, by either the one seeking forgiveness or the one refusing it, fester and block the work of the Holy Spirit, which is in itself one of the definitions of sin – that which separates us from the redemptive love of God.
There are several very powerful examples of this in the documentary, “A Long Nights Journey into Day” about Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the work of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It focuses on 4 stories, 2 of which I’ll deal with here.
The first is about Amy Biel, the Stanford student murdered by a group of young men in a Township outside Capetown where she was working and serving them. Amy’s parents wanted to meet the boy who killed their daughter. The rules of the TRC required that in order to receive amnesty, the individual had to 1) tell the whole and complete truth, and 2) the act had to be politically motivated – not an act of personal animosity. The object is to create a space for healing by answering the tormenting question “Why?” In getting to know the young man, the Biels came to understand the vicious way in which Apartheid warped the souls of the oppressed. They eventually were able to actually forgive the young man and eventually supported his legal defense that the act was politically motivated.
The fourth story is about the Guguletu 7. Here 7 mothers were confronting a black African police officer who helped his white colleagues entrap and kill their sons. They considered him a traitor to his race, a morally bankrupt collaborator, an animal, and a soulless being unworthy of amnesty or redemption. The women spoke of how they had carried the pain of their sons’ murders and how their anger and hatred of this man had infected and spoiled their lives.
Then one mother rose and addressed Archbishop Tutu directly. She said: “If you are asking me to forgive this man, this murderer who killed my beautiful innocent son, I have to say No – I cannot – ever. BUT if you are telling me that if I reconcile with this man, he can have his humanity back and I can have MY humanity back, then Yes – Yes I will reconcile with him.
This reconciliation was an agreement to engage and live in community, not forgetting the past, but not allowing the past to poison the future. Reconciliation creates a state where the Holy Spirit can begin to create something new. When forgiveness is not possible or seems an insurmountable challenge, choosing reconciliation is in effect Practicing Resurrection.
Taking this concept to the personal level, Bishop Marc, in his Easter sermon at Grace Cathedral, spoke about the dreams we may have cherished, around which we devoted much of our energy and imagination, and which for whatever reason – died.
We may have moved on, but Bishop Marc suggested revisiting those dead dreams. To stare at and engage with that moldering. To acknowledge the failure and whatever or whoever contributed to it, and to reconcile with it.
In doing so, he suggested that a space would be opened within us which the Holy Spirit could fill and begin a New Work. This is connecting with the Divine within- with our divinized being – to reanimate our entire being. Again, I would call this – Practicing Resurrection, which by the way is the title of a wonderful book by spiritual writer Nora Gallagher.
The willingness to reconcile, always and everywhere, creates the opportunity for transformation and for peace – the kind of fullness of Peace which Jesus continually gave to the disciples and that He continues to offer to us if we will but receive it. He invites into New Life through our Divinization as His continuing body in the world, as rartakers of the divine nature.
In this time of deep division, where fear-mongering and hate are shaping our society and constraining our civil discourse, we have an even greater obligation to breath in the Peace of Christ; to acknowledge, engage with and live out of the divine nature within us; and to Practice Resurrection as reconciling instruments of the Holy Spirit.
Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith. Amen.