He Breathed on Them
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Easter, April 24, 2022
“Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”
OUR LITURGICAL FINAL BLESSING quotes St. Paul in the “The Peace of God which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds the Knowledge and Love of God and of His Son, Jesus Christ.” Philip. 4:7 Peace: to be still and at the heart of things; to be with God; to possess and exude peace of mind; peace between all who love peace—that kind of blessed peace is not easy to find. It always costs somebody.
I was born in 1949, three years after WWII. I felt that war’s shadows most of my childhood. There were combat movies that recounted the drama of life and death situations, of having a real enemy, depicting true evil and the human struggle to oppose it. In our playgrounds, we were GI’s fighting the Germans or Japanese. The world that I was born into had seen D-day, the Battle of the Bulge, Pearl Harbor, and Okinawa. America didn’t commiserate its battle dead. It celebrated victory. We had saved the world, and the blessings of peace were upon us, if only briefly.
Korea reminded us that peace was transient: with one enemy out of the way, we could always have another. America later celebrated the fall of the Communism’s Soviet Bloc, as though we’d never face another world-stopping evil. That sense of relief lasted 12 years until 9-11, 2001. Peace is hard to keep. Sometimes it takes a war. And sometimes the war brings no peace at all. The US is not at war right now, but I would hardly say we are at peace, would you?
We feel wars around us, heating up in the quest for superiority, but almost always in other lands, on other shores. What if it was here? Some countries’ children are born in embattled cities and live under threats of war in their streets all their lives long. Being born in constant danger, death and enmity—that’s hard to imagine. In parts of Africa and the Mid-East children have lived in warfare from infancy to middle age. They can’t imagine peace. In a very real sense, our children grow up now surrounded by relative peace and calm, in a world they can trust.
Spiritually, are we at war? We’re not always conscious of it, we don’t talk or think of it. Yet we sense vaguely that even in our sleep there is a battle on. An enemy stalks us, wants to take us prisoner. He wants our children, our marriages, our minds and hearts to obey his desires. He studies our weaknesses. He employs psychological warfare, terror, false treaties that promise peace, but yield oppression. In the spiritual realm, we’ve never known peace—it’s been on all our lives.
What makes us vulnerable is a rift between our hearts and God. We feel like traitors; we have betrayed Him and broken that peace ourselves. The enemy may press us, but we may fear God to be a fiercer enemy Himself.
Jesus defeated our true enemy and won peace with God. He did it through His pain and loss, a cross and passion worse than any battlefield. It was a good war, one clearly pitting good against evil, and He won through defeat. His resurrection was a final victory over death and hell. Having won, He sought to give that victory to us. That very night, He did.
“Peace be unto you.” Jn 20 Standing before the astonished Apostles, He showed them his wounds. Why? His wounds had bought our peace. His scars were testimonials of war, and His bright life was proof that the peace was won. “…As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” This peace was for everybody, and Jesus gave power to His Apostles. “He breathed on them, and said, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.’” He gave them life-giving power to forgive. Jesus’ breath ordained them to a ministry of reconciliation.
God originally made man’s body, and then breathed into him life. Jesus used His breath to impart life-giving forgiveness. God’s breath gave life and Jesus’ breath restored that life to us again.
We look for temporal peace, comfortable lives, our kids grown up, in healthy and productive families. We may look forward to retired living, taking trips and growing roses. But our kids are vulnerable; our marriages not always havens of peace. Our health won’t last. Friends fail us. The enemy of our souls still strikes at the very heart of our peace.
Remember that the Cross of Jesus wins the battle of humanity, and wins our own personal struggles, sorrows, and shame. Our hearts must be certain of it. Our minds fixed on it. It’s the Lord or it’s total war. Didn’t He assure us, “In Me you have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
We come here to church in order to find peace in a world that wars against our children through drugs, immoral behavior, and vicious lies. War is whipped up between races, between sexes, between people of different faiths, and we are at war in our hearts. That’s why today we’re here at God’s altar, at the knees of Jesus who won an eternal peace through His most generous sacrifice.
I have stood in the falling snow at the Arlington National Cemetery, watching the changing of the guard at the tomb of unknown soldiers. The dead beneath the ground in that place are at peace, their combat over. Through their sacrifice, we live in a land of freedom, of relative peace, maintaining what Jefferson called our “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These rights were not passed into law by Congress, or enacted through executive order of the White House, nor were they granted by decision of our Supreme Court justices. We are endowed by our Creator with those rights. But the Declaration also indicates that such rights may be infringed, and good governments must rise from humanity to insure their constancy. No other government deserves to stand.
At the founding of our nation, won with sacrifice and at terrible risk, they were clearly conscious that we sought peace on borders of our own, and within our borders—peace through victory against England, and peace by establishing the Kingdom of Heaven with Christ as our one true sovereign. The dual battlefields of a temporal war and a spiritual one were both felt and waged by true men and women of faith. That’s what you feel in your chest at the Star-Spangled Banner: we don’t worship the flag, but the Republic for which it stands is one nation under God.
Jesus breathed on them. “Receive ye the Holy Ghost,” He said. It was an ordination, an empowerment. In less than two months, He would be at His Father’s right hand and together they would send that Holy Spirit, God’s Third Divine Person, in a new way to earth. He was meant for every believer in Jesus, and He is given through several sacraments and by our faith He is received. Why do we need this gift? What is our benefit in having God’s 3rd Person inside here?
God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Three Persons are all fully God, One God united in a single power and holy will. Within that unity a sequence of authority flows down from the Father, through the Son and to the Spirit. When we people of God stand under that authority, by our faith, by our recitation of the Creed, by our obedience to Him, by a radical identification with the Son of God Incarnate: that power flows down into and through us. The power of God is for us and is in us and is for others. When Christ blew His breath on the Apostles, it wasn’t yet Pentecost, but it was the beginning of a new relationship with the Spirit of God. They were being elevated and commissioned to go in His Name – “even so send I you.” God’s truth, God’s blessing, God’s forgiveness, God’s peace on earth—are all features of that ministry, of which we all partake and all must transmit to others, such as we can. The war ongoing between heaven and hell, between our spiritual enemy and ourselves, is not supposed to rage between you and me, between racial colors, between political parties, between young and old. We’ve been granted peace at a holy cost, and by this price we’ve been won. Peace is the result, and peace we must ring out by faith, by love and by forgiveness.
Forgiveness? Is it possible? Palestine and Israel can’t stop the endless warfare because neither side can come to or express forgiveness. Someone always wants war. But the nations we defeated in WWII went on to benefit from the ensuing peace because our nation determined to rebuild theirs, to feed their starving millions, to invest in their industries, and to forgive them for trying to destroy us. Nelson Mandela left 27 years of prison in South Africa to be elected the first post-apartheid President, the first black leader of a land long divided by race. He wouldn’t listen to voices of racial recrimination, but categorically forgave the white population and joined the two races in co-governing roles. Through forgiveness, he won the peace.
Three bear witness, says St. John: The Spirit, the water and the blood. We don’t know all he means by this, but the Spirit of God enters by the waters of our baptisms and transforms our dead spirits to live anew. Christ’s blood is shed for our forgiveness, and we receive Him at the rail. It’s precious and powerful. It’s all given to us, not earned, and is ours by God’s grace. We have nothing but what has been given to us from above. And nothing will last but that holy relationship. And in that joining together of heaven and earth, we learn peace.
“Peace, I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”Jn 14:27 In peace, or in war, may our hearts reside in Him, the author of peace, and may the peace of God that passeth understanding reside in you and remain with you always.