Free Breath (Sermon)

“Fresh Breath”

Acts 9:1-9

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

5/10/20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  (NRSV)

         Acts 2 records the story most often associated with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost—fifty days after Passover, wind, flames, and the utterance of many languages. In John 20, during his very first appearance on Easter, Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them as God sent him. Then he breathes on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Often called the Johannine Pentecost, this scene echoes the second creation story in Genesis when God breathes the “breath of life” into Adam. More and more, I read Creation and Resurrection as two metaphors for the same initiative of God’s incarnational grace.

         Paul seems to confirm this in 1Corinthians 15 when he refers to the first and last Adams: “The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1Cor. 15:45)

         Spiritruach, pneuma. These words also mean breath, which is itself a symbol of God’s active presence in the creation. Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples stands in stark contrast to Saul, who, in his twisted devotion to God and Torah, is “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

         Talk about your bad breath!

         The thing I find redeeming in this story is that even in the very midst of Saul’s deliberate hostility toward those who follow Jesus, the Persecuted One affirms Saul’s foundational, God-imaged faithfulness. Having created him for something far greater than waging holy war, God calls Saul to serve as the first and still-most-influential Christian evangelist.

         There’s a detail worth considering—an omission. Luke tells Saul’s Damascus Road experience in Acts 9. In Acts 26 Paul recounts it before King Agrippa in Caesarea. And, in neither telling of the story does God ask for, nor does Saul offer, repentance.

         Think about it: Jesus doesn’t ask the eleven disciples to repent after having doubted, denied, and abandoned him. He simply breathes the Holy Spirit on them and sends them out in his name.

         For that matter, when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t demand that they qualify themselves through repentance. He just said, “Follow me.”

         Given such precedent, why has the church decided that true faith requires public confession and renouncement of not only memorable sins but also pre-natal guilt? Hold that uncomfortable question. We’ll come back to it.

         Not long after Saul is struck blind, we meet Ananias, a disciple of Jesus living in Damascus. God tells Ananias to go and lay hands on Saul so he can see, again.

         Ananias says, What? God, I know this guy, and he’s pure evil.

         Raising its serpent’s head, fear causes Ananias, a freshly-minted New Creation in Christ, to assume authority to judge and condemn. He and Saul now have that in common!

         Does anything create more evil in the world than the spiritual halitosis of fear? Fear leads humankind into politics of vengeance and economics of scarcity. Behind these all-too-comfortable philosophies lies the selfish anxiety that I won’t get my share—more accurately, the anxiety that you may get more than me. This is particularly true in First World cultures, and ours may be one of the most fearful on the planet right now. During the stress of pandemic, listen as our political and economic rhetoric grows louder and more accusatory. Watch as we wrestle with trying to balance desires for individual autonomy and the need to seek the common good. We’re like fish in a polluted river gasping at the surface for undissolved air.

         Yes, the world is changing through this pandemic. And we all feel the pressure of the changes, which, in all likelihood are not momentary, like some rain delay during a baseball game. The changes we’re experiencing will probably ask every human being to enter new ways of being human in the world. If we learn anything from this experience, it will affect us more like the changes of adolescence, the loss of a loved one, or, as with Saul, transformation by an ineffable reality into an unimagined holiness and vocation.

         It seems to me that in our emerging situation, the Church is being called to open ourselves to ways that we can embrace and embody love—agape, philos, eros, all of it. What new things is love creating in us and asking of us right now?

         Love changed Saul. And what was it that this death-breathing terrorist would eventually say about love? Wasn’t it something about patience, kindness, gratitude, humility, and hope? And didn’t he say that the lack of love reduces us to “noisy gong[s] or…clanging symbol[s]”? (1Cor. 13:1-7)

         Being no different than anyone else, I give in to fear sometimes. And when I do, I have terrible breath—cynical, selfish, threatening, noisy-gong breath. When that happens, I live outside of faith, hope, and love, and my heart is to fear what stagnant water is to E. coli.

         The difference between faith as the church often teaches it and faith as Jesus demonstrates it is Jesus’ utter lack of fear. Fear always wants to retreat to an idealized past. It always wants to close doors, build obstacles, blame some scapegoat. Love and faith always look forward. They always see potential.

         I know all about Saul, God says to the fearful Ananias. And yes, he’s caused a lot of suffering. But he can take it, too. And he’ll do that for Jesus. I’ve chosen Saul. You, go help him.

         God’s always doing this kind of thing.

         Moses says he has no authority, no voice. And God says, You have a bold heart. I choose you.(Ex. 3:1-15)

         When Samuel was looking at Jesse’s sons for a new king of Israel, Jesse leaves his youngest son, David, in the fields with the sheep.

         Call him in, says Samuel.

         That one, says God. I choose David. He’s got a leader’s heart, fearless enough to be kind and just. (1Sam. 16:1-13)

         I’m just a boy, says Jeremiah. I can’t do this.

         Nonsense, says God. You have a perceptive, truth-telling heart. I choose you. (Jer. 1:4-9)

         “How can this be?” asks Mary.

         And Gabriel says, You have the perfect heart for this, like God’s own heart—loving, faithful, trusting, mothering. God chooses you, Favored One.

“Here I am,” says Mary. (Luke 1:26-38)

         Within each one of us there stirs the heart of a fresh-breathed New Creation in Christ. Knowing that heart, God calls us to fearless discipleship. And when we develop bad breath, God calls us not simply to admit that we’re guilty of sin, but to recommit ourselves to lives of fearless and loving service in the manner of Jesus. His love transforms us into New Creatures who take the risk of trusting God’s desire and power to breathe new life into us, to redeem even our foulest breath.

         As we learn to trust Resurrection, we begin to recognize and celebrate the gospel truth that both Paul and Ananias learned the hard way—the truth that because nothing can separate us from the love of God, no one lies beyond the grace of God.

         Now, isn’t that the point, and even the very process of repentance?

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