“Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘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’” (Jn. 20:20b-23).
This is John’s version of “Pentecost,” although he never uses the word. In John’s Gospel, there’s no violent rush of wind or tongues of fire or speaking in strange tongues, as we have in Acts (see Acts 2). According to Luke, the Holy Spirit descends only after Jesus ascends (Acts 1:6-11). In John, Jesus appears to his disciples on Easter evening, as they hide in fear behind locked doors. In John, Jesus invites them to receive the Holy Spirit, the promised Advocate or Paraclete (Jn. 14:15), and then Jesus breathes on them. Jesus breathes and we inhale and then we exhale. Breathing in and breathing out, breathing in and breathing out, such is the rhythm of new life. Breath to breath. The Spirit is our intimate, close, as close as breath.
Having Jesus breathe on the disciples, theologian David Congdon writes, is “John’s remarkable way of describing how the Spirit is an extension of Jesus’s presence and power in the midst of his bodily absence (Jn. 20:22).” The Spirit, according to Jesus, “abides with you” and “will be in you” (Jn. 14:15) and will “be with you forever” (Jn. 14:17).
Holy Spirit. Άγιο πνεύμα (pneuma). The Greek word pneuma can mean “wind,” “spirit,” and “breath.” We might say Holy Breath mixes with human breath. Just as breath/breathing allows us to live—where would be without our breath?—so, too, the breath/breathing of Christ enables a different kind of life. Where would we be without the breath of Christ who animates our lives?
Didn’t Jesus say, earlier in John’s Gospel, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10)? Not abundance in life, but abundant life. And, what is abundant life? A life that is full, rich in meaning and depth, a life of purpose. It’s sacrificial; it gives itself away. It’s life that is intense, rich in love and joy and beauty. It’s life lived in service to God and to neighbor. And it’s life that has the power to erupt from within death and deadness and nothingness! It’s the power of resurrection! That’s abundant life. That’s how Jesus lived. That’s what Jesus was sent to offer. And that’s what Jesus continues to share with those who love him.
Significantly, it should not be overlooked that in John’s Gospel the Advocate or Paraclete is given on the day of resurrection. Jesus, the resurrected incarnation of God, breathes upon them the animating life of God. His Spirit/breath has power. The Holy Spirit is directly related to the presence of the Resurrected Lord. The Holy Spirit is given to extend resurrection life to us! Theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) described the pneuma, the spirit, as “the divine power…as it impinges on human existence.” This Spirit is powerful—the Spirit acts, moves us, and shakes our foundations, calls us into existence and grants life, the Spirit touches our lives, leaving us transfigured and transformed.
In his remarkable book, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Fortress, 1993), theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes, “The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Christ, and is as such the Spirit of the resurrection of the dead.” Moltmann stresses that the Holy Spirit, given by the resurrected Christ, is a quickening agent in the life of the believer. “The Spirit of the Father and the Son,” he insists, “is the divine quickening power of the new creation of all things, the power empowering the rebirth of everything that lives.”
So, how do you know the Holy Spirit is present in your life? You’re breathing, aren’t you? That’s a start. Now ask: Where are you coming alive? Where is renewal occurring, trying to occur within you? What is trying to be born in you, through you? Where is resurrection erupting in corners of the heart that were formerly dead or lost in grief or pain or sorrow? God as Creator is still creating, still breathing, and through the Spirit continues to create and recreate us, the Church, the world, continues to breathe new life into us.
And the rebirth I’m talking about is experienced here and now, in our lives and in the world. As Jesus demonstrated with his life, resurrection is not reserved only for life after death. Our lives—again, here and now—can experience resurrection life, can experience new vitality.
In fact, this is what John means by “eternal life,” or, better, “life touched by eternity.” Life touched by eternity—God’s life—can happen here and now, any time or in the life to come when time is no more. In her book The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Danielle Shroyer reminds us that “Eternal life is not a ticket we hold but a lifestyle we inhabit.”
The Spirit is Life. And because the Spirit breathes through us the breath of resurrection, we can sense when and where the Spirit is at work wherever we are coming more alive. What is aliveness? Ann Belford Ulanov, former professor of psychology and religion at Union Theological Seminary (New York), says, “Aliveness comes down to one thing—consenting to rise, to be dented, impressed, pressed in upon, to rejoin, to open, to ponder, to be where we are in this moment and see what happens, allowing the breath of not knowing to be taken.” Allowing the breath of not knowing to be taken. Aliveness requires breath, we have to receive breath, inhale, and we have to exhale. It requires receptivity of the breath given and this always requires risk. Where will the Spirit take us, how will our lives be changed, all because we risked inhaling the Holy? All of this means that we need to be open to what is trying to come to life within us. It requires risk. It requires what the poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) called a “breathturn,” the turning of the breath/spirit within us.
How do we know where the Spirit is? How do we sense God’s presence in our present? Moltmann, again, is helpful. “The experience of God deepens the experiences of life. It does not reduce them, for it awakens the unconditional Yes to life. The more I love God the more gladly I exist. The more immediately and wholly I exist, the more I sense the living God, the inexhaustible well of life, and life’s eternity.”
The unconditional Yes to life! I believe with all my heart that the Spirit is always trying to bring us alive—and the Church alive. The Spirit is inviting us to risk life, risk coming to life. Where would any of us be, where would the Church be without this work of the Spirit? This day of Pentecost should be as important for Christians as Christmas and Easter. In many respects, Pentecost should be more important for us, for without the work of the Holy Spirit, Christmas and Easter would be merely distant historical events—the life of Christ would be a remote event of history—with no power to impinge upon our present and transform our lives.
Our life in Christ, and the ministry of the Church, are only vital and relevant today because the Holy Spirit is creating and recreating us, forming and reforming us, calling us to life. Without the breath of the Spirit, the Church is essentially a curious and ineffective historical society.
So, let us receive the Holy Spirit, the breath of the Resurrected Lord. And may we be continuously search after that holy breath, may we dependent upon that breath for our lives. Let us risk the ancient prayer, Veni Creator Spiritus! Come, Creator Spirit!
Let us pray this petition again and again, Veni, Creator Spiritus!
Come, Creator Spirit!
Create and recreate our lives.
Form and reform us!
 David W. Congdon, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 140.
 Rudolf Bultmann, Gospel of John, cited in David W. Congdon, 140.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 94.
 Moltmann, 94-95
 Danielle Shroyer, The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009) 84.
 Ann Belford Ulanov, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 15.
 Paul Celan, Breathturn (Green Integer, 2006).
 Moltmann, 98.
 Veni, Creator Spiritus is a ninth century hymn attributed to Rabanus Maurus (c. 780-856), a Frankish Benedictine monk and theologian.