The Breath of God

My interest in Christian truths started in college, when I took seriously the challenge of a theologian who adapted Socrates’ famous line to say that an unexamined faith is not worth believing. That truth continues to deepen in my heart and mind. As a Christian, I have experienced Christ’s overwhelming love for me many times. But I must say the most compelling evidence I have for faith is embodied by the holy people I know. They have a presence that shows they have experienced the peace of Christ and new life in the Spirit. In today’s second reading we hear, “Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.”

In today’s Gospel the disciples, too, are created anew by the divine breath—the very breath that created us all in the first place: “Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gn 2:7). On Easter evening, fearful and behind locked doors, the disciples experienced the risen Lord: “Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’.... And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Now born “from above” they become entirely formed anew; for “what is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6-7). Thus empowered by Jesus, the disciples receive the authority to mediate divine forgiveness: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them and whose sins you retain are retained.” I do not quite think that Jesus had the sacrament of reconciliation in mind, though that will later be an expression of this empowerment. Rather, envision the disciples (all disciples) manifesting his new, resurrected life and ministry in their own person. Jesus was breathing the spirit of his own mission and authority. Appropriately, in the first reading from Acts we learn that the apostles bore witness to the resurrection “with great power” (mega dynamis—think dynamite). This power comes from the Spirit.

But Thomas was not with them and would not believe. Jesus appears again the following Sunday and Thomas not only believes but proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’s proclamation of faith is a prophetic bookend to the beginning of the Gospel where we learned “the Word was God” and the “light of the human race” (Jn 1:1, 4). Now enlightened, Thomas makes a dramatic confession.

It would be easy to see Thomas as having been set up for failure. He was told an outrageous story and was expected to believe it without proof. Whenever someone describes a wild religious experience, I wonder how much of it comes from God and how much from the imagination. Thomas also works as a sort of analog for the post-apostolic church, which did not directly experience the risen Christ. Jesus responds to him: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.”

Jesus’ words are, of course, meant both for Thomas and for us. But shouldn’t we, like Thomas, need some evidence to believe? Are we blessed to believe any religious claim that comes along? The truth is, however, that Thomas’s problem was not that he wanted evidence, but that he was blind to the evidence right before him. He should have seen that his companions had become transformed from a group of people who were afraid, hopeless, guilty and powerless into believers who were clear-sighted, courageous and hope-filled; people who were forgiven and empowered to extend that forgiveness to others. Above all, their fear was replaced by the risen Jesus’ gift of peace. The evidence was overwhelmingly present to Thomas. He could have seen it in all that constitutes being a new creation in Christ.

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