"I can't breathe."
“I can’t breathe.”
That’s the words a man said loud enough to be caught on video in Minnesota.
One story on the incident started this way – “A man exclaiming “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground and put his knee on the man’s neck for about eight minutes died Monday night…” (Source)
“I can’t breathe.”
Three words. I wonder how many us can’t breathe right now. Not in a literal way. But for this man, and for so many others, it is literal. And not breathing is costly. It cost him his life. He died with a knee on his neck.
Reminded me of two other quotes:
The first one is attributed to George Orwell – “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
The other quote is attributed to Gary Lloyd – “When the government’s boot is on your throat, whether it’s a left boot or a right boot is of no consequence.”
“I can’t breathe.” A man says this while a knee is on his throat. And he ends up dead.
This Sunday is Pentecost. It’s the Sunday we celebrate the formal appearance of the Holy Spirit as depicted in the Book of Acts. And while the Acts reading will get most of the attention this coming Sunday, I was struck by the Gospel reading assigned for Sunday. It is John 20:19-23,
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 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.’”
I added the emphasis of “he breathed on them.” Jesus breathed on them.
In this Gospel, we hear how the disciples are gathered together on the evening of the Resurrection – just a couple of days after the execution, or the lynching, of Jesus, as theologian James Cone labeled it. The disciples are gathered for fear. They are afraid – not generally. No, they are afraid of a specific group of people – the ones who were yelling “Crucify him.” While it’s not written, I think it is fair to say that they were also afraid of the Romans, the ones who actually carried out the execution, or lynching.
If your friend had been killed, how would you respond? Would you be afraid? Afraid for your life? I wonder if that’s what African Americans across this country feel right now.
If you had witnessed or heard story after story of people being executed, or dying, at the hand of a specific group of people, how would you respond? Jesus was one of many who claimed to be Messiah in Israel. Many of them, and their supporters were put down by military force, through crucifixion, and other brutal means. And stories of these executions would be well known. But Jesus was different of course. He wasn’t leading an armed rebellion against Rome or the Temple. He was instituting the Kingdom of God – through the means of peace, grace, and mercy. He did this even though he received none of this in response.
And then on the cross we are told he breathes his last. And dies. He could breath no more. Death by crucifixion is really death because you can’t breath anymore. You drown in your own fluids in your lungs.
But it is in the resurrection account that we heard about breath again. In our Gospel account for this coming Sunday, we hear Jesus do something that we would not dream of doing right now in the midst of a pandemic – “Jesus breathed on them.” A dead man brought back to life breathes on them.
His appearance in the locked room shocks them to the point that they don’t even hear what he says. They ignore the fact that he breathes. They ignore what he offers and what he says – “Peace be with you.”
Jesus repeats himself – “Peace be with you.” And then he breathes on them. And this breath is the Spirit. It is a breath that will be fully felt at Pentecost in another room depicted in Acts 2.
Jesus’ breath brings life. It brings a mission with it. The disciples are sent. They are sent out, with the breath. They are sent to forgive or retain sins. They are sent to do the work of the Father. They are sent to participate in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God. They are given peace.
How are we sent right now? Are we like the disciples that can’t hear when Jesus show up and offers us a different way of being in the world? Are we like the disciples that ignore what he says to them?
“I can’t breath.” Are we listening?
“I can’t breath.” What peace is Jesus offering right now, in the midst of fear and tragedy? What does it look like? Peace isn’t wishy-washy and weak. It’s active. It is a way of being. It doesn’t mean avoiding conflict. It doesn’t mean surrender. It doesn’t mean give in. Peace isn’t a destination that we ever arrive at.
In this account of the Gospel, Jesus’ offering of peace is linked with breath.
“I can’t breath.” A man utters these words and dies, without peace.
Without peace, there is no breath.
But Jesus, a man executed, whose breath is taken away from him, shows up in the midst of fear, in a locked room, and does the unimaginable – he breathes. And offers a new way of being. He breathes. He breathes because not everyone can.
And as his followers we have an obligation to bring peace where there is none – to offer breath where none is available.
“I can’t breath.”
“Jesus breathed on them…”