His Breath Is Not The Breath Of Death

Text:  John 20:19-31

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

I don’t know about you, but I do not like when somebody breathes on me.  I mean intentionally opens their mouth and blows their hot moist breath in my face.  The reason I do not like this is because most of the time we humans have bad breath.  We are in constant need of a Tic Tac or gum or a mint to cover the stench in our mouths. 

And why do we have bad breath?  We have bad breath because we eat dead things.  Think about it for a moment.  Your fridge is really nothing more than a mini food morgue where you and I store dead things in cold air before we feast on them. 

We do not only have bad breath from eating dead things, but we also get bad breath from death itself – death that is at work in us.  That’s right; death is at work in us with every aging day and every hour.  If you doubt that death is working in us, just smell your own breath in the morning.  It typically carries the smell of death.

So, with this in mind, what Jesus does in this morning’s Gospel lesson seems a little odd.  Permit me to explain. 

The evening of Easter Sunday the disciples locked themselves in a room because they were still afraid of the Jews.  Their minds were spinning and their hearts were aching from the events of Good Friday where Christ was bloodied, mocked, spit upon, crucified, and buried. 

As they sat around pondering the bloody cross and the empty tomb and the announcement from the Angels, suddenly Jesus appeared among them. 

“Peace be with you” He said and then showed them the scars from the nails and the spears.  “Peace be with you” He said again as though to set aside their fears and give to them a divine peace and comfort in the midst of their troubled hearts. 

And then something strange happened… Jesus breathed on them and said,

“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone it is withheld.”

Indeed, Christ Jesus breathed on them!  But His breath is not the breath of death!  Jesus has no death in Him, He is life, His breath is life, His words are life.  Jesus’ breath is not stained with the stench of death and decay, but filled with fresh eternal life. 

Keep in mind though, that the disciples were really lousy friends to Jesus.  They abandoned Him.  However, instead of breathing an angry curse upon them, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit.  He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and then sends them into the world armed with His words of life and forgiveness. 

Dear friends, in Jesus’ breath of life, He breathed life into the disciples, into His church.  In that locked room, Jesus gives to His disciples and to His church the authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from those who are unrepentant of their sins.  We call this the Office of the Keys. 

This Office of the Keys is for locking and unlocking, it is for binding and loosing, it is for retaining and forgiving sins.  In other words, churches – who possess this office of keys – call and ordain pastors.  These pastors are called to be preachers and teachers of the Word.  They are to shepherd Christ’s flock faithfully.  They are given the keys of the office and then in the stead and by the command of Jesus Himself, they forgive sins. 

This is what we do at the beginning of every single Divine Service.  We speak the confession of sins and confess all of our sins to our Heavenly Father.  Together we confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed.  Then the pastor – who you have called to the Office of the Keys – stands before you and absolves you!  The Absolution is spoken by the pastor and all your sins are forgiven just as if Christ Jesus spoke these words to you Himself.  The Absolution is not the breath of death and it is not the breath of an angry curse, but the breath of forgiveness, life, and salvation. 

Now, I used to struggle with this.  I did not grow up with this confession and Absolution as we have here in this service.  The first time I remember seeing and hearing a pastor say the words,

“I as a called and ordained servant therefore forgive you all of your sins,” I freaked out!  I said to myself, “Who does that guy think he is?  How can he as a sinner forgive sins?  A guy in a white robe cannot forgive sins!   That is God’s job and His alone!” 

Nobody though had ever showed me the reading from the Gospel of John the twentieth chapter. 

You see, Jesus breathed on His disciples and gave His Spirit to them because He was sending them into the world to deliver the forgiveness of sins that He had won by His death and resurrection.  In other words, those words of forgiveness spoken over you in the Absolution… they are Jesus’ words of forgiveness which He speaks to you, His people through His chosen servant, the pastor. 

Dear friends, it is not the words of a man in a white robe that forgive your sins.  Do not think that my forgiveness carries any weight in heaven.  I am only a poor miserable sinner like all of you in need of the same forgiveness from our Lord.  The words of Absolution are just as much for me, as they are for you. 

What this means is that the words of Absolution are Jesus’ words, not mine.  Jesus makes use of a man’s mouth and breath to breathe life into you, to chase away death, and to fill you with His life and His forgiveness.  Jesus is life, His breath is life, and His words are life – all for you.

Giving life to the dead and dying people through the voice and breath of man is not all that odd.  We heard the very same thing in our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Ezekiel. 

Ezekiel was called – he was set aside as a servant.  God chose Him to speak His worlds of life and forgiveness to God’s people.  To show him how it would be and how it would work, Ezekiel was shown a valley full of bones and at God’s holy command Ezekiel spoke words of life to a valley of death. 

As the prophet spoke to the dry and dead bones in the stead and by the command of God, life was given to the valley of bones.  The bones rattled, flesh came upon the bones, and behold out of the jaws of death a mighty great army came to life.

Now, it was not Ezekiel’s breath or his words or his power or his charisma that gave life to the pile of bones.  Ezekiel essentially did nothing, he had nothing to offer.  Ezekiel simply spoke the word of God, “Hear the Word of the Lord…” and life came forth. 

Dear Baptized Saints, when you hear the words of Absolution spoken over you and into your ears, you and your sins are wrapped in the mighty grace of God.  Yes, when the Lord’s word of forgiveness is spoken to you and for you, the Lord does what He says.  In other words, even though the Lord’s forgiveness is delivered to you through the mouth of a sinful man – your pastor – these words are life, because Jesus is life.  Jesus’ breath is life and He breathes forgiveness, life, and salvation into you to chase away death and fill you with assurance. 

So, dear Baptized Saints, hear it once again!  You are forgiven – do not doubt this.  Jesus’ words of Absolution have been breathed upon you, over you, and into your ears.  Why are you forgiven, because Jesus’ word says so. 

Christ Jesus loves you and loves me, He makes sure that the mercy and grace He accomplished for you on Good Friday is delivered to you in so many ways that you need never doubt that His suffering and death and resurrection are for you, for your complete forgiveness. 

Jesus has more forgiveness than you have sins for.  And He fill you with all of His forgiveness today.  Hear the word of the Lord, “I forgive you all your sins!”

In the name of the risen and victorious Jesus Christ: Amen.

Note:  This sermon is indebted to Rev. Joshua Reimche of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Bottineau, ND.  Pastor Reimche's sermon has been reformatted, edited, and adjusted for Zion Lutheran Church. 

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