John’s gospel gives us Pentecost in one sentence, sets it all out with a scant ten words of Greek: ‘Jesus breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit.’ This is as short and sweet as it gets, but be not fooled by John’s brevity: his message is of the profoundest significance. And what seems, on the surface, a passing mention of Jesus doing a yoga-studio-style ‘inhale, exhale’ only will prove upon closer inspection to be a trove of meaning. It is rich with under-the-radar resonances. The Gospel According to John sets itself apart from Matthew’s and Mark’s and Luke’s accounts by its masterful and prolific use of allusion; indeed, saying something without saying it, saying something by evoking, by invoking something else – this is John’s hallmark. Over and again, he winks at well-known scriptures from the Old Testament that he trusts his readers carry in their hearts or can readily call to mind. John frames his story of what God is doing in our day with stories of what God did back then. In gesturing to the stories of who God was for generations past, John gives us to see who God is for us now.
So, for instance, were I a betting man, I would wager that no believer in John’s time could have read of the resurrected Jesus breathing his Spirit upon the apostles without being at once transported back and back and back to the second chapter of the book of Genesis, to the Garden of Eden, to God’s scooping up soil, gathering to himself the wet, red earth and holding it and shaping it and breathing into it, breathing into the sculpted burnt-sienna hominid, breathing life into it. John’s allusion to the creation story would have leapt out at anyone and everyone who had eyes to see. For the Greek word John uses, the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, also means breath; and the Hebrew word Genesis uses, the Hebrew word for breath, ruah, also means spirit. In taking up language so pregnant, in turning a phrase with so familiar a ring to it, John manages to effect something like a split-screen in our minds. On the one side, he gives us to see God the Creator breathing out spirit and bringing us to life, and on the other side, Jesus the re-Creator, breathing out spirit and bringing us to fullness of life. John evokes, John invokes, John winks at this well-known scripture – the great legend of the world’s founding and of our race’s fashioning – and yokes Jesus to it. He wants us to see who Jesus is and what Jesus does as akin to who God is and what God does. He wants us to begin imaginatively tethering Jesus to God so that we understand the one in the light of the other.
And it is not just the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden and God’s breathing life into us that John conjures; he beckons us to join the prophet Ezekiel on a windswept plain, a desolate wasteland strewn with skulls and half-buried bones. We are to hear old Ezekiel call down the Holy Spirit from heaven, hear the great whoosh! of that gust from the otherworld, hear it echoing off the hills and whipping up the desert sands and rattling and raising hosts of skeletons, lifting them ligament by ligament. We are to be there, too, as God breathes upon these slain, and as they arise, returned to the land of the living, saved from the doom of an everlasting slumber, as they arise and stand tall to the sun by the power of the Spirit poured out over them. John gives us to see the resurrected Jesus breathing his Spirit upon the apostles as being of a piece with God’s summoning wind, summoning breath from the far corners of the cosmos, God’s summoning wind, summoning breath, and by the sheer bluster of this squall from the beyond, this mighty, surging storm of the Spirit, God’s catching up all that is lifeless in God’s own vigor. John evokes, John invokes, John winks at this well-known scripture – the great dream of the raising of the dead at the last day – and yokes Jesus to it. He wants us to know that the breath of Jesus brings life, brings us back to life, that his Spirit is the holy, quickening Spirit to be bestowed upon all earth’s children at the end of the age in what will amount to the restoration of all of us to ourselves. John wants us to trust that Jesus’ resurrection means resurrection for you and for me, and that by the broad, lavish, bestowal of the same Spirit that awakened him, we too, will share in life beyond life.
Over and again, John winks at well-known scriptures from the Old Testament that he trusts his readers carry in their hearts or can readily call to mind. John frames his story of what God is doing in our day with stories of what God did back then. John weds his gospel to weighty, ancient words – the words of Genesis, words which ring with gladness, telling as they do of God’s creation in the beginning, of God’s breathing, of God’s sharing the Spirit of life, of God’s giving us to ourselves; John weds his gospel to the words of Genesis, and in the marriage of imagery and the new insight begotten, we see Jesus, giving us back to ourselves, Jesus breathing, Jesus sharing the Spirit of abundant life, full life, the good life, life welling up from a font of purpose within, life guided by principle, life spent in service to others. John would have us believe and trust that, by the Spirit, God has made us what we are, and by this same Spirit, Jesus will make us more than what we are.
John weds his gospel to weighty, ancient words – the words of Ezekiel, words which peal with promise, telling as they do of the triumph in the end of God’s will for life, of God’s gathering back the bones of every generation; John weds his gospel to the words of Ezekiel, and in the marriage of imagery and the new insight begotten, we see Jesus resurrected and in whose resurrection we shall participate, Jesus, the firstborn from among the dead, Jesus, the pioneer of life beyond life, we see Jesus whose bones have been crushed, this Jesus we see rejoicing, we see Jesus breathing, Jesus sharing with us the Spirit by whose power will dawn that glorious day when the music of the spheres shall be the sounding of ten-thousand trumpets and all that was lost shall be found and all who were bound shall be freed and all the lowly lifted up and all the haughty humbled and all the wronged given recompense and all the dead raised, all the dead roused from their graves and cloaked in the very raiment of immortality and all tears wiped away. John would have us see and trust that our being changed from glory into glory is a pilgrimage of becoming which will shade off into eternity. His gospel gives us Pentecost in one sentence, sets it all out with a scant ten words of Greek: ‘Jesus breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit.’ This is as short and sweet as it gets, but be not fooled by John’s brevity: his message is of the profoundest significance.