“God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath.”
As you probably know, “there are no quick questions.” And to make matters worse, we were already behind schedule. The choir was beginning to precess and the acolytes were already leading the way. Yet I could see there was something on his mind and he needed my attention. With all seriousness he asked, "What is the Holy Spirit?"
I’ll give it to him. It was a quick question. But are you kidding me? It took the early church fathers decades to agree on a doctrine of the Holy Spirit. All my seminary training flew out the window as I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. That was… “Wind and breath.” Yes, I summed up one of God’s greatest qualities with two things that come out of me every morning.
If we were to do a little word study, we'd see that both the Hebrew word ruâch and the Greek word pneuma are both translated the same: wind, breath and spirit. And so its not a stretch to say the Holy Spirit is the very breath of God, the wind that whips around us, and yes, the very air we breathe.
Wind is easy to explain. I can feel it as it tickles my face and tussles my hair. I can hear it rustle through the leaves, watch it kick up dust, and see it makes ripples in the water.
Breath is also something I get. On cold days I can see it, nearly every morning I can smell it, and when I'm out running I can even hear it. Just as wind is a part of every day, breath is a part of every human being. Rarely do we give much of a thought…until it is hard to breathe.
But Spirit is something unique. It has no scent. It’s shapeless and formless. It’s invisible and hard to grasp. I don’t really think about it until I need it. When I’m feeling down or alone, or troubled by a thought or lacking creativity, I pray for the spirit to lift me up. If I truly focus my attention inward, I can feel the Spirit moving within me. Why? It’s because the Spirit is always here; fully alive and fully present.
Just as God sent Jesus to be with us, God placed the Spirit within us. This is how it’s been since the beginning, when the earth was a formless void. The Bible story begins with the ruâch of God sweeping over the face of the waters; breathing all creation to life. It was the first thing to BE and it has never ceased to be.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about creation care, and not just among Christians. Believe it or not, there are people all around the world who have formed a unified, global coalition to protect this wind, breath, spirit. They actually believe the air we breathe is important to our survival. They argue the environment needs to be protected even if it means we have to make some sacrifices.
Instead going on a political rant, I’ve decided to borrow a wonderful illustration by Barbara Brown Taylor to make this point.
Taylor compares God’s Spirit to our earth’s atmosphere. This invisible layer of gases that surrounds our planet keeps the oxygen we breathe from being sucked out into the cold, consuming vacuum of outer space. Inside this layer is all the air that ever was, is, and will ever be.
There is no intergalactic space corporation pumping in new air into our atmosphere. Leaving us with a great responsibility. In fact, it’s the same old air that continues to recirculate, passing from one generation to the next. How cool is that? God’s first breath is still blowing through this world, filling our lungs with life.
To think that the same breath exhaled by dinosaurs, Pharaohs, and Greek philosophers, is the same breath you and I are inhaling right now. Every time a baby takes his first breath, he’s taking in someone’s last. When Jesus exhaled his last breath on the cross, it became part of the air that is present right now. What does that suggest about our responsibility as faithful Christians to remain part of the global effort to protect our environment?
In our reading this morning, we see how God took that resurrected breath, and strengthened it into a mighty wind that shook throughout creation. Like a holy hurricane, it blew through the upper room on the Day of Pentecost; igniting sparks that burst into flames above the disciples’ heads. The people could not contain themselves. They were so giddy with awe and amazement; so much so that some onlookers accused them of being drunk.
This Pentecost picture is a vivid and colorful one, to say the least – tongues of fire, a powerful wind. Taylor captures it well by beautifully stating it was as if “God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath.”
Isn’t that cool? We are all inheritors of Jesus’ breath. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to you and me. So breathe it in generously. With one single breath, God renewed the face of the ground, created life out of nothing, and even new life out of death. In the same manor it fill up our entire being, transforms and renews us. Pentecost was not a one-time event – it’s a never-ending gift that constantly fills us with hope and purpose. Let’s think about that for a moment.
Breath is life. Jesus gives us the assurance that each time we take a breath we receive new life in God’s peace, love, justice and forgiveness. With each breath comes the responsibility in which every breath we exhale must reflect the same grace given to us.
In his response to the irresponsible decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, said, “We must not steal something that rightfully belongs to the next generation. We have to make sure we leave behind a beautiful and bountiful nature for future generations, so they can live peacefully, breath fresh air, and live a good life.” Our purpose, as inheritors of Jesus' breath is to recirculate the wind and breath of hope for the future generations.
As followers of Jesus, we must act with love and justice, to care for others, and all of God’s creation; embracing a way of life here and now to ensure a better future – for ourselves, and for all people of every nation, throughout all the generations.
Our day-to-day experiences are probably less spectacular then the one on Pentecost; but the Holy Spirit is no less present within us now… than it was to them, then. It may not be as obvious as tongues of fire, but it moves in and through us like a powerful wind, in the way we share our needs, desires, and hopes with all humanity. It is present in this space and present within you, because you are part of the sacred body of Christ, a holy temple of the Holy Spirit.
It was Jesus who emptied himself of his last breath, so we could be filled. Go and do likewise. As the Body of Christ, we must empty ourselves of our fears, doubts, anxieties and worries – the things that deflate us and pollute the world. We must exhale this stuff in order to inhale the true breath, the Spirit of life.
As you leave here today, remember this: Your breath is Jesus’ breath. It keeps the heartbeat of church, and all of life, alive. This breath is our gift and it must be shared as a gift for others in order to experience real life and true peace.
Pentecost is a reminder for us that we are not simply called to know Jesus or merely study his words; we are called to live in the Spirit of Jesus; the Spirit of love and justice and forgiveness. When we faithfully live out a Spirit filled life like Jesus taught us, we become closer to God, and more intimate with others. It’s in this shared experience that we begin to heal what is broken, reclaim hope we once thought was lost, and to repair the damage caused by a lifetime of neglect.
By this and in this very spirit…the breath of God, the very breath of life, will forever recycle itself over and over again; making the entire planet, and not just America, is great again.
* Based on the sermon The Gospel of the Holy Spirit by Barbara Brown Taylor. Home By Another Way. Cowley Publications. (Kindle Locations 1457-1460). Kindle Edition.
Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3. Westminster John Knox Press. (Louisville, 2009). pp. 3-7.