The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Pentecost A 2023
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
May 28th 2023
Breath of God
From Ash Wednesday through Lent, Holy Week and Easter, from death to resurrection to ascension, we have been carried on the rhythmical tide of the worshipping church to this day, the Day of Pentecost—50 days after Easter—and the capstone of our journey from ashes—earth—to wind and fire—Spirit.
Among New Testament writers, only Luke in our reading from Acts locates the gift of the Spirit during the Jewish festival of Pentecost or 50 days after the Passover, a pilgrim festival of thanksgiving for the harvest and commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Devout Jews from every nation would have been in Jerusalem to worship and celebrate.
Among the multitude was a small band of Jesus’ disciples, only they were missing from the festivities, huddled together as they were, stranded in a sea of faith, suspended in time, and holding their breath—for what they didn’t exactly know. Suddenly from somewhere, was it heaven?—a tempest of wind and fire erupted and roared through the windows and doors of their tightly locked room. The furniture went flying, and I bet the disciples did too.
As if the Spirit’s dramatic entrance wasn’t enough, after picking up their stunned selves, tongues of fire flamed down upon them and they began speaking in a cacophony of languages other their own about God’s deeds of power—all of this riotous uproar drawing the attention of the crowd outside, who were amazed. Some were perplexed but others sneered, assuming it to be a house party of epic proportions. But Peter sets them straight: of course we’re not drunk, it’s only 9am in the morning—as if it’s more likely that God’s Holy Spirit is creating holy havoc at 9am in the morning!
In our gospel, however, we hear of a very different, quieter, but no less powerful version of the giving of the Spirit. John locates it on the eve of the day of the Resurrection, or Easter. Once again the disciples are huddled together behind locked doors, when Jesus, fresh from the tomb, makes an unexpected entrance: he simply appears and stands among them and says: peace be with you; it’s okay, don’t worry, I know you’re scared and confused; shalom.
But then he does something else, also unexpected, and something we rarely think twice about—even though we do it more often than anything else during a single day—on average 23,000 times—and upon which we are completely dependent; he breathes; that’s it; Jesus breathes on the disciples. In the Greek, the word for breathe is emphysao, the same translated word in Genesis, when God breathes life into the dust, the dust becoming man, Adam (2:7); and in Ezekiel when God breathes life into the dry bones of the slain who then get up and walk (37:1-10). So too, Jesus breathes life into the disciples, reanimating them, if you will, with new life.
Jesus reassures and re-compasses his wayward crew with his words of peace and breath of God, while in Acts the Holy Spirit disrupts the disciples and pushes them out of the proverbial nest. Both are empowerments of the ruach elohim; the wind, breath, and Spirit of the living God that was before the beginning, when the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters (Genesis (1:2). This Spirit is then imaged as the dove who comes down to birth, baptize, and initiate; and in the New Testament is identified as the paraclete, meaning one who comes alongside, to counsel, defend, encourage, and comfort us.
There are many ways to picture and understand the Holy Spirit; such as with the color red as today’s liturgical color that denotes the power of the Spirit. I often imagine the Spirit as a woman with bare feet and rather unkempt hair—unencumbered, a bit wild, and deeply wise. While our God images and metaphors will change as we do, the underlying reality remains the same: the Holy One is as close as our breath; every breath you take, each beat of your heart, is a gift of God's sustaining Spirit; the literal breath of all creation and every life; all else is concept.
This means that we have immediate and tangible access to God’s Holy Spirit as embodied in our breath. If you have ever prayed or meditated with me, you will know that I often begin by inviting those gathered to take in a deeper fuller breath and then slowly exhale down into the body, becoming more present to the Presence in us. Breathing is not only autonomous; unlike most of our vital bodily functions we can consciously influence and modulate it.The breath can be held or restrained, slowed down, sped up, paced, or patterned. We can hear it, feel it, and even taste it; our very breath is our most basic and fundamental relationship with God.
The gradual hymn we sang is an ode to this breath of God, and as I read it, a specific personal prayer, a plea to God to: breathe on me, fill me with life anew, that I may love the way you love, and do what you would do. Breathe on me, until my heart is pure, and I glow with thy fire divine; breathe on me, Breath of God, so shall I never die, but live with you the perfect life for all eternity (1982 Episcopal Hymnal, hymn 508).
This Holy Spirit breath of God is utterly personal and specific to each of us; and it is also general and public; for on that breath-filled day in John’s gospel and wild ferocious day in Luke’s Acts, the whole Church was born, midwifed by the Holy Spirit in a breathless labored birth, as most births tend to be.
When a child is born, the first thing most parents listen for is that initial cry—I know I did—I waited, holding my breath—for my baby to exhale in a cry of new life. I also remember listening for my mother’s last breath—holding mine, waiting for her last exhale— until I heard that unmistakable silence of her new and eternal life in Christ.
From breathing water in the womb to breathing air in the world to not breathing at all, we are transformed in our ways of being. So too, we are transformed in baptism, returning to the water to be given new life in Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
This day of Pentecost is a moment of new birth; the pause between the in-breath and out-breath wherein we are caught up into that vivifying eddy of Christ’s death and resurrection. St. Paul reminds us 1 Corinthians: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit,” and I would add, that all are made to breathe of one Breath.
In closing, I’d like to share a passage from William Temple’s commentary on John’s gospel (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44): The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, means breath and wind; the Hebrew word—ruach—actually means the desert-wind, that powerful unseen force that sweeps across the face of the earth . . . you can feel its breath on your face if, hearing it pass, you go out and stand in its course . . . Don’t ask for credentials. Don't wait till you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you, or its destination before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it.
May we indeed trust ourselves to the Spirit of God. May we breathe in the breath of God, and receive the Spirit; the dove who comes alongside us to nourish our wholeness in the Holy One, and give us the peace of Jesus that the world cannot give.