Pentecost | God’s holy breath

The breath poured into the early disciples fills the earth even now. (Listen.)

Take a deep breath. The thing is this: The atmosphere which blankets our beloved wounded blue-green planet is a closed system. Nothing goes in; nothing goes out. For millions of years, the exhalations of swamp gas and the inhalations of dinosaurs and the exhalations of leafy plants and the inhalations of Neanderthals and the exhalations of soft mosses and the inhalations of swallowtails have been going around and around and around.

Take another breath. The breath which you have drawn in, which fills your blood with oxygen and gives your body life, is the same air which —  who knows? — a pterodactyl breathed and a pobblebonk in the rushes and a kangaroo on a nearby plain. It’s the sigh of a cyclamen on a Florentine hillside and the blow of a blue whale arcing from the sea and the song of every ancestor who has gone before; it’s the original reuse, recycle.

Why am I talking about air? Because Pentecost is the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, poured out like fire on the disciples so long ago. But the English word ‘spirit’ translates a Greek word, ‘pneuma’, which means, quite simply, air in movement. It’s where we get our words ‘pneumatic’ and ‘pneumonia’, not to mention the longest word in the English dictionary which so many of the kids here know: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. All these words relate to air in movement. Air in tyres; air in lungs.

We encounter this moving air at the big moments in our scriptures. Sometimes it’s translated as ‘wind’; other times, as ‘spirit’ or ‘breath.’ At the earth’s beginning: the wind from God moved over the waters and brought life out of chaos (Gen. 1:2). At the human beginning: God formed us from earth and gave life by breathing into our nostrils (Gen. 2:7). Jesus’ intention: That we would have abundant life, perfect communion, through his holy spirit-breath. At Jesus’ death on the cross: he bowed his head and gave up his breath (John 19:30). At the commissioning of the first disciples: the Risen Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive holy breath.’ (John 20:22). And then there’s the rest of us, which brings us back to the story.

In Acts chapter 2, a growing band of disciples, men and women both, are gathered together when ‘suddenly from heaven a sound like the rush of a violent wind’ came to them and set their heads on fire. It’s the same wind which hovered over the waters of chaos, and which gave life to a brontosaurus, and which Jesus exhaled from the cross. It’s the spirit which he breathed into his very first disciples as he commissioned them; and it’s the wind which filled the larger crowd at Pentecost with the holy spirit-breath. And it changed them. For every person received new gifts, new words, new languages, new songs.

People beyond the group heard the sound and came running. They were astonished, because the disciples were speaking to them plainly. No hyper-holy jargon, just ordinary words in different languages so everyone could understand. Thousands were added to the disciples’ number on that day and, if we peek ahead in the story, we see the result: ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,’ and to the sharing of resources so that all were fed (2:42-47). And later, the holy spirit-breath inspired the great missionary journeys of Paul and Silas and others.

That was two thousand years ago. And maybe, given the ravages of Christendom and the colonial genocides in the so-called name of Christ and the ongoing revelations of clergy abuse and the hatred spewing from the mouths of so many self-described Christians and the burned out sorrowful tentative place so many of us now inhabit, it might feel like our god is old and tired, and the spirit is petering out.

But the thing is this: The atmosphere which blankets our beloved wounded blue-green planet is a closed system. Nothing goes in; nothing goes out. Take a deep breath. The holy spirit-breath which Jesus exhaled on the cross and which gathered pace and noise and thunder and roared into the house in Acts and set the disciples’ heads on fire; the breath which gave them life and confidence and language to speak to all people, and which beckoned them into the breaking of bread and the sharing of resources and passionate, urgent prayer; the breath which later propelled Paul and Silas and all the others around the Mediterranean Basin, is still ricocheting around the earth: and you have just inhaled.

It’s the same breath which beckoned this pastor through a prayer-dream of salt wind in Southwest Victoria; and which brought her here and gathers us together as the people of Sanctuary now. It’s the deep breath you take before you call someone and say, I’m sorry; it’s the sigh of relief and sweetness when a relationship is restored. It’s the new green shoot which emerges when everything was stale and dead; it’s the whisper of courage which helps you name a terrifying, life-giving truth. It’s the right idea which comes from nowhere when people are prayerfully listening. It’s the spark which makes God’s holy word erupt from the pages of scripture. It’s the impulse which leads God’s foolish people to gather together in all circumstances – even online! – and to sing and to pray; it’s the confidence which leads those same foolish people to give their lives away.

Holy spirit-breath: it’s the life and breath and song of the planet: and there’s plenty of oomph in it yet.

So take another breath. Give thanks. Exhale. And may your head be set on fire, and your life erupt in holy flame. Amen. Ω

Reflect: One cannot speak of God without using metaphor, yet every metaphor is wildly inadequate. What are the limits of this metaphor? What are its strengths? What possibilities for prayer does it open up?

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Acts 2:1-21 given to Sanctuary on 5 June 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (Year C Pentecost). This reflection is heavily indebted to ‘The Gospel of the Holy Spirit,’ a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor found in Home by Another Way. Cowley Publications: Cambridge / Boston, MA, 1999. Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash.


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