I invite all of you, at this moment to take a deep breath. In through your nose and out your mouth. Feel the cool air rush in through your nostrils and the warm air move over your tongue and past your lips. Once more.
Have you ever noticed that the way someone is breathing is often a signal to what is happening with them at that moment. If someone is taking short, forceful breaths that cause their nostrils to flair, you know that person is angry. Or if someone suddenly opens their mouth wider then you thought possible as they slowly suck in all of the air around them, you know they are getting sleepy and are tired. Or if someone’s breath is slow and steady, you know that inside they are feeling calm and at peace.
There is good reason for this. Because did you know that in Hebrew and Greek, the languages of Scripture, the word for breath, wind, and spirit are the same. It is the same word. You can even hear it in some of our English words around breathing. Like “respiration.” You can hear the word “spirit” in there. Which is to say that if you have breath in you, you have spirit in you. No wonder the way we are breathing reflects what’s happening in our spirits.
Take another breath.
This breath, or spirit, is fundamental for human life. If you have ever watched a sleeping baby, you know how holy and precious each breath is. Watching that young, little torso, covered in an Elmo-themed onesie, rise and fall with each breath of life. If you have ever watched a loved one approach the end of life, you know how holy and precious each breath is. Watching that old, frail torso, covered in a polka-dot hospital gown, rise and fall, wondering which one will be the last.
The divine breath, or the Spirit of God, has been with us since the beginning of time. You may recall that in the creation story, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. But then a wind from God – the breath of God, the Spirit of God – swept over the face of the waters. Then in the Garden of Eden, God got down on God’s hands and knees and sunk those divine fingers deep into the red earth. Out of which God shaped….well…you. And the next thing God did was lean over you, took a deep breath, and , whoosh, breathed the spirit of life into your body, kick starting your heart.
Take another breath.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. The day in our church year centered on celebrating the coming of the Spirit of God. But this isn’t simply the wind of God moving across the waters of creation or the breath of God entering into our dirt-formed lungs. This is Spirit of God rushing in. Violently. Like a howling tornado blowing out windows and slamming open doors. Shaking the foundations.
As the story goes, there is a Jewish festival going on in Jerusalem. Which means Jews from all different nations are gathered there in one city. Jesus has just recently ascended into heaven and the community of believers have no clue what to do without him. They have hidden themselves into a tomb-like room, when suddenly the doors begin to rattle and the shutters clap. The next thing they know, whooooosh, the Holy Spirit spins into the rooms, tossing linens and parchment paper every which way. Flames appear, but before anyone could shout, “Fire!” they realized these tongues of fire weren’t attached to anything. Instead, they floated overhead in thin air. With every nook and cranny of the room filled with the Holy Spirit, there was no place else for the Holy Spirit to fill except the lungs of everyone there.
Take another breath.
Here’s where the story really starts to get weird. With a flaming tongue over each person’s head, they begin to speak in languages that did not belong to these rural Galileans. They began to speak the languages from all the nations of Jews who had gather in Jerusalem that day. What is more amazing than these Galileans suddenly becoming multi-lingual is the group of people that gathered outside the house to hear their native tongue being spoken.
There were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. This is a curious group of people. This isn’t simply the Holy Spirit bringing together people from different countries and cultures. The Holy Spirit is gathering together people from different times. You see, the Medes and the Elamites had been wiped out and extinct for more than 500 hundreds years by this point.
How is that possible? That would be like if I told you all of the animals of the earth are going to come to congregate on this farmland right here. You’d expect birds and snakes, bears and alligators. Old English Bull dogs and conniving tabby cats. You’d look for skunks and elephants, Hippos and maybe a dolphin or two, if they could stay hydrated. But you wouldn’t expect a Tyrannosaurus or a pterodactyl. They’ve been extinct for millions of years. How would that be possible? But there they were, Medes and Elamites in the flesh and blood….
When the Holy Spirit blows like a tornado and fills everyone in the room up – things start to get weird. And things begin to change. And most of us are not big fans of change.
There is no doubt that the churches in America is in an incredible time of change. Many are experiencing membership decline, lower worship attendance, decreased giving. Just this week, I was in multiple conversations about how the church isn’t what it used to be. People use to look forward to going to church. Now, we look forward to any break from it we can sneak in. Parents used to take their children to church every Sunday. Now, who knows? Church used to be the center of life. But now it isn’t. And there is fear that in the midst of all of this change, the church is losing its breath and is dying.
However, there is a Presbyterian minister named MaryAnn Dana who would like to offer a different diagnosis. She thinks that the church is pregnant. Pregnant. And what happens when a woman is first pregnant? She begins to feel sick. And ill. Is it possible we have misinterpreted morning sickness for a terminal disease? Could perhaps something new be growing inside this church. There is no doubt we are going through a difficult and painful transition, but maybe it isn’t the end…Maybe there will be new life.
We only have to look again at the text in Acts to see that MaryAnn’s conclusion has merit…Without this moment in Acts, with the Holy Spirit bursting in with flames and wind, none of us would be here. This chaotic, uncertain, and somewhat tornado-like time for the early church, when everyone starts speaking a new language and the dead and extinct are brought back to life. This was the birth place of the church. So maybe all the change and challenge that churches are facing today are something similar… As one theologian put it, “Pentecost challenges churches to live into the promise that Christ is present and alive in the midst of change” (Feasting on the Word – Pastoral) Perhaps all the pain and challenge are part of the birthpangs that will give life to something new in our future. Something new for our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren.
How might the Holy Spirit be stirring things up for us? Or how might the Holy Spirit be stirring things up in your own life? The Holy Spirit can freak us out. We don’t know what to do with it because when the Holy Spirit gets breathed in, things start to change. At first, it might not feel so good. A little nauseating and dizzying. But who knows maybe its nothing to fear. Maybe it is just that the church is pregnant, thanks to the Holy Spirit. We’ve heard a story like that before, haven’t we? Sounds to me like something’s about to be born. Take another breath…