May 31, 2020

The Sacrament of Breathing
Pentecost Sunday, Year A
Becky Robbins-Penniman

This version of the coming of the Holy Spirit isn’t very exciting, is it? Unlike the reading from Acts, there’s no mighty wind, no tongues of fire. Jesus just breathes on his disciples. Of course, this is a deeply symbolic act; God’s breath flowed over the void to begin shaping all of Creation. Jesus’ breath flowing over the disciples begins reshaping all of humanity. Even so, this quiet act has not exactly been a favorite scene for artists over the centuries. I couldn’t find one painting, statue, or even clipart of this event.

Yet breathing is literally life. It is our first independent act after we’re born. Each breath we take enables all of our other living bits and parts work. A breath enables us to communicate with our mouths and with our fingers. Whether we’re talking, typing, texting, tweeting or having a tantrum, if we can’t breathe, we won’t live. Indeed, nearly 370,000 people on this small planet have died in 5 months, about 30% of them here in the United States, because a disease took away, very specifically, their ability to breathe. At the same time, we’re in the middle of a 2nd terrifying crisis in our civic life because a human being’s life ended with the gasping cry of “I can’t breathe.”

Ironically, if we CAN breathe, we don’t think much about the breaths we take. I don’t know about you, but until a few short weeks ago, I had no idea that the purely instinctive act of taking a breath has the potential to kill me, or, just as horrifying, for me to kill someone else just because we happen to be near each other.

My daughter-in-law told a story on Facebook of being in a grocery store, with her mask on, when she felt a sneeze coming – the poor woman has terrible allergies. She had 3 choices: try to hold in the sneeze – a non-starter; take off the mask and let ‘er rip; or sneeze into the mask. She chose number 3, sneezing 6 times. The outcome, she lamented, “was disgusting.” But what she didn’t do was unload that sneeze’s disgusting output on some innocent bystander who had no choice in the matter.

This Pentecost moment, this intimate scene of Jesus breathing on his disciples, is now weirdly evocative, because all of the sudden breathing on someone else is no longer just a routine body function for any of us. Now, we ascribe meaning to it, with almost as much intentionality as Jesus. The very WAY we take breaths – do we do so with a mask, or without one? – for some of us has become a polarizing political declaration.

Let’s step back from our anger, our anxiety, our need to be right, and consider what God has been doing for thousands and thousands of years by using God’s breath on, in, with and among God’s people. God is not stingy with the divine breath, the ruach, the Hebrew word for Spirit. God delights in sharing the Holy Spirit with us. The psalmist exults how in Creation, God breathes all Creation into life. Evidently, God actually had fun doing it; that verse where God made a Leviathan – just for the sport of it – is one of the most delightful images in the Bible.

Moses asks God to empower and inspire more people, he understands that, like love, giving our spirit to another doesn’t diminish what we have, but grows its power for all. Jesus has had a very busy day since before sunrise that Easter Sunday, (the story we read is set on the evening of Easter Sunday), and he now gives his spirit to the same people who had abandoned him in fear just the Friday before.

The purpose of this inspiration (to inspire literally means to fill with breath) was not to comfort his distraught disciples; Jesus had already several times given them his peace. The purpose of entrusting them with his Holy Spirit was to commission them. Their mission: to deal with sin, which the Holy Spirit does in two ways. One is to set people free from sin, from enslavement to evil; to release us from bondage to all ways of living that do not bring abundant life to us and to all the earth. In case we need a reminder about how God intends for us to live, Jesus set it out plainly just a few days earlier, on Maundy Thursday. As he was washing the disciples’ feet, he said: I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. In the Gospel of John, to love means to lay down one’s life for others, just as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for us, his sheep, to protect them from the ravenous wolves that snatch and scatter them.

To forgive another means to do for others what Jesus did for us: to do whatever we can to make life abundant for others by laying down our lives to fight off the wolves that destroy them. God’s self-giving way of loving us, not condemning us, is the Way of Jesus all of his disciples are called to walk…

To read the full sermon script, click HERE.

Join us LIVE online at 8 AM & 10 AM: