COVID-19. Has anything in our experience ever made us think as much about the act of respiration, of breathing, than the global pandemic we have been in for over two years now? Way back in 2006 I visited Japan. At that time there was no particular flu bug worrying anyone. Yet I was struck to see how many people on Tokyo subways and streets were wearing masks. I had never seen that out in public before. But now . . . How things have changed.
Respiration is how we live but it’s also the vehicle of spreading around whatever is in our lungs and noses. “Breath” or “spirit” may be invisible (except on cold Michigan days in January) but it is not for that reason any less powerful a phenomenon.
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that “spirit” can be elusive. As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “Spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” An electronic sign by a local high school regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.
At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob. When the news spread some years ago that Osama bin Laden had been shot dead in Pakistan, throngs of people gathered outside the White House and near Ground Zero in New York City and as they did so, the “spirit” of enthusiasm was all-but palpable as it washed over those crowds and as each person’s whoops and cheers became the stimulus for more of the same in everyone else. (We’ve even all been to sporting events at which you sometimes witness one of the quietest, most retiring persons you’ve ever met suddenly cheering and fist-pumping like a maniac. And you wonder: how did THAT happen to quiet old George!!??)
Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit of God came upon the church in power for the very first time. And like the breath in your lungs right now, if we did not have the Holy Spirit, the church would be dead. Of course even so, it is part of the very nature of the Holy Spirit that it doesn’t call much attention to itself. The Spirit’s job seems to be a history-long highlighting of Jesus. So in order not to get in the way of anyone’s ability to see Jesus as the Living Lord, the Holy Spirit seems quite content to remain about as invisible as a puff of air. The Spirit does not mind one bit if you look clean through him so long as what you are looking at through the Spirit is the Christ of God.
But make no mistake: the Holy Spirit is not the only game in town. There are any number of spirits in life that we can breathe in, get whipped up by, and so be shaped by. But whereas some spirits can consume our lives, only the Holy Spirit of God will finally bring us true life. When God’s Spirit comes down and fills us, we find a purpose, a clarity, and a spark of life that will not and cannot come from anywhere else. The entire creation began when the Spirit of God blew over the waters of chaos. The creation of humanity in the image of God came to its zestful culmination only when the Spirit of God was breathed into the first man’s nostrils. The re-creation of humanity into the image of Christ likewise requires this Pentecostal encounter with the breath of God through the Holy Spirit.
All other spirits in life lead sooner or later to disappointment, confusion, and aimlessness. There is in Scripture a clear parallel between what happened in Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel and what happened in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. Both stories talk about how a group of people are “all together” in one place under the heavens. Both stories have to do with a multiplicity of languages and of God’s involvement in that phenomenon. But each story is the mirror-image opposite of the other.
In Genesis 11 the people decide to mount up to the heavens on their own. They want to build a monument to human achievement so grand and so tall that it will become the focal point for a greater human unity and resolve. But the result of this mounting up to heaven is just the opposite: people end up scattering, having been confused in their languages. Confusion and disunity, not clarity and unity, occur when people on their own try to construct the meaning of life. Of course, Christianity is hardly alone in telling a story about what can happen when mortals try to mount up to be gods. The fall of Icarus, the fate of Prometheus, and other such myths all have the same bottom line: the higher up human beings try to fly, the farther it is they will finally fall.
Most other religions leave it at that. We are told to learn our place in the grander scheme of things and just be content. For people to get close to the gods is detestable to the gods themselves and so dangerous for the people who attempt it. As a well-known line from Shakespeare says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”
But the Christian vision tells a different story. At Babel humanity tried to mount up to God and fell into confusion as a result. But that was not because God did not want fellowship with humans. God did not frustrate the people at Babel because God just can’t stand human company. God’s ultimate goal, as a matter of fact, is to have fellowship with us. To get that goal, God eventually became human himself! The problem at Babel was that this storming of heaven was being done in an arrogant way and on human terms alone.
The gospel shows us what can happen when God, on God’s own terms of humility and grace, brings heaven down to us. God himself snuck down the back staircase of history to deposit a baby into a manger one starry night long ago. In humility, not pride, the Son of God built his own reverse tower from heaven to earth not so that we could spritely spring our way up but so that he could come down. What happened on Pentecost was another example of this same movement: since we cannot get to heaven, heaven comes to us. And when that Spirit of God blows down from heaven, Babel is reversed! Instead of scattering, people come together. Instead of confusion, a gospel clarity comes. Instead of being a maddening barrier, the multiplicity of languages is transcended so that the same message gets through to everyone.
The Holy Spirit of Pentecost was poured out for so many reasons. The Spirit now gives us gifts and talents, provides us with our life’s callings in whatever vocation and work we pursue. The Spirit animates our every worship service. The Spirit is behind every note played on the organ or piano, behind every lyric we sing in worship, behind every word you’ve ever heard spoken from a pulpit.
The Spirit keeps faith alive even when our bodies are dying, allowing even gravely sick people nevertheless to testify to the hope that is within them. The Spirit touches us at the graveside of a loved one, allowing us somehow and against all odds to say the Apostles’ Creed and to believe it when we say, despite the casket in front of us, that we really do believe in “the resurrection of the body.” The Spirit pours itself out at the baptismal font and stays with our baptized children even in those far countries where our more prodigal sons and daughters sometimes travel. (And when one of those wandering sheep returns to the fold, there is never any doubting what Spirit it was that led this one back home.)
The Holy Spirit of Pentecost does all of that and more. But let us not forget the very first effect this Spirit had: the Spirit of God brought people together, allowed a common understanding of the same gospel among people who were very different from one another.
And maybe just here is a good preaching angle in this time of grave division in the church and everywhere else in society. Somehow when we breathe the Spirit in and when we breathe the Spirit out, it is supposed to bring us together.
Not every spirit we can breathe in, participate in, or get caught up in is the Holy Spirit but when it IS the Spirit of our God—the one that in John 14 assured his disciples could bring true peace in chaotic times and true calm to hearts that have every right to be troubled—then we find a Life, a Liveliness, and unity and a calm that really does pass all understanding. And that is more than sufficient reason to give thanks.
On Pentecost Sunday but also at all times and even forevermore.
Experts tell us that each of us breathes in and out about 20,000 times each day. By the time a person hits the age of 50, he or she will have breathed around 400 million times. Thankfully, like the beating of our hearts, we don’t need to make conscious decisions to breathe. If we did, we would not be able to do much else! In fact, if you want to find a way to make yourself breathe a bit faster than usual, just try to concentrate on your act of breathing and you may find that by paying extra attention to it, you start to feel a little jumpy!
Sometimes in prayer and meditation we are encouraged to slow down our breathing, to dwell in the moment, to let calm wash over us. This also can be harder to do than you might think.
But the fact is that breathing is natural, normal, necessary. It just happens. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is supposed to be like that too. Yes, there are times and moments when we pay extra special attention to what the Holy Spirit is calling us or motivating us to say or to do. Mostly though the Spirit is just supposed to be there, breathing into us and out of us in the rhythms of a life of discipleship.
When Martin Luther skewered some proto-Pentecostals in his day, he said that these were folks who seemed to have “swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all.” What Luther meant—aside from being wry—is that the Spirit mostly does not call attention to itself. Like our physical respiration, the Spirit is supposed to be just there, within us, dictating all that we do all the time. We ought not pay attention to the Spirit only when something spiritually big is in the offing. Most of the time it’s enough to just let the Spirit breathe through us, transforming even the most mundane of our moments into something that resembles our new life in Christ.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 5, 2022
Acts 2:1-21 Commentary