“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
In my life, I’ve experienced hurricanes, tropical storms, tornados, and the strong Santa Ana winds that so often rip across California. I can say that I have a pretty good idea of the power a strong wind can generate. But yet it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this strange rush of violent wind that hit ancient Jerusalem on Pentecost.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes it by saying, “Before any of them could defend themselves, that mighty wind had blown through the entire house, striking sparks that burst into flames above their heads, and everyone of them was filled to the gills with God’s breath.” In one single, divine breath the church was born.
It’s not unusual to speak about the Holy Spirit as the breath of God. The Greek word for "spirit" is pneuma, the same word for "breath." And in Hebrew the word is “ruach,” which has many meanings; including “wind, breath, and spirit.”
Even though breathing is essential to life, it’s funny how we only seem to think about it when we run out of it. Wind is another story. It tussles you and slaps you, screams and howls at you. It can bite you, break you, and even blast you away. Wind, as you can imagine, can be hard to ignore.
At a very young age, my dad had taught me how to sail. Part of this training was learning how to read the wind and use it efficiently. By the time I was Sean’s age, I was navigating the tropical waters of Gulf of Mexico all on my own. To think only thing my parents worried about was whether or not I was wearing sunscreen.
Around this time in my life my parents bought a used catamaran, a sixteen-foot Hobie Cat that I would sail the way most kids rode their bikes; daily, excitedly, and recklessly.
I remember one quiet morning setting sail on my own. The air was already warm and still. As I skimmed the placid water, I trimmed the sails and manipulated the rudders to capture what little wind there was. With a gentle glide my mind began drifting further and further away from shore. Life was good in that moment.
I was completely relaxed when I was caught completely off-guard by a sudden gust of wind came out of nowhere. It was like an invisible ghost blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. My sails rapidly filled with such intensity that it caused my sailboat to flip over. Since I didn’t weight enough to right the boat, I sat and floated, wondering where that wind had come from and where it was going.
Wind. Breath. Spirit. Its power is the same in any language.
Pentecost is a reminder of how God’s Spirit can catch us off guard, and turn our world sideways. It might leave us feeling adrift, but it will never abandon us in our situation. But whenever I feel the wind blowing through my hair, I am at peace knowing God is always with me, sometimes closer than I like to believe.
Henri Nouwen taught, “In the Holy Spirit, God comes to be as close to us as our own breath.” This tells me that God’s Spirit is more intimate with us than we are with ourselves. “The Holy Spirit is the one who prays in us, and offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. The Holy Spirit offers us the kind of life that death cannot destroy.”
Here’s the thing that so many of us find puzzling. I can feel the wind kiss my cheeks. I can smell hints of coffee or mint on someone’s breath. So how do I know the Spirit is here, or if the Spirit is even real?
I have come to believe that in the same way we see the leaves rustling on trees or our breath in the cold morning air, God’s Spirit is alive whenever we see acts of love and kindness in the world. This is what it means to be ‘church’.
Again Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “The same Spirit of God that had entered Mary and given birth to Jesus, has entered those who believed so that God could be born again.” In that room in ancient Jerusalem, God wasn’t becoming incarnate in one body. Instead God breathed life into a universal body of believers who “receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.”
Pentecost is not just a one-time event any more than it is an annual birthday celebration. It is the very gift of life from God and it needs to be celebrated daily. Each breath we take in is our reminder of who we are as a church – the bearers of God’s Holy Spirit. And every breath we release must retain her calling: to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed.
For example, if we inhale God’s spirit of love and forgiveness then we ought to exhale God’s spirit of love and forgiveness; just as Jesus did from his first breath in Bethlehem to his final breath on the cross at Golgotha.
Every day the breath of God is being sucked into the lungs of ordinary people like you and me…all for the sole purpose of empowering us to do extraordinary things – to inspire and execute acts of mercy, kindness, and justice throughout all of creation.
It is in these actions we begin speak in a language that catches the world off guard, and draws people in to receive the love and grace being offered to them through Jesus Christ. The church, in whatever form it takes, must speak One language because each one inhales the same breath, and exhales the same responsibility.
As Keri Day writes, “The Holy Spirit is a subtle power. It’s the secret force behind all beauty, truth, and goodness; every act of kindness and compassion; every wise insight and every noble decision.” To her point, when the church lives faithfully in the Spirit of God, “every need can be cared for and every painful circumstances can be met.”
This is how one gentle breath can turn into a mighty wind that can move with such forcefulness that it catches the world by surprise, and tips it over towards the righteousness of God.
Sitting on the pontoon of my capsized Hobie Cat, with my legs dangling in the deep, dark waters, I felt God’s breath move over my wet skin. It produced a chill within me that told me I was not alone, nor had been abandoned to the sea. God was with me. And I was with God, wrapped in a warm towel of God’s sundrenched presence.
Before my parents could send out a search party for me, a rusty old fishing boat puttered over to help right me over. As I grabbed the tiller and trimmed the sails, I found just the right amount of wind, breath, and spirit to sail smoothly and safely home.
Too often churches fear capsizing or running aground, but that doesn’t stop God from breathing in us all – and empowering us all – to be a living, breathing, thriving vessel of God’s redemptive grace in the world.
As a gathered group of Jesus freaks, misfits, and bumbling disciples, and whatnots, let us breath freely and frequently, inhaling and exhaling God’s gift upon the world. Let us always be united as one body, with one Spirit, for the one purpose of speaking the universal language of the divine love. Amen.
Bartlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007. pp 2-6.
Day, Keri. We Need A Pentecost. May 3, 2018. www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/we-need-pentecost (accessed May 18, 2018).
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey: A Day Book of Wisdom and Faith. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Taylor, Barbar Brown. Home by Another Way. New York: Cowley, 1999.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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