In many prayer and mediation practices around theworld, the first step is to find yourbreath. To breathe in such a way that you are paying attention to your breath and only your breath. Doctors and researchers have found evidence that simply listening to your breath for a few minutes a day reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and has all-around positive effects on health.Spiritually, taking a few minutes to practice simply breathing, being present to the breath, allows us to begin the practice of being present to what is happening now, to God’s presence with us just where we are. It is how we start to obey God’s command in the psalms to “be still and know that I am God.”
So I would like to invite you to take a moment. Put your feet flat on the floor. And breathe. You don’t need to change your breath, just breathe as you normally would. But of course as soon as someone says breathe normally, you change your breath, and that’s okay. Just notice what your breath is doing. In. Out. In. Out. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable enough. In. Out. Place one hand, or both hands, on your belly, or your chest, and feel the way that your breath moves you, even when you are sitting still. Feel the breath filling you, sending oxygen through your blood stream, waking up your limbs and your brain. Some of you have a hard time breathing. Some of you are short of breath much of the time. For a moment, if you can, try to simply notice your breath, without judging it. Try not to think about whether it is deep enough or long enough, but simply notice that it is. It is there, and it is moving you. It is there, and it is doing its job, keeping you alive. Just. Breathe.
Now, if you haven’t fallen asleep on me, keep your eyes closed for a moment longer, and think about the Holy Spirit. What images come to mind? A dove? tongues of fire? A rushing wind, like we heard in the Acts reading today? What about breath? When you think about the Spirit, do you think about breath? (Okay, you can open your eyes if you like.) The words for spirit in all of the Biblical languages, in both Hebrew and Greek, are also the words for wind and breath.
At a meeting last week, we were reading through some of these texts, and someone asked the question that has been on the church’s mind for the last 2000 years. What is the Holy Spirit? I think she felt a little silly asking the question, but it’s not a silly question at all. We might think we should all know the answer, having spent at least some time inside the walls of a church, each week confessing in the words of the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, baptizing and blessing people in the name of the Father and the Son, and then throwing the Holy Spirit in there for good measure. But I’m going to be honest. I went through 5 years of seminary and took at least 2 full classes with the words Holy Spirit in the title. I have one book on my shelf actually titled “The Holy Spirit,” and countless others with chapters and sections about it. And the conclusion I’ve reached is, we really don’t know. We don’t know what the Holy Spirit is, we can’t explain it, we can’t describe it, we can’t even draw a picture of it.
What we do know is this: God acts in the world. God is not hiding up in some distant heaven, God did not create the world, set the clock to ticking, and then step back to watch. God did not put us here for God’s entertainment. God created the world, created us, for relationship. Which means that God acts in the world. And yet, I have never had a direct face-to-face encounter with God. So how do we know that God is acting? How do we know that God is engaging us, is in relationship with us, is moving and inspiring us? We know because of the Spirit. The breath of God. I know, it’s maybe just another metaphor, and it doesn’t exactly solve the problem. What is the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. What is breath? What is wind? Can you catch it? Can you put it in a box? Can you nail it down? That’s the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the wind from God, sweeping over the face of the waters in the beginning when all was formless and void. The Holy Spirit is the way that God continues to create, to sustain the world, even as the very forces of the world seek to pull it apart. It is the way that life turns to death turns to life again each generation, each year, each day. As today’s psalm reads, “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.”
It’s nebulous, I know. It’s not a precise or concrete answer, and we like precise and concrete answers. We like to understand how things work, we like to know the mechanisms that drive the world around us. But the Spirit is not one of those things. It’s not something we can explain or describe. We only get it by metaphor, and then only barely, not entirely, not precisely. And so we talk about what we experience, not what we see. The ways that we feel the Spirit present, the ways that we feel God’s breath on us, even though we can’t quite explain what it is.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. Breathing in. Drawing us toward God. Breathing out. Moving God toward us. The way that the earth sighs at the end of a long hot summer day, and suddenly you feel that breath of cool air driving down off the mountainside into the valleys, or up off the river bank and out of the hollows, onto the hills, and the whole world breathes a sigh of relief as the heat is overcome. That’s what Paul is talking about in the reading from Romans today. The whole of creation is groaning in labor pains, all of the world is longing for relief, the way that it does at the end of a long hot summer day.
You can feel it, the tension in the world – the culture wars, the gender wars, the class wars, the religious wars, the outright money-grubbing, land-grabbing power wars; the politics that divide us, that drive us to polar ends of some arbitrary spectrum that suits the political ends of one group or another, but don’t really reflect our daily lives or our true opinions; the feeling on the right and the left and in the middle that we are not being heard, that we are being marginalized and alienated, that we are being persecuted; the changes in the weather, whether you think it’s caused by humans or not, the loss of animal and plant species, the disappearance of rain forests, the melting of the glaciers; the nuclear disaster in Japan; the friend who is grieving; the loved one who is dying; the relationship that is broken; the shame that won’t go away. The whole of creation is groaning, in labor pains, longing for relief, longing for a glimpse of hope that will breathe a breath of cool air, driving it down off the mountainside, down out of the heavens and into our lives, as we wait for redemption for all this broken world. And into all of that pain, all of that brokenness, comes a breath, the breath of God, the Spirit, groaning alongside us, assuring us that we are not alone, reminding us that God is active in the world, that God is here, that God is moving us, drawing us closer with each inhale and then sending us out with each exhale. So that when, in the face of all the world’s pain, in the midst of all this brokenness, when we can’t find the words to pray, when we are too overwhelmed by our own pain or grief or shame, when we can’t even find the strength to believe anymore, much less to pray, God breathes on us, and into us, and moves us: in. out. in. out. and the Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words to express. And so we confess in the words of Luther’s Catechism: that I cannot by my own strength or understanding believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. I cannot by my own strength or understanding draw breath, find hope, feel the cool relief of God moving in the world, drawing the world into reconciliation and redemption and new life. But the Holy Spirit has breathed into me, has breathed for me, so that I am moved, drawn toward God, and then sent, breathed out toward others. No wonder the French word for “hope” has the word “spirit” in it.
When the Day of Pentecost came, all the disciples were together in one place. And they were wondering how they could do it. How could they keep their faith, when the One in whom they had believed had been drawn up into heaven? How could they go out there and face the crowds, who were ready to stone them as heretics? How could they keep on believing in something so strange? Maybe they were meant to keep this to themselves? Maybe that was the safest route, to stay in that locked upper room, reassuring one another that they were chosen, until even the most certain of them would begin to doubt. But then, as they sat there, figuring out how to structure their little enclave, forming committees and selecting the next council member, there came from heaven a sound like the rushing of a violent wind, and God breathed. God breathed out, and the Spirit drove them out of that room, out of their comfort zone, out into the streets. God breathed in, and drew all the people to God’s self. Look at the list of peoples in verses 9, 10, and 11. These were all Jews from all over the world, indeed from all over time. Some of these, like the Elamites and the Medes, were wiped out centuries ago, and yet here they are, being drawn in by God’s inhalation, by the Spirit of God, by God’s inspiration.
God’s breath draws all the people in, from across the world, from across time. And then God breathes out. And they are sent. This book, The Acts of the Apostles, is sometimes called the Acts of the Spirit, and as you read through it, that is the picture that you get. God breathing in, drawing people together, drawing people toward God; and then God breathing out, sending people to stranger and stranger places. Sending people where they would not otherwise go. First a small band of disciples locked away in an upper room; then the Jewish people of all times and places gathered in Jerusalem, and the Spirit sends them out to all of Judea and Samaria, all over the Jewish diaspora; then one day an Ethiopian eunuch is drawn in, and breathed out, and the gospel spreads into Africa; then God breathes in and Cornelius and Peter find one another, and God breathes out and gentiles are brought into the church; and God breathes in, and Saul, a persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, called and sent by the spirit to bring the good news to all the known world, even to Rome itself. God breathes in, drawing people toward God, into relationship, into faith; God breathes out, sends people toward one another, into relationship, into service.
Close your eyes if you will. Place your hand on belly, or on your chest. And breathe. In. Out. In. Out. God is breathing here, God’s spirit is moving here. In. Drawing us together. Drawing us together toward God. Calling us through the Gospel, giving us the gifts of faith and of passion and of service. And Out. Sending us out. Sending us toward one another, toward our neighbors. How is the Spirit moving us? How is God’s breath drawing us in and sending us out? What boundaries are being blown down before us, so that we can be the hope for the world, that cool breath of air being blown down the mountainside into the sweltering heat of the world’s deepest need?