Breath of God

I Corinthians 9:19-23
May 20, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

The story of Pentecost that we heard read this morning in a babble of different languages is found in the book of Acts, written by Luke as a sequel to his gospel. The full title of the Book of Acts in our Bible is “The book of the Acts of the Apostles” but many scholars have noted that the title is a bit misleading. A more accurate title would be something like: “The Book of the Acts of Some of the Apostles, Though Mostly The Acts Of Peter And Paul With The Focus On Paul Who Is An Apostle Only In A Figurative Sense Because He Wasn’t Even One Of The 12”, but of course, that title isn’t very catchy.  Nevertheless, if we were inclined to go mucking about in title changes, I would propose that the most accurate title for this sequel to Luke’s gospel would be “The Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit” because any acts that are accomplished in these pages are instigated by the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that initiates the formation of the church; it is the Holy Spirit that guides the decisions of the church elders. It is the Holy Spirit that anoints Paul’s ministry and sends him hither and yon. The book of Acts is soaked with the Spirit and Luke insists that to understand our own discipleship, we have to understand the work of the Spirit in our lives and the life of the church.

But what is the Holy Spirit?  I am preaching a series on “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same,” looking at the questions that confronted the early church with which we still struggle today, and the nature of the Holy Spirit is definitely one of those questions. In my last year of seminary, when I was going through the process of ordination for the ministry, I had to write a lengthy paper outlining my theology which I then had to defend before 60 representatives of Baptist churches in my region. In that paper, I wrote pages and pages describing my understanding of God and page and pages on the nature of Christ but when I got to the Holy Spirit, I managed only a short paragraph.  I worried that the Ordination Council would grill me on my brief treatment of the Holy Spirit but to my surprise, after discussing God and Christ at length with me, they too happily breezed past the Holy Spirit to get to the topic of sin, something we all felt we knew much more about.

Nevertheless, in spite of our often giving the Holy Spirit little attention, the early church believed that the Holy Spirit plays a central role in our Christian experience because without the Holy Spirit, we are left with only two faces of the divine — God and Christ — and the church felt that that was not enough to fully inform our faith experience. Now, it may seem strange to say that God and Christ are not enough for us, especially given that we pray to God and talk about Christ all of the time in our Christian life, but the way in which we use both the words “God” and “Christ” are actually more Spirit-drenched then we realize. In Christian theology, the word “God” actually refers to the divine mystery that undergirds all of creation. Theologians describe God with words like “numinous,” “ground of all being,” “supreme or eminent creative power… and the chief exemplification of metaphysical principles,” words that are hard to relate to on a personal level. No one ever wrote a hymn to proclaim, “All my hope is firmly grounded in the chief exemplification of metaphysical principles.” Even if we sometimes do talk about God in very personal terms, in reality God remains beyond human comprehension. All of our words about God are at most mere signposts for a mystery that is larger than any of our puny human brains can take in. As Christians, though, we believe that we have a second face of the holy that illuminates the nature of this mysterious God, and that is the face Christ. We believe that Jesus put into flesh the nature of the unknowable God. We can listen to Jesus’ teachings and look at the way he lived his life, see his willingness to go all the way to the cross out of love for us, and in him understand the character of God. For early Christians, this revelation was life-changing. To believe that we have a way of knowing the unknowable through Christ was for them like a deaf person suddenly hearing music for the first time. What had before been known only as words and descriptions became a real first hand experience in Jesus. But of course, there was a problem: because Jesus was fully human, he was grounded in a particular time and place, and once Jesus was no longer present to them in the flesh, the early church worried that God would once again become inaccessible. As the apostles aged, and their memories weakened, as the church grew beyond the borders of Judea moving farther away in time and place from the historic person of Jesus, how could God remains knowable to them still? And it is a problem we encounter even more so today: how can God continue to speak to us when our world is so vastly different from the world of an itinerant Jewish preacher in 1st century Palestine? The historical Jesus lived not in a democracy but under the rule of the Roman Empire. The historical Jesus traveled not by car or train or plane but by donkey or on foot. The historical Jesus spread his teachings by word of mouth, not through Twitter and email. The historical Jesus preached in a world that had not encountered cyberbullying, mass shootings, global warming, nuclear threats, or on the positive side, antibiotics. Without the Holy Spirit, how do we make sense of faith in a vastly different world from the one in which Jesus taught? Without the Holy Spirit, we are left with only God and Christ — “the chief exemplification of metaphysical principles” and an historic memory.

In the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” there is a scene which exemplifies our dilemma. Dorothy and her faithful companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and Toto (too) endure many harrowing adventures to reach the Emerald City where they hope the mighty Wizard of Oz can give them what they need to be saved. Dorothy and the others walk up to the impressive gates of the city and pound on the huge wooden door until finally a harassed looking doorkeeper peeks out at them.

Dorothy says to the doorkeeper, “Please sir, we have come to see the Wizard.”
The doorkeeper, aghast, exclaims, “The Wizard? The Wizard? But nobody sees the Wizard. Nobody’s ever seen the great and terrible Oz!”

“Nobody?” they ask.

“Not nobody, nowhere, no way, no how!” he replies.

And Dorothy says, “But if nobody’s ever seen the Wizard, then how do you know there is one?”

Here was the dilemma of the early church: now that Jesus is gone from us, how will we know God? How do we recognize the unseeable? How do we understand the unknowable? How do we define the undefinable?

Jesus himself foresaw this problem and assured his followers that God could continue to be present with them in the experience of what we call the Holy Spirit. In the gospel of John, Jesus breathes upon the disciples and they receive the Spirit. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles like a rushing wind. These images of breath and wind hearken back to the most ancient understanding of the Spirit found in the pages of the Hebrew scriptures. The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, which also means “wind” or “breath,” and in the story of Genesis, God’s ruach hovers over the deep bringing the earth into being, and God’s ruach breathes into Adam bringing life into the creature God has made of clay. The act of breathing — sucking wind into our lungs and expelling air again in a gust — gives us life, and so our breath, the wind, the movement of air in and out, our spirit are all intertwined with one word describing it all: ruach.  Paul would have read often of the ruach of God in his Hebrew upbringing, and even in his native tongue of Greek, Paul would have heard the connection between spirit, breath, and life.  In fact, we can still hear it today since the Greek word for spirit is pneumos, from which we derive the word “pneumonia”, a disease that steals our breath away.  The early church took all of these images and applied them to the Holy Spirit, describing the Holy Spirit as God moving, flowing, breathing in and out of us to give us lie.

And so we have the three faces of the Trinity. There is God the eminent creator who is greater than all we can comprehend, eternal and mysterious.  And there is God incarnated in the life of Jesus who made God’s love real for us and revealed the character of God in a real place and time.  And then there is the Holy Spirit: God at work in each of us, no longer way out there or as some distant memory but still alive and present among us. The Holy Spirit is, as Reverend James Forbes puts it, God experienced on the frontier of human experience and relationship and able to speak across culture, across geography, and even across time.

And so when the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples at Pentecost, we see the character of the spirit manifest in the disciples by their sudden ability to speak all of the languages of those listening. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” When the Holy Spirit enters our lives, we are given the power to reach across cultures, personalities, and experiences to be wholly with another in love and understanding. When the Spirit is alive in use, we open our ears and listen to one another instead of standing against each other insisting on our own way. We learn to speak in the language of love that is not restricted to one geography or time or experience. With the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, those in the later years of life learn to understand the concerns of the young and speak on their behalf, and the young learn to understand the concerns of the aging and speak on their behalf. The straight man listens to the gay man, the black woman is unafraid to share her experiences with her white friend, and Democrat and Republican put aside their ideologies to find places to connect with one another. When the Holy Spirit is upon us, we are filled with Christ and our hearts are opened to the languages of the world, and we learn to speak without judgment in ways that communicate fully the love of Christ.

Many years ago, I attended a worship service in a home for adults who had severe cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, and other mental and physical challenges. There was music, and scripture readings, and a short sermon, like any standard worship, but there was a moment for me that I will never forget because in the middle of this rather ordinary worship, suddenly it felt like that worship was transformed into a little Pentecost. The worship leader had finished delivering a pastoral prayer and, just as I do every Sunday, then invited the congregation to join him in saying the Lord’s Prayer. And as you do every Sunday, that congregation too began reciting, “Our Father who art in heaven,” but unlike you, they were not as able to maintain perfect synchrony with one another. Some of the people stuttered or had physical difficulty speaking yet were undaunted in their attempt grinding out barely comprehensible sounds; others spoke slowly deliberately shaping each word in prayerful attention, while some shouted out the words in a fearless rush of delight, and when they realized they had beaten the others to the Amen, they just started all over again, happy to pray it twice while the others caught up. It was a wild rumpus of a prayer! Everyone was praying the Lord’s Prayer but they were doing it in the language of their own tongue — the language of cerebral palsy, the language of Down’s syndrome, the language of mental disorder, the human language of the flesh expressing the divine language of the Spirit. And it was a most holy moment.

The Holy Spirit is God on the move breathing into us the breath of Christ and speaking in the tongues of our many and varied physical experiences. It is God becoming all things to all people so that we might become all things to all people in the power of that Spirit. The Holy Spirit is breath and life and wind and love, filling us with the knowledge that in Christ we can bring Christ’s love to the world.