text Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23
I like to breathe. Breathing has been a big part of my life. In fact, I think I can’t live without it.
Try it with me. Take in a deep breath. Feels good, doesn’t it?
When I was in choir they taught us how to really breathe. You breathe in through your nose as long as you can, and then, just when you think you can’t anymore, you suck in a little more air. Then you let it out through your mouth, really slow.
Try it. In. in. once last inhale. Now let it out slowly.
That feels really good, right? It’s like a little buzz. That’s because your brain just got hit with way more oxygen than it is normally used to getting and it’s doing a little happy dance. It’s like injecting nitrous oxide into the fuel line to get that extra boost. Wooo!
I’ve been thinking a lot about breathing and air over the past couple weeks. We’ve all been exposed to the power of air recently as we watched in horror at news casts of Joplin, Missouri and North Minneapolis.
I’d like you to do something with me. Put your hands up like this, palms up, fingers bent and pointing to the ceiling. Now move your fingers back and forth. Does it feel like you’re doing anything? Other than looking kinda silly? Not really.
Do you know what you’re doing? You’re making waves. As your fingers move back and forth they are like paddles in the water and on the edges of your fingers little curls of air spin away from your hand. You can’t see it because the gases are transparent. If I pumped a little smoke into the air it would become really visible. Together we’re making quite a stir and creating turbulence in the atmosphere.
I think air is a fascinating think to think about. It’s all around us. It surrounds us and engulfs us. We swim in it every moment of our lives. A few days ago, when it was so humid, you were very aware of it, but even when you can’t feel it, it completely encompasses you.
Not only does it surround us, it permeates us. How can you really tell where the air ends and I begin? The large flat muscle at the base of my rib cage expands and draws air into my lungs. Millions of tiny gas molecules flood into the millions of tiny air sacs in my lungs, and then, an amazing event takes place. It is an exchange. On the edges of these tiny air sacs there are tiny little blood vessels filled with red blood cells. The red blood cells sort through all the gases in the air sac and find the oxygen and take it in. The red blood cells take that oxygen and rush off to the rest of the body and deliver it to a single cell in another part of the body. It stops and injects the oxygen into the cell. To the cell that is like pumping gas into the engine. Boom! The oxygen ignites into a fire of energy. The fire produces smoke and water. The smoke is carbon dioxide – the trash of the cell. The blood cell then takes the trash back to the lungs and dumps it into the air sac so that it can be exhaled from the body and sent back into the atmosphere.
So, where does the air stop and my body begin? You can’t really say. It totally permeates my body.
Not only does the air surround us and permeate us, but it also connects us. Here’s what really blows my mind. There are organisms out there that feed off of our trash. We call them plants. All that nasty carbon dioxide that we exhale is like the nectar of the gods to the plant world. They breathe it in, burn it, and dump their trash back into the atmosphere. Their trash is called oxygen. It floats around until it finds my lungs again. I breathe it in, my cell burns it, and dumps my trash back into the atmosphere.
So basically, we’re all swimming around and breathing in each others trash. How’s that for a lovely picture?
Think about it, though. What a beautiful picture. It is the rhythm and interconnectedness of living things on our planet, all woven together and interpenetrated by air.
In the Bible, the word for air in the Hebrew Scripture is ruach, and in the Greek Scripture it is pneuma. In both languages these words are also translated and interchangeable with the word spirit.
So, if I were to translate everything that I’ve just told you back into Hebrew and Greek, I would have said that the Spirit surrounds us, penetrates us, and connects us.
We breathe in, we breathe out.
Last week I woke up in bed and an image flooded into my mind. I saw hundreds of people flooding into the sanctuary. Throughout the week they are scattered all around the area, doing whatever they do, and then, on Sunday morning, they all come together to worship God. After the service they all move out of the sanctuary and go off to their different places, scattered to the wind. The next week they come back together to worship, then they blow back out. In. Out. In. Out. This looked like breathing to me.
Then I thought about our lesson for today in Acts 2. The people of God — the nation of Israel — had been scattered all throughout the Roman Empire. They were called the diaspora, the dispersed ones. Centuries of oppression and persecution had driven them away from Jerusalem and forced them to live out among all the tribes and nations of the world. From their perspective, they were literally spread out to the ends of the earth.
Three times a year they would all gather back in Jerusalem for the big feasts. In the Fall it was the Feast of Tabernacles. I hope you were here the day that Pastor Mark described that feast to us last year. I can still picture him marching around the altar as he reenacted what the Jewish priests did. The people would live in little huts all around Jerusalem for seven days, and then they would disperse again to the ends of the earth. That was the fall. Then in the spring they would gather again in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast where they reenacted the story of how God led Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. They would celebrate the lamb that was slain, and then disperse back to the ends of the earth. And then, 50 days after the Passover, they would gather again to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, a harvest festival, 7 weeks after Passover, on the 50th day – Pentecost. At Pentecost they would celebrate the Torah, the scripture, the word of God that had been breathed down to them through the prophets. They would read the Torah, celebrate the harvest and God’s provision, and then disperse to the ends of the earth.
Feasts after feast, in and out. Year after year, in and out. Gathered in Jerusalem, dispersed to the ends of the earth. In and out.
And then one Pentecost God breathed them into Jerusalem… and WHOOSH, BAM! He shook the house. The people encountered God in a way that they had never encountered him before. It was a mighty wind that shook the house. The encounter was so powerful and so dynamic that it could only be explained like a fire that burned around them. It was such a dramatic encounter that it transformed a bunch of simple Galilean fisherman who were cowering in a rented room into a band of courageous, multilingual evangelists who proclaimed that God had finally fulfilled his promise and brought the Messiah to bring about God’s Kingdom of Peace.
Pentecost. The day God breathed. The Gospel of John’s version of the story is just that. No fireworks, no hi-tech special effects or grandstands. Jesus gathered his friends together and breathed on them.
In my vision I saw God’s people drawn into the sanctuary, and I thought about our lungs. Each cell comes into that tiny sac and an exchange is made. The trash is dumped and exchanged for rich, life-giving oxygen. The oxygen is given to the cell and BOOM it is burned, transformed into energy. It is a fire!
That is what happens when we come to this place. We are floating around all week, doing whatever it is we do. We get used up. We collect the junk of our everyday lives. We wrestle with pride and greed, lust, envy, despair, anger, worry, whatever it is and we build up the sludge of life.
Then God draws us in to the sanctuary. We meet God in the reality of Jesus. We enter into God’s story. We are confronted by the radical love of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And then we ingest it. We eat the bread. We drink the wine. It permeates our bodies. God invites us to lay our garbage right here and he exchanges it for the life-giving grace found in Jesus.
Then God breathes us out. We leave full of hope that comes from the knowledge that we are loved. We are forgiven. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, and sent out to the ends of the earth.
In my vision the sanctuary was not the lung of God. It was just one of the tiny air sacs in the larger lung. I pulled back from this place and saw another air sac at Riverdale Assemblies of God down the street, and another one at Meadow Creek across the street. Then I zoomed out some more and saw one at Zion Lutheran in Anoka and Coon Rapids Evangelical Free, and Anoka Covenant, and Epiphany Catholic, and Anoka United church of Christ, and anoka Weslyan and suddenly hundreds and thousands of little sanctuaries combined together to make the lungs of God.
God Breathes us in, and breathes us out.
My sister-in-law, Melissa, had cystic fibrosis. It is a nasty disease that affects the connective tissues of the body. Basically, the body creates too much sticky mucous membranes and everything gets really gummed up. Its effects are most obvious in the lungs. Imagine taking a balloon and filling it with rubber cement and then trying to blow it up. That’s what it was like inside her lungs. Those millions of tiny air sacs were sticky and it took more and more energy to fill them with air. Eventually they just stuck shut and filled up with mucous. At the end she only had 40% airflow in one lung and 10% in the other. She was permanently attached to oxygen, and even then, could barely move around.
Try it. Breathe really shallow a few times. Even in that short amount of time you start to get light headed because your brain is being deprived of the oxygen it must have to function.
The question for us today is this. How well does God’s body breathe? God draws us in, but do we resist? Do we say, “No, I don’t need to be gathered into God’s presence. I’m fine out here on my own.” Or, do we drift in here, holding onto our garbage. Covering it up so that no one can see it. Unwilling to come raw and naked into God’s presence and dump it all right here.
Can you imagine what would happen if all the people, in all the little sanctuaries, all came authentically before God and let the Spirit of God transform us, ignite us with the power of God’s grace and forgiveness, and then we were exhaled into the atmosphere of life?
That my friends, would be a mighty, rushing wind that would transform humanity to the ends of the earth. May we join with God today as God breathes.