Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Breath of God

The Breath of God
Ps. 104:29-30; Jn 15:26-27[1]
It’s amazing how complex our bodies are, and yet how frail they can be.  We take for granted seemingly simple actions like walking, seeing, eating, and breathing—until something goes wrong.  The heart is one of the strongest muscles in the body, but if the arteries that feed it with oxygen-rich blood cells get blocked, over time that muscle can become weak and even stop.  The lungs are incredibly complex organs, and there are over 40 different types of diseases that can affect them.  We take a simple thing like breathing for granted, until something keeps us from breathing normally.  When that happens, it affects everything we do.  Like many functions of our bodies, breathing is essential for life!
In a very real sense, the day of Pentecost is a celebration of the Spirit of God breathing life into the community of Christians.  Just as the Spirit of God breathed life into God’s human creatures in the beginning, at Pentecost the Spirit of God breathed life into the infant church, enabling  them to do amazing things, and to bear witness to all that Jesus had done for them and meant to them. [2] This is precisely what Jesus says the Spirit would do for the disciples according to John’s Gospel.  In our lesson for today, Jesus promises that the Spirit would testify to him, and that would enable them to testify also (Jn. 15:26-27).  That follows a pattern in John’s Gospel.[3]  Just as Jesus did the work God sent him to do, so they would also do the same work (Jn. 14:12).  Just as Jesus taught what God had given him to teach, so the Spirit would continue to teach them, and in turn they would teach (Jn. 14:25-26).  ).[4]
I’ve always maintained that churches thrive to the extent that they become living demonstrations of the love of God, the presence of Jesus, and the new life of the Spirit.  It has always been my conviction that we may generate short-term results through our own ingenuity and cleverness, but anything lasting that we hope to do for the sake of the kingdom of God must be done by the power of the Spirit working through us.  Or should I say, it must be done as the Spirit breathes the life of God in and through us.
I guess the practical question is how do we become “filled with the Spirit”?  I must confess I’ve always struggled with this.  How can people like you and me—average, normal, day in and day out people—become the kind of people who display God’s love and the presence of Christ and the new life of the Spirit the way the first Apostles did?  The usual answer is that it’s a matter of practicing the traditional disciplines of the faith: prayer, testimony, silence, service, and worship.[5]  These practices have sustained the life of the church for centuries, and for some of us, they continue to sustain our faith and life.  But the fact of the matter is that Bible Study and prayer simply leaves some of us cold.  That’s why another suggestion is that we find the presence of God in our lives through the everyday routines of life—from washing dishes to working in the yard to simply taking the time to look the people behind the cash register in the eye and acknowledge them as human beings.[6]  I personally find exercising—whether practicing yoga or going on a rigorous bike ride, or even walking—to be particularly effective for me.  The key is to turn off the constant “noise” within us that keeps us from even being aware of God’s life-giving presence in and around us.  When we can silence all that mental chatter and simply be in the presence of God’s Spirit, we discover a whole new Pentecost every day[7]—we discover that are constantly living in God’s presence. 
I don’t think there’s only one method to achieving this.  And I also don’t think there’s a quick path to getting spiritual.  In fact, it’s something we really can’t do at all!  In a very real sense, all we can do is show up. [8]  All we can do is to open ourselves to the presence of the life-giving Spirit, praying for the breath of God to create in us something new.  I guess the first step in that direction is to try to live in constant awareness of the presence of God.[9]  When we can do that, when we can live every aspect of life, from work to family to play to worship to eating to sleeping to walking, to the very breathing we do, [10] in the constant awareness of God’s presence, then we can become living witnesses to the life and love that the Spirit breathes into us all.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/27/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] It’s interesting to note that while the actors in the book of the Acts of the Apostles continually attribute their authority and power to Jesus, the author of the book never ceases to remind us that they do what they do in the name of Jesus because they are “filled with the Spirit”; e.g., Peter: Acts 4:8, 10:19; Stephen: Acts 7:55; Philip: Acts 8:29; Barnabas: Acts 11:24; Paul: Acts 13:9;
[3] Cf. Eugene Peterson, “The Story Behind the Story: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15,” Journal for Preachers 26 (no. 4 Pentecost) 2003:6-7, where he points out that according to Jn. 16:12-15, Jesus hadn’t finished teaching them yet; there is still more that the Spirit would show them.
[4] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:765: “the witness of the Paraclete and that of the community are not two distinct acts; rather, the community’s witness is the visible sign of the Paraclete’s work as witness.”  Cf. similarly, Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John XIII-XXI, 700; 1139-40.
[5] Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline; cf. also Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us.  She recounts her study of several mainline churches experiencing renewal through the practice of the traditional disciplines.
[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, xv, where she describes it as the process of “becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.” 
[7] Cf. Alyce M. McKenzie, “Everyday Pentecost,” Patheos May 20, 2012; accessed at .
[8] Peterson, “The Story Behind the Story,” 7.  He says, “Spiritual formation is primarily what the Spirit does, forming the life of Christ in us. There is not a whole lot we can do here any more than we can create the cosmos (the work of the Spirit in creation), any more than we can outfit Jesus for salvation (the work of the Spirit at Jesus baptism). But there is a great deal that the Spirit can do—this is the Spirit's work. But what we can do, need to do, is be there …. Be there to accept what is sent by the Father in Jesus’ name. Be there, receptive and obedient.”
[9] Cf. Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, 29, 38-39
[10] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 39-41, where she talks about the importance simply pausing and breathing.  See also Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, 8-10.

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