He Breathed on Them

When God Came Down Like Fire

Pentecost Sunday, Year A

Pentecost calls for celebration, for signs and symbols of a God who pushes through, who rushes in when it seems all is lost.

Compare and contrast this Pentecost Sunday. That’s what is on offer if you lay the Acts event alongside the Gospel text for this week. Two Pentecosts, two accounts of receiving the Spirit, two sides of our own story, two retellings of our own varied experiences. We need them both, don’t you think? Yes, there are times, glorious times, wonderful times, exuberant times when the Spirit overwhelms us, and we are set on fire; we are shouting in languages we don’t really know. There are times when the joy spills from us and the laughter pours from us, and we can’t help but be carried away by the wonder and glory of the God we worship.

Read Acts 2; please read it again. I know it seems overly familiar and somewhat tame from this distance of more than two thousand years. But try; read it and try to put yourself in that room again. Recall the despair and the fear that soaked through all the layers they sought to cover themselves with; remember the emptiness that gripped them as they tried to avoid thinking about the rest of their lives without his presence among them. They had a taste of life, of living fully, of being alive like they never knew was possible, and now it was gone. They avoided eye contact with the others in that room, afraid of swirling down the drain again into the void that threatened to consume them every time they breathed.

But then, a sound shook them out of their stupor. It sounded like a freight train if they had a clue what a freight train was. Like a desert windstorm, blasting the sand into a scouring force exposing the bones with surprising speed. And yet this sound, this roar sounded different somehow. It was not like an oppressive, angry threat, but rather like hope. Hope? A wind-like hope? It blew through their despair like the wind drying sheets on a line. They were those freshly washed sheets, fluttering in this wind, lifted into a new day, drying their tears. They were kites flying high in the cerulean sky, tethered only by their faith in the one who was gone and yet still somehow present with them and in them. Remember that feeling, that joyous certainty. Remember flying on the wind of faith and for a moment believing in eternity like you could feel it bearing you up with grace.

And the fire. Remember the fire. Remember the fire in your bones that you had to let out in laughter and movement. Luke writes that it was divided tongues, as of fire, that settled on each of them. Be wary of that word “divided” though. This is not a separation or an individualism. No, this is inclusion; the tongues reach out like octopus arms wanting to gather in, to bind together, to make as one. This was an individual experience that had a corporate reality. They were each in this together. They were all as if they were one. This is a fire that unites, a blaze that leaps from one to another and to all. This is a fire that builds up, not one that destroys. Unless what is destroyed is all that would keep us from leaning into the joy of this day. All of this was glorious and unexpected.

Pentecost was originally an agricultural festival celebrating the first harvest of the growing season. Later it became a commemoration of the giving of the land of Canaan to the people of Israel; and then even later, it morphed into an observance of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. All are important times of celebration, but nothing to indicate the power that was unleashed on this day. I’m sure it caught the disciples by surprise too. They were used to a low-key holiday (not like Yom Kippur or even Rosh Hashana), but instead found themselves in an encounter with God that literally blew them away.

The Day of Pentecost came like the sound of a violent wind, Luke tells us. It was fire; it was power; it was chaos and noise, but it was also meaning, and it was hope. And then to be filled with the power to be, the power to grow, the power to love as Christ loved.

That’s what Pentecost is all about. It’s not simply a birthday commemoration, just a marker along the road, a milestone passed. It is a moment of power, an offering of transformation. So, how about it? Ready to come to church on Sunday? Who knows who you might be once you’ve been windswept by the Holy Spirit?

Except. Sometimes it is hard to rise to the occasion of this kind of Pentecost. Oh, we’ll watch the children wave their streamers; we’ll smile at the dancers and even be awed by the depictions of fire dancing across our screens. But the breath within us isn’t a mighty wind; it is more like a sigh. Of pain or sadness and grief, maybe of uncertainty or fear. Not a gust, but a sigh. Just a sigh. If that is you and your congregation, then sigh with them; breathe with them on this day. Don’t play-act a wind you don’t feel or a fire that doesn’t warm. Just sigh. That’s a breath too.


Profound, eh? Just what you were waiting all day to read, right? The gem of wisdom that is going to help you wrap your mind and soul around a taste of God’s Word this weekend, don’t you think?


Maybe it is more than weariness and exasperation. Maybe there is a hint of contentment. Can such things be? Contentment is a rare commodity, often frustratingly just out of reach. If I can just get this done, if I can just accomplish those goals, just acquire these items, just save this amount of money, master these skills, then, maybe then, perhaps then I might find a sense of contentment. But in the meantime, ... work to be done, miles to travel, burdens to bear, struggles to endure, and on and on and on. Contentment isn’t a word that speaks into our experience these days. Life is too hectic, too shallow, too empty, too hungry. Except then, maybe sometimes, once in a while, like a breath, like a cool breeze on a hot day, it is just there. From somewhere.


Remember this? Call it a pre-Pentecost preparation:

Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. - John 14:23-27 NRSV

And then this ... Call it a quieter Pentecost:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." - John 20:19-23 NRSV

Two words, or rather the same word twice: peace. “Peace, I leave with you.” “Peace be with you.” It sounds the same really, not much to distinguish between them—except life and death. The first was on the threshold of death. The second was in the glaring light of the Resurrection. That’s what separated them: the last breath. “He breathed his last,” Luke says. “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” He didn’t speak it; he cried it, Luke says. In a loud voice, a voice choked with pain, a voice gasping for the breath that wouldn’t come because of the suffocation caused by hanging on a cross, somehow in agony, he pushed himself up on the spike driven through his feet, straining the two nails through his hands, so he could catch enough breath cry in a loud voice. Then, Luke says, he breathed his last.


Except he didn’t. He breathed again. He breathed some more. “Peace be with you,” he breathed on them. Breathed peace. Receive the Holy Spirit. The Spirit he commended to God. The Spirit returned to us, in a breath, peace.


Breathe on me. In the heat of the moment. In the struggle of living and loving and finding our way in a complicated world. Breathe on me. Give me peace. Not a peace that resolves every issue. Not a peace that fixes everything that is broken, that removes responsibility or covenant, that answers every question that removes every doubt. Breathe on me that I might find peace enough to continue on the journey on which I find myself. Peace enough to work toward resolution, peace enough to mend the broken or that allows me to limp with grace and confidence. Peace that breathes through my responsibilities and covenants, peace that lifts up and binds together. Peace that casts out fear. Perfect love - peace - casts out fear.


Where does it come from, this peace? Is it self-generated? Are there disciplines we can practice, rituals to perform? Well, yes, there are rituals - corporate prayer, sacraments of grace. Yes, there are disciplines - meditations that call us to worship, study that drives us deep into the living Word. These and more. But no. We don’t create this peace. We receive it. Like a breath. That comes from elsewhere. From beyond us. The rituals and the disciplines are designed to shape us into vessels better able to hold onto the peace that breathes into us. It is a gift, a joy, an unexpected encounter, a cool breeze that fills the sails and sends us across the horizon into new worlds of love and joy. A promise from one side of life is fulfilled from the other. A description, an image, a story told to a hurting and hungry heart becomes a wind of change in a new world.

He breathed on them. Peace be with you. Receive the Spirit of holiness, of ordination, of mission and ministry, of love. Receive it and then love. Love from the strong center of peace, from the contentment of faith, of putting your hands in the source of love and joy and peace. Lean into it, trust it, receive it.

Sigh. He breathed on them. On you. On me.

Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do. ... Breathe on me breath of God till I am wholly thine, till all this earthly part of me glows with the fire divine.

Breathe on me. Sigh.

In This Series...

Pentecost Sunday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Trinity Sunday, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes