“Breathe on me Breath of God. Fill me with life anew.”
I thought of those words as I sat in the churchyard at Cuddesdon, where I’d gone to train as a priest over 30 years ago. Where David Barton went some 55 years ago! Cuddesdon hill. The sun was warm on my back…wildflowers at my feet, and as the breeze washed over me God felt close. “Breathe on me Breath of God, fill me with life anew.”
Breath is one of the picture words in the bible for the Holy Spirit. along with wind and fire and of course the Dove.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost, also known as Whit Sunday. Its one of the three principal Christian Festivals: Christmas where we celebrate the coming of Jesus; Easter where we celebrate his decisive battle with evil, his offering of himself upon the cross and the victory of his resurrection. And now Pentecost, seven weeks of seven days later. The Risen Jesus has ascended into heaven, but the apostles are not left alone. God the Holy Spirit came upon them. They began to experience Jesus within them, as he had promised, and the church as we know it was born. From that moment the Holy Spirit became the dominant reality in the life of the early church. The first 13 chapters of Acts refer to the Spirit over 40 times. The Holy Spirit is the power of God at work within, and they seemed to know that in abundance. As Bishop Michael Curry said at the Royal Wedding yesterday, ‘God is Love, and there is power, there is power in love.’
It enabled Aeneas to recognise that Saul was no longer an enemy, but a brother in Christ.
It enabled Barnabas and others to share all that they had and live as one. It enabled Peter to risk his faith and reputation, and Stephen to lose his life in faithful service.
Breathe on me Breath of God. If the Spirit is like Breath, these first apostles were drinking it in great gulps like athletes at the end of a hundred-metre sprint.
There are dangers of course, recognised in the New Testament. Trying to tune in to God and what he may be saying is so important, but can easily lead to self-deception and spiritual arrogance, especially when someone convinced of their inspiration attempts to impose that on others. “God has told me…” can bring real words of hope and help, but if they’re presented as an end to discussion its time to be wary. Such pronouncements should always be open to question and exploration, and always be tested.
But the Spirit of God is not about coercion, but cooperation. The Spirit nudges, guides, leads, if we are open to hear, to see, to feel that guidance. ‘As we heard today, ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.’
Mostly the Spirit comes quietly, barely noticed even as we breathe in and out every second of our lives. It bears us up, carries us forward, and connects us with ourselves, with creation and with God at the centre of all things, the God in whom we live and move and have our being. Not God as a bearded man on a cloud, but God around us and within us, like the air we breathe. Separate from us, yet crucial to our very life.
Around the time this church was built, a baby named Hildegard was born in Germany. She became a Nun, a scientist, a playwright and composer.
She described herself as being like,
“A feather on the breath of God.”
What a wonderful picture. She had learnt to trust herself to the Spirit of God, the breath of God bearing her along as a breeze might carry a feather.
And it’s the same Spirit who gently lifts and sustains us.
When we are too weak, down, depressed even to pray, it is the Spirit who prays within us, Paul says, ‘in sighs too deep for words’, and there is no higher form of prayer than that.
The Spirit comes as a Dove, gentle and free but also as tongues of flame. Bishop Curry finished his sermon yesterday speaking about fire, and I quote,
‘The theologian Teilhard de Chardin said fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history. And he then went on to say that if humanity ever harness the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.
Dr. King was right. We must discover love the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world.’
So may you know the gentle breath of the Spirit, free as a Dove.
May you know the Spirit lifting you up and helping you pray in sighs too deep for words.
May you know the liberating fire of God’s love for that alone will change our world.
May God love and bless you this Day of Pentecost and forever.