The With-God Life: Breath and Fire

We don’t live all that close to the places in Minneapolis and St. Paul that have seen actual violence in recent days. But last night we were told by a neighbor that a man with a semi-automatic weapon had been seen walking around our first-ring suburb, and Twitter reported that white supremacists were staying at a local hotel. Hours later, I don’t know if any of that was true, but it was enough to make us fearful. We cleared our yard of anything that could become a projectile and had the kids sleep in clothes in case we needed to leave suddenly. And we locked every door we have.

A burned out car and ATM in Minneapolis yesterday morning – Creative Commons (Lorie Shaull)

That’s where our gospel text for today starts: the disciples have locked themselves inside a room for fear that they will suffer the same fate as their crucified Savior… who suddenly appears, resurrected, to say, “Peace be with you.” It is not the peace they sought in locking their doors, for he continues, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Yes, to follow Jesus is to be sent out in the same world that killed Jesus. That is our mission.

But he doesn’t send us out alone. He breathes on those first disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

So as we celebrate this particular Pentecost Sunday, I’m struck first that the Holy Spirit is associated with breath.

Breath. The very stuff of life. A constant reminder of the miracle of Creation, both our bodies and the air that sustains us with precisely the right level of oxygen. The first, ongoing experience of humanity’s relationship with the God who “breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7).

Breath. What Jesus couldn’t get enough of as crucifixion asphyxiated another of its victims. What COVID steals from the compromised lungs of its victims. What Minneapolis police officers denied George Floyd last Monday.

So as Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto his disciples, he sends them out, empowered to share “the breath of life” with a suffocating world.

Then after Jesus’ Ascension, the Holy Spirit comes upon them more dramatically, in another house. It starts with something like God’s breath — “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” — but is made manifest as something else that lives on oxygen: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:3).

Pentecost relief at the Cathedral of Amiens – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Fire. The primal source of heat and light, a reminder of the presence of the God who guided the oppressed to freedom and warms the cold hearts of sinners. The first natural power to be harnessed by humanity, for good and for ill.

Fire. What has been burning down banks and businesses, police precincts and pawn shops in Minneapolis and St. Paul these past days. A weapon for those who speak of justice denied in order to deny peace.

It would be convenient for me to have one symbol of the Spirit without the other. It’d be easier for someone like me to accept the fear-assuaging, peace-giving breath of Jesus. But there’s a reason that Pentecost brings the Spirit by fire.

One of those on whom the tongues of fire descends, Simon Peter, proceeds to preach to fellow Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. He quotes the prophet Joel, who foresaw that God would one day pour out his Spirit and

show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist. (Acts 2:19, from Joel 2:30)

As I’ve tended to experience Pentecost, mostly in suburban Covenant and Lutheran churches, it’s been a mild affair. If there’s any heat, it’s just the early approach of summer. If there’s mist, it’s tears coming to the eyes of parents as we celebrate confirmands or graduates. That kind of Pentecost is a brief burst of liturgical red before we settle into the green repetition of Ordinary time.

But Pentecost burns with the refining clarity of fire and is shrouded in the elusive mystery of smoke. It heralds God setting the world to right in ways that few of us can understand, and most of us don’t necessarily appreciate. It lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful, as the God who pours out his Spirit upon slaves and women empowers those kept silent to speak for him.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all fire is from God, that all smoke shows traces of the Spirit bringing justice. But it also means that we shouldn’t assume that everything that we call peace is actually breathed by Jesus.

So as we respond this morning to the good news of Jesus coming to bring peace, I pray that God will answer our prayer of response: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Alleluia.”

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