The breath of life

19 May 2013    Pentecost

The breath of life

Are you familiar with blow up dolls? If you have undertaken first aid training you will know all about artificial respiration having practiced on a dummy. You will have been trained to cock back the head, clear the air passages pinch the nose and blow. You may even have done this for real on a live person.Artificial respiration breathes life back into a person, it can save the life of someone who has stopped breathing. I should imagine it is a strange sensation coming to and finding a total stranger with the lips of their mouth around yours, breathing gusts of  air down your lungs. Breath is life. We breathe in air to live, we cannot go long without it, although the world record for holding one’s breath underwater is 22 minutes.

The gospel today records how Jesus breathed on his disciples.How curious. If I went round breathing on you, I don’t suppose you’d be best pleased. To be breathed on is generally an unpleasant idea. But the breath of  Jesus is the spirit and the spirit is life. 'Receive the Holy Spirit,' he says to his disciples. When God created Adam in the second account of creation in the Book of Genesis, he formed him from the dust, he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being. So, that breathing of Jesus is a repetition of the work of the father. Christ who is seen as the second Adam, is now the one breathing the spirit to renew creation through his apostles and his church. Incidentally this is the only place in the gospels that you will find any reference to breath or breathing.

Breath is essential for other things too. Without breath we cannot speak, the air from our lungs vibrates the vocal chords and gives us speech. Similarly the spirit that blows on our souls enables us ordinary mortals to speak of God. Jesus said to his disciples not to worry about how they would defend themselves against their persecutors, for the spirit would give them the words to say. Breathing is vital for singing. One has to learn to breath properly if one is going to sing well. I remember being so excited at being asked to sing a Johnny Cash number, ‘Ring of Fire’ in The Bell at Hemsby, that at the end my hand was shaking terribly, I wasn’t nervous, I had forgotten to breathe properly! Praise of God that is free and uninhibited is charismatic worship where one lets oneself go and be moved by the spirit. ‘Let everything that has breath’  says the psalmist, 'praise the Lord.'

In John’s gospel, the spirit comes as breath, in the Acts of the Apostles it comes as a strong wind, which  illustrates the different ways in which the spirit works. On the one hand it works individually inside the Christian, on the other it is like a strong external force. Pope John XXIII, famously said prior to calling the Second Vatican Council that he wanted to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air. He wanted the church to be reinvigorated by the Holy Spirit. Under Pope Francis, the windows are again opening wide to the gusts of the spirit.

We all need the breath of the spirit. We are all in need of reviving on a daily basis. This is what the spirit does for us, if we open ourselves to let the spirit enter. Prayer, our communing with God, is as natural as breathing. Breathing can be prayer. We need to breathe deeply in order to be able to read out loud well, and to sing well. We also need to breathe well to pray well. The best way to compose yourself for prayer is to sit with a good posture, and concentrate on your breathing, in and out. This centres ourselves, relaxes us, and opens ourselves to God. Prayer can simply be repeating the name of Jesus as we breathe in and out. Be still and remind yourself that the Lord is here, the Lord is everywhere.

To be a breath of fresh air is a good thing. We need that breath of fresh air in politics, in business, in the church, in all walks of life, to look at old problems in new ways, to open the most intractable problems up to the Spirit in prayer, with our minds open to solutions.  St Paul reminds us that there is one Spirit, but it is at work in us in different ways. And the spirit is given to us for a purpose,  for it is God at work in us.

'Send forth your  Holy Spirit O Lord', says the Psalmist 'and renew the face of the earth.' May we be open to the Holy Spirit that he may breathe renewed life into us. As we celebrate this great feast of Pentecost, may we be renewed and revived to praise and serve our Lord Jesus Christ as he deserves.