“Take a deep breath…”
How many times has someone said that to you in your life? How many times have you said it to someone else? When life is busy and stressful and chaotic, how many times has someone tried to calm you down by reminding you to breathe?
There are people in the field of health and wellness who know a great deal about breathing. Stress and worry take a toll on our bodies. And the higher or the deeper our stress level, the more we tend to breathe shallow breaths. So when our body is under stress and we are not breathing as deeply as we need to, our bodies have developed a means of compensating. It’s called “sighing.” In other words, when we sigh it’s often our bodies’ way of telling us we need to take a deep breath.
I imagine a few of us in this sanctuary can remember the last time we sighed in the company of other people. It’s not something that’s easy to hide, unless you happen to be in the company of others who are sighing the same way. At the same time, I imagine any of us can remember a time, maybe recently, when we got so overwhelmed with everything going on around us that we forgot to breathe. Never mind breathe deeply.
So often we go from task to task, from activity to activity, from commitment to commitment, from duty to duty, from one person who needs us to the next. And before we know it, we are simply out of breath. Life is moving too fast, we can’t keep up the pace, and we stop breathing the way we need to. It’s almost as if something or someone is tightening like a grip around us, gradually cutting off our air supply…
By the time we arrive at the day of Pentecost, the disciples are quite out of breath themselves. It has now been fifty days since Jesus died on the cross, an event which in and of itself caused a great deal of stress and grief and sighing aloud. But in the wake of the Easter resurrection, Jesus continued his earthly ministry among the disciples. The disciples got used to seeing Jesus again. As a result, the disciples breathing finally turned from shallow back to normal again.
Yet just as the disciples caught their breath, Jesus did what he told them he was gonna do. He left again. Jesus ascended out of their earthly sight into heaven and returned to the God who sent him into the world in the first place. And it was almost more than the disciples could take.
The whole thing was bad enough when Jesus left the first time. The arrest, the betrayal, the scorn and the abuse, the humiliation. Having Jesus die such a gruesome death was heartwrenching. But the second time around…the second time Jesus left the disciples had to be as bad as the first…maybe worse. If the crucifixion left the disciples out of breath, the ascension knocked the wind out of them altogether. Once again the disciples felt that frightening, ominous feeling of someone or something cutting off their air supply…
Well in the aftermath of the ascension, the disciples did what any faithful church members would do in a time of uncertainty and fear and chaos. They held a meeting. They gathered together and they got everyone on the same page and they created a game plan for moving forward.
There was much to do. They needed to get organized. They needed to identify their gifts and resources. They needed to choose seasoned leaders and develop new leaders. They needed to come up with some kind of a mission statement in order to effectively tell people what God had done in their lives through Jesus Christ. Can you imagine the kind of sighing out loud anxiety that must have filled the room over the course of that meeting?
The idea that they now had to carry on and carry out the ministry of Jesus Christ was a daunting prospect. Yes, the poor, the outcast, the sick, the marginalized…they all needed God’s help. Unfortunately Jesus wasn’t there anymore to channel God’s power and make it happen. The magnitude of the task was enough to render the disciples breathless…
But right in the middle of that meeting, from out of nowhere, a mighty wind began to head their way. The wind roared through the house, filling each disciple, each follower, with breath that came from outside themselves. The wind, the breath, the sheer power…none of them understood it. They had not asked for this wind nor had they expected it. Nevertheless, the breath swooped into the room and filled each one up.
When that mighty wind blew, it gave the disciples and those other followers a reserve of strength they could not access because they did not know they had it. Athletes call it a second wind. After the breath is knocked out of you the first time, you press on and sometimes, suddenly you find a second source of breath to carry you further than you anticipated.
Fortified with this second wind, the disciples let loose. They shook off the stress and the fear and the anxiety and they began to speak out loud about the power of God moving in their own lives. They burst out in languages they did not know and they understood languages they had never heard before. And through it all they remembered the bottom line. Once they were no people, but now they were God’s people. Once they were lost, but now they were found. Once they had no future, but when they were given the gift of breath and faith they became Christ’s bold apostles.
It must have been an incredible sight. Those timid, stressed-out disciples preaching and testifying about who God was and the amazing things God was doing. All the people who were there on Pentecost day listened intently. And the crowd that day grew ever larger.
Of course there were a few skeptics in the bunch. There were a few in the crowd who were convinced the disciples were drunk. In truth, it’s hard to blame them. Falsely inflated, trumped up courage is often a surefire sign that someone has had too much to drink.
Still Peter stood up and started to preach. And in a short period of time, those strangers and foreigners from distant lands. And the young and the old. And people who had never met and had never even seen each other. They all began to breathe a little more easily. A little more deeply. Filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, that huge crowd of people came together and created the Christian church…
The Pentecost story is powerful and dramatic and moving. And while it doesn’t get nearly the accolades, it deserves to be held in the same kind of liturgical esteem as Christmas or Lent or Advent. In the end, however, the most important thing about Pentecost is that it not be contained in the past.
The same Holy Spirit that blew mightily on the day of Pentecost blows mightily today. God’s breath challenges us, scares us, reassures us, inspires us, and clarifies things for us. And if we take the Pentecost story to heart, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will grant us a reserve of courage and strength we do not expect. Allow us to see things we never thought we would see. Enable us to speak things we never thought we would hear ourselves say. Empower us to talk about God at work in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
All of you have your own stories of stress and chaos and feeling overwhelmed. God willing, I suspect you also have stories of times when you have found reserves of breath you did not know you had. When you felt something stirring inside you, freeing you and inspiring you just when you thought your airwaves were tightly constricted. Times when you got a second wind in your life and you felt the courage and the resolve and the perseverance you needed to press on…
The Holy Spirit, the Pentecost Spirit is what allows us to sing and to dance and to pray and to live fully through each day. So in the name of that Holy Spirit, that Pentecost Spirit, I’m going to ask you to do something with me this morning.
I invite you to go ahead and take a deep breath…in fact, feel free to sigh out loud if you want. If you haven’t been able to catch your breath for a while now, I imagine it feels pretty good. If you have a lot going on and you are running from one thing to the next and you feel overwhelmed, I imagine it feels pretty good. If life has recently dealt you a series of tough blows and you feel as though the breath has been knocked out of you and you can’t figure out how you are going to move on, I imagine it feels pretty good.
Take a deep breath. Let God’s Holy Spirit fill your lungs. Let God’s Spirit give you strength to carry on. Let God’s Spirit breathe for you. Amen.
NOTE: This sermon draws inspiration from a sermon preached by the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner. Her sermon, entitled “Breathing Deeply,” was preached on the DayOne radio show on June 4, 2006.