Sermon for Pentecost Sunday – May 28, 2023
Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to begin by leading you through a breathing exercise. First, put your hands on your chest. Press lightly but firmly onto your rib cage. Now slowly breathe in as deeply as you can. Feel your chest cavity expanding, filling up with air. Keep inhaling until you can’t fit any more air in your lungs. Hold in your breath for four seconds. Now, slowly let it out. Exhale. Feel your lungs deflate as they push out the air.
Some of you might be thinking, “Oh great. Pastor’s gone New Age on us.” But no! Today is Pentecost. Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. And the biblical word for Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek, in the Old Testament and the New, means not only Spirit, but also wind and….breath.
Breathing involves both inhaling and exhaling. We take breath in and we push it out. Do you know what happens when you only do one or the other? You die! Both of our great Pentecost stories from the Bible today feature the breathing of the Spirit, and there is clearly both inhaling and exhaling.
In our gospel reading we heard how on the night of the resurrection Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit. The risen Jesus appeared to them. He showed them his wounds, assuring them that it was really him. He said, “Peace be with you.” And then he said it again so that peace would sink in. Then Jesus breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The disciples took in these words. They breathed in Jesus’ breath. They inhaled deeply of the Holy Spirit.
But there was a big exhale too. Jesus also said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus told them to breathe out the Spirit, saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The peace they breathed in was to be breathed out in words spoken to people. The breath of Jesus they breathed in was to be breathed out in words, proclaiming forgiveness in his name.
The Spirit was poured out again fifty days later at Pentecost, a Jewish festival which itself took place fifty days after Passover (which is where we get the word “Pentecost” – pente means fifty). We heard this story in our reading from Acts. Lots of people were in Jerusalem for the festival. There were lots of Jews who now lived outside of Israel who came back to celebrate. Many of these Jews spoke the languages of their homelands outside of Israel. For many of them, these other languages had become their native language. So you had all these people who spoke different languages together in one place for the festival. If you’ve ever been to the tulip festival in the Skagit Valley when the buses are down from Canada, you hear all kinds of different languages. You hear a lot of Chinese. You hear a lot of Hindi. You hear Canadian English, where they say “Soory” and “Aboot” and “Pretty flowers, eh?” You hear Spanish being spoken by the workers. You hear all these different languages. Well, there was a similar vibe at Pentecost.
And then the Spirit came blowing in like a rush of violent wind. And again, the apostles breathed in this wind, this breath. “They were filled with the Holy Spirit,” it says. There’s the inhalation. The Spirit filled their chests with the presence of God.
But then they exhaled. They didn’t hold their breath. They didn’t keep the Spirit in. They breathed out the Spirit on all those people gathered there for the festival. They breathed out the Spirit in the form of words, speaking of “God’s deeds of power.” They spoke of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. They spoke of his glorious resurrection. They spoke of the forgiveness and new life that was available to all through him. And then, in a great sign to show that this Good News was indeed for all the peoples of the earth, God opened their ears to hear the message, each in their own native language.
Like the Spirit brooding over the waters in the beginning, breathing words that brought creation into being, this breath was being put into the ears and the lungs and the hearts of the apostles, so that it could be breathed out in the form of words that created a new reality – the new reality of the forgiveness of sins and peace with God and the promise of eternal life.
The church today needs to understand that the Spirit’s breathing in and through us involves both inhaling and exhaling. We are taught when we go on airplanes that if the oxygen mask falls, to secure your own first and then help others with theirs. That’s good advice. You can’t help others if you don’t have that oxygen supply yourself. But in the church today, and especially in the Lutheran church, we tend to just put our own mask on, breathing in the gospel for ourselves, and then we never help anyone else hear it.
There is a slogan that has become popular in church circles today which says, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” The quote is attributed to St. Francis, but nobody can actually find where he said it. It reminds me of the meme that says, “The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy,” with the quote being attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Not only is it a sketchily sourced quote, but it isn’t at all biblical. St. Paul says that faith comes by hearing. The mission Jesus gives to the church is to proclaim. Using words is always necessary to preach the gospel! That isn’t to say you shouldn’t strive to embody the gospel in the way you live, in the way you treat your neighbor. We should! But nobody will come to faith in Jesus solely because someone was nice to them. That might be the thing that earns you the trust needed to speak to someone, but it won’t by itself deliver the goods of the gospel. It will not, by itself, lead anyone to faith in Jesus. Words are necessary for that.
We need to inhale the gospel ourselves, to be sure. We never stop needing to breathe in the peace of God. We never stop needing to breathe in the presence of Christ Jesus in Word and Sacrament. We never stop needing to breathe in the good news that we are forgiven. But the breathing of the Spirit involves a breathing out as well. Jesus commissions all of us to speak to others of God’s deeds of power. Jesus sends all of us to speak to others of the forgiveness Jesus has won for us. “If you forgive the sins of any,” Jesus says, “they are forgiven them. If you retain them, they are retained.” There’s a lot more we could say about this, but let it at least be said that if you don’t share the gospel with someone who is living apart from God, you are effectively retaining their sin, leaving them stuck there. We are not called to only be filled with the Spirit ourselves, but to breathe it out through words that share the gospel of Jesus Christ and create faith in him. We need to both inhale and exhale.
Now, there are some important caveats. We can share the gospel in ways that are cringey and counterproductive. We shouldn’t do that, of course. We are not called to get in people’s faces with bullhorns. We are not to be arrogant or pretend we have all the answers about everything. There are some contexts where it isn’t appropriate or helpful to talk about our faith, and it can be hard to know when or how we can or should. It is increasingly counterculture to be Christian in the first place, let alone speak to others about it. I get that. I’m not suggesting this is easy or obvious in how we go about it.
I also hasten to add that the Spirit alone creates faith when and where the Spirit wishes. The Spirit uses us as instruments, as mouthpieces, but it is the Spirit that actually moves a heart to faith, not us.
But for the Spirit to breathe through the church it takes both inhaling and exhaling. We used to know this. We used to know this as Lutheran Christians. Do you know what the first document was to be translated into a Native American language? Luther’s Small Catechism. In the 1640s, Swedish Lutheran pastor Johann Campanius breathed in the gospel himself, and then exhaled it into the Algonquin language. This was a continuation of Pentecost! There are Lutheran church bodies today in Africa, some of which are significantly larger than our own, because decades ago Lutheran missionaries breathed in the gospel themselves, and then breathed it out into other languages. Today, we struggle to even do it in English. Today, some Christian parents don’t even teach the gospel to their own children. You know what happens to a church that only inhales and never exhales? It dies.
Our sister in Christ Mary Wonner has been receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer. I’ve been going to see her when she’s up for it. She has a neighbor who has been pretty outspoken in her unbelief. Both Bill and Mary, in a careful, respectful, loving way, have been looking for ways to share the gospel with her. Mary even said she hoped that what she was going through with her cancer would be used to open up opportunities to bear witness to her faith in Jesus to this neighbor. Here is a woman who is fighting for her life, and in the midst of that fight she is thinking about how she can share the gospel! She breathes in the word through Bible study with Bill and online worship and our communion visits, and then she breathes it out in gentle ways to others around her. This neighbor recently admitted that she was praying for Mary. Maybe it was just a polite thing to say. Or maybe, just maybe, the Spirit is working through Mary’s words.
This is the pattern our Pentecost readings lay out for all of us for living life in the Spirit of God. Christ breathes on us. We breathe in his presence. We are filled with the Holy Spirit. We breathe in God, and then we exhale. We are sent to speak of God’s great deeds of power, using the very necessary words God gives us to proclaim Christ’s forgiveness.
Breathe in with me once more. Slowly breathe in all the great deeds of power God has done and is doing for you. Breathe in Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you.” Let them sink in. Breathe in the forgiveness Christ has won for you. He forgives you all your sin, even your silence, your neglect of your calling to bear witness, your fear in sharing the gospel. Let the grace of Christ fill your lungs with new life in him. Let it calm your fears. You can hold that breath in, but not for too long. Then exhale slowly. And go forth from here today to breathe the Spirit out into the lives of others, so that they would know his grace too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church