God breathes us all into new being
Liz Stuart, 28 May 2023
Acts 2:1–21; John 20:19–23
When I was training for ordination, we were exposed to lots of different worship styles. One session involved a group of people turning up with wooden crates, rugs and fairy lights, creating a sort of front room/coffee shop vibe. Indeed, their whole argument was that going to church should feel really normal and on a continuum with daily life. So, they made a point of offering people a coffee, etc., before a service started – coffee people could take into the service and place on said crates.
I suspect they would look at our services as too strange. When someone comes into this church, they come into an unfamiliar place, with people like me in strange clothes, doing things that we do not do in everyday life, speaking in odd ways. We talk about bread and wine and produce a wafer and a silver chalice, not a bread roll and wine glass.
I noticed some people reacted similarly to the coronation, thinking it too strange. The theologian Martyn Percy, reflecting on the coronation, argued that the fact that the symbolism involved had to be explained meant that those symbols had ‘receding value’ and should be dropped. I disagree, and on this Pentecost Sunday I want to argue for the strange against the familiar when it comes to Church.
In our gospel reading today, the risen Jesus appears to his fearful disciples. He does not hug them; he breathes on them (an odd thing to do) and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. In Hebrew, God’s spirit, ruach, means wind and breath. Jesus breathes God’s breath into his disciples and God’s breath is what God is. ‘Yahweh’, many scholars believe, is not a name but the sound of breathing. God is breath, is life itself.
And what does God’s breath do? It creates and it animates. God breathes all of creation into existence, he breathes life into humanity. God’s breath, God’s spirit, overshadows Mary and brings into existence a new type of humanity in Jesus, and now Jesus sends that same breath into his disciples and a new creation begins.
One of the most moving parts of the coronation for me was when the choirs sung the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, just before the King was anointed. Something new was being created here. That same hymn is sung at every ordination, episcopal consecration and at many confirmations.
At every service of Holy Communion, we pray for the Holy Spirit to fall upon the bread and wine so that they become a new creation – the body and blood of Christ. A couple of weeks ago Mary Copping asked us if we had been baptised by the Holy Spirit. The answer to that is yes, we have: at baptism, at confirmation if you have been confirmed, and at every service of Holy Communion we pray that the Holy Spirit will fall upon us all.
We are all God’s new creation. God breathes us all into new being. This is not just one act that happens once and for all, but a continuous act of creation. Sometimes it will feel like a gentle whisper that calls our souls into being; sometimes it will be more dramatic, like being caught up in a whirlwind or like fire igniting us. We are always being created anew as beings who are God-breathed, who share God’s breath.
This is clear in John’s gospel where the Spirit is given with the authority to forgive or to retain sins – an authority that rested in Jesus, breathed into him by God. And it’s a test, of course. This passage is often read at ordinations, and I had a priest friend who would often say, ‘Don’t annoy me or I will retain your sins’! It is a test, of course, because, as Jesus demonstrated, in this new creation, those who share God’s breath only forgive.
In the description of the falling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Spirit appears as fire, as God had appeared to the Israelites in the desert and to Moses in the bush. Divine life rains down upon the disciples as fire. On the day that the Jewish people celebrated the giving of the Law which provided the foundation of their identity, God creates out of them a new people, a people of breath and wind, a people whose identity is founded in his own identity as living love.
God creates a new people, a people of breath and wind, a people whose identity is founded in his own identity as living love.
What has this got to do with what some would argue is the strange, discontinuous way we worship here? I would argue that what we do here is learn to be that new creation. We are newly born breathing in a different atmosphere, breathing with the breath of God, learning to live with different values, learning to love in different ways. Something new and discontinuous is being born in us; here is where we learn about that and help each other find our feet in that new reality.
We are creatures of wind and fire, creatures made of the stuff of God. What does that mean? Here in this new creation, bread and wine transform to bear the presence of the living Christ. What does that mean? What does it mean to live in a truth that is not propositional but personal, multifaceted and alive? What does it mean to live to forgive and not to retain sins?
This is where we gather to work it out, slowly and wobbly, like lambs taking their first steps. It is strange, but in that strangeness lies hope – hope for a new way of relating to God and each other, a hope for a new language and way of life all grounded in love, inclusion and peace. This is a rightly strange place, full of strange people, because in the words of Graham Greene, here we are born of ‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’.