Pastor John E. Kerr
Sunday, May 31, 2020 Theme: “The Softer Side of Pentecost Text: John 20:19-23
“Please, I can’t breathe” 47-year-old George Floyd pleaded to police in south Minneapolis as he lay on the pavement with a police officer’s knee pressed on his neck with suffocating force. He couldn’t get breath into his lungs, became unconscious, and ultimately died.
In a starkly contrasting scene on Easter evening, Jesus met in a home in Jerusalem with his disciples, and the gospel writer John says, “Jesus breathed on them”—breath, soft, life giving human breath. Then Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” receive the holy wind, receive the holy breath.” (The word “spirit” in Hebrew and Greek can also be translated “wind, air, breath.”) According to St. John, that was Pentecost.
Today we celebrate the life, spirit-giving Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian church, while at the same time our hearts are breaking as we mourn and express outrage as yet another black American dies tragically at the hands of a white police officer. A police officer cuts off life-giving breath and Jesus pours out life-giving breath.
There are two accounts of the day of Pentecost in the New Testament. One is in Acts 2 and is a loud, large celebration. The other one is in John’s gospel, chapter twenty and it is a small and quiet celebration.
Luke’s account in Acts is most familiar to us. One hundred twenty people were in a house in Jerusalem. Thousands of people were in the streets for the Pentecost festival, a Jewish holiday 50 days after Passover. Suddenly something happens, and Luke tries to describe it. It was like a violent wind that swept through the room, there was fire and people spoke in other languages. The crowd was astonished and gathered around Simon Peter who preached and said, “God has given us the Holy Spirit.” After his sermon 3,000 people confessed their faith in Jesus and were baptized.
Luke describes the birth of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the basis of Exodus 19 and 20 when God gave Moses the law. The people are before Mount Sinai and are afraid. It’s cloudy and there’s a strong wind and the people ask Moses to go up the mountain and ask God what God wants and come back down and tell us. Moses goes up the mountain. The wind is violent and there is fire and lightning. When Luke describes the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church, he draws on Exodus 19 and 20. That is one description of Pentecost.
The other celebration of Pentecost is quiet and takes place in a house in Jerusalem. I don’t know how many were there. The doors were locked because the disciples were scared. Jesus was dead and now he was reported to be alive. They wondered what was going to happen next. Would his arrest, trial and crucifixion be repeated all over again and would they be in more danger?
Suddenly Jesus was with them and he said, “Peace be with you.” They didn’t respond. They didn’t know who he was. He showed them his hands and his side and they said, “It’s the Lord!” They were glad and felt much better. He said, “As the Father sent me, now I send you. What I’ve done in my life is now up to you. You’ll have to keep it going and growing.”
Then a strange thing happens. John says, “Jesus breathed on them.” Breath. Not a big, violent wind,
but soft human breath. And Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That also was Pentecost.
John doesn’t describe it with thunder and lightning and a whirlwind of Moses on Mt. Sinai, but he describes it in the light of Genesis 2 when God breathes into the nostrils of human beings and they became living persons. God loved all the other animals—horses, lamas and birds—but God said, “This one is like me, and I breathed into this one my own breath, my life, my spirit.”
But we human beings aren’t content eating, drinking, working, bragging, showing off and dying. We long for God. We search the heavens, write poetry, play music, create art, and think about God. In the cool of the evening on our back deck or by the lake, we ponder, “When I die will I live again, since I have the breath of Godin me?”
John says that Jesus took a bunch of individuals—nothing too remarkable about any of them—he took them and breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In that Jerusalem house, as quiet as your breath, they received the Holy Spirit and they became the church. They worshipped God, wrote scripture, prayed and strived to do God’s will. They went out and served other people who weren’t always grateful. They hurt when others hurt. They emptied their pockets of money for other people’s children. They went and built a house for somebody else when their house was badly in need of repair and paint was peeling off. Who are these people? They are the people on whom God has breathed, on whom Christ has breathed, ones who have received the Holy Spirit.
I can’t describe for you the Holy Spirit or the spirit of God. Jesus said it’s a mystery like the wind. You don’t see the wind, yet you know when it comes and when it goes.
I saw a tree standing in my back yard tall, proud and straight. One day I came home and it was bent over and the top almost touched the ground, and I said, “What caused that tree to fall?” My wife said, “The wind.” I didn’t see the wind, but look at what it did.
I saw a man tall, proud, arrogant, mocking the church. He didn’t need the church or anybody. He was self-made and self-sufficient. Then one day I saw him in church. I asked, “What got into him?” They said, “It was the spirit. He got the spirit of God.”
I was on a boat in the Sacramento harbor, sails limp, boat going nowhere. Suddenly the sails filled and the boat began to move. What did that? Somebody said, “The wind.” I didn’t see the wind.
I saw a teenager, bored, pouting, listless, no purpose in life. And then I saw that teen excited, friendly, smiling, energetic, and interested, and said to me “Hi!” What caused that? The Spirit of God, the wind of God, the breath of God. Do you believe that?
Luke gives us a loud, attractive, unforgettable picture of Pentecost. John gives us a quiet, soft picture of Pentecost—Jesus breathed on his followers. It reminds me of this hymn:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew
That I may love the way you love
And do what you would do.