Audio version of this sermon can be found here
Sunday May 31st 2020 Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-6; John 20:19-22
Pastor Galen Zook
Breathing is something that most of us don’t usually give much thought to. We breathe in and out all the time, every moment of the day, without thinking about it. We even have a saying for when something is normal and natural and comes easily to us. We say that it’s “like breathing.”
But of course recently we’ve become much more conscious of our breathing. The coronavirus pandemic that we’re living in, the shortness of breath that accompanies the illness, and the need to wear masks, when around other people has made us think a whole lot more about our breathing.
The biggest complaint that I’ve heard (and experienced for myself) since we’ve been asked to wear masks out in public places is that it’s difficult to breathe with them on. For those of you who have to wear a mask for hours on end at your jobs or places of employment, I admire you.
But for any of us who have ever experienced shortness of breath for ourselves, or ever held the hand of a loved one who was gasping for air and struggling to breathe, we know that wearing a mask in public is a small price to pay to protect not only ourselves but also those around us, should any of us unknowingly be carrying the virus.
“I Can’t Breathe”
But if we weren’t already more conscious of our breathing due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the events in Minneapolis over this past week have served to bring the topic of breathing even more to the forefront of our minds.
On May 25th, George Floyd, an African-American man from Minnesota, died after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that occurring after Floyd was unresponsive, according to the criminal complaint filed against Chauvin. Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down on the road, while Chauvin had his knee on his neck. Video recordings by bystanders, showing the arrested Floyd repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe,” were widely circulated on social media platforms and broadcast by the media.
The arrest was conducted after Floyd allegedly attempted to use a $20 bill in a deli, which an employee identified as counterfeit.
Since the death of George Floyd, the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” has once again become a rallying cry by protestors in the movement to end police brutality and violence, particularly against African-Americans.
Of course over the past week, protests have broken out in response to Floyd’s death, not only in Minneapolis but in other places around the country, as protestors cry out for the officers responsible for Floyd’s death to be held accountable for their actions.
In light of the growing unrest in our country, and the ever-increasing racial and political divisions that we are seeing, it’s significant to me that today is Pentecost Sunday, the “birthday of the Church,” when we remember the Holy Spirit being poured out upon the early believers.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus’s disciples were gathered together in the Upper Room after Jesus’s death and resurrection, hiding away for fear or persecution, and that Jesus appeared to his disciples and “breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).
The book of Acts tells us that sometime later, “when the day of Pentecost had come…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them…All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4).
Breath. Wind. Fire. God used these seemingly ordinary elements of nature to usher in the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the early believers. And after the Holy Spirit Spirit fell upon them, they were never the same again.
The immediate sign of their transformation was that they immediately began to speak in other languages. Languages they had never learned or been educated in, and yet languages that the Jews of the diaspora who were gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world for the festivals of Passover and Pentecost could understand. This international community of Jewish pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in their own native languages, and they were immediately drawn to see the miraculous event that was taking place.
The Apostle Peter explained that what was taking place was what had been prophesied by the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18).
The Birthday of the Church
That day, 3,000 people became followers of Christ, and immediately they began fellowshipping together, studying the Word, making disciples, caring for the needs of those around them, and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through both word and through deed.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, and in light of what’s going on in our society right now, it’s significant to note that from day 1, the Church was made up of people from every national, language, and tongue, from all around the world. The Holy Spirit was a unifying force, that transformed individual people’s lives, upended cultural and societal norms, and empowered both men and women, and the old and the young to proclaim God’s Word, and created a community of people who looked out for both the physical and spiritual needs of everyone around them.
And all of this came about through Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit into the lives of his disciples. Just as God breathed into the first human being in Genesis chapter 2 and people became living, breathing souls (see Genesis 2:7), so too when Jesus breathed his Spirit onto his disciples they were raised to newness of life. When the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we are created anew — we are no longer the same, we are now living, breathing beings, who are being remade into Christ’s image, called to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on this earth.
When I was asking God for an image to describe what happens when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, the image I had was of a balloon.
Now like this balloon, each and every person who is alive is alive because we have breath inside of us. And we know from the Bible that we are alive because God has given us life.
As it says later on in the book of Acts, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Each and every person in the world, no matter their ethnicity, their age, their gender, their religion, their nationality, has been made in the image of God.
But when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we are like this balloon that has been filled with helium. When the power of the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we are completely transformed on the inside. Now we may look the same on the outside as we did before, but what’s inside of us completely changes the way that we interact with the world around us.
Whereas before we were just filled with a lot of hot air, now we are filled with the Spirit of the Living God! Whereas before, many of us just sort of bobbed around without purpose or direction, now we can move onward and upward. Whereas before, we could be batted around, tossed by every wind and doctrine, falling prey to every whim and wiff that might come our way, now we are set on a trajectory to soar!
Filled With Hot Air?
Now there are many people in our world who claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. They say that they have the Spirit of God inside of them. They claim to be followers of Christ. They say that they are “born again,” that they’ve been “saved” and that they’re going to heaven when they die. But their outward actions prove otherwise! Many of us know that people who claim to be Christians can be some of the meanest, most bigoted, prejudiced, and prideful people around!
If you claim to have the Spirit of God living inside of you, but that “spirit” leads you to look down on other people, then you might not be filled with the Holy Spirit — instead, you might be filled with just a bunch of hot air! If you go around lying, or complaining, or gossiping, or spreading falsehoods, or spewing forth racial epithets or spreading hatred or negativity or prejudice or nationalism or other narrow-minded ways of thinking, then you are more like a balloon filled with hot air than a balloon that is filled with helium.
Now don’t get me wrong. As followers of Christ we are not going to reach perfection on this side of eternity. But if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, then we should be more kind and loving, and caring, and compassionate and grace-filled people than we were before the Spirit of the Living God came upon us.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit should make us more like Jesus Christ, who taught us and showed us what it looks like to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43, 44). Having the Spirit of the Living God breathed upon us should lead us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who cared for the poor, and the sick, the hurting and the dying, the marginalized and the ostracized, the outcasts, and all who might be considered the “least of these.”
Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me!
Friends, we need a mighty movement of the Holy Spirit in our world today. We need the Holy Spirit to fall upon us just like on the day of Pentecost. We need a movement of the Spirit that breaks down dividing walls, that brings peace in the midst of chaos, that brings increased understanding across racial and ethnic and political divisions.
We need a movement of the Holy Spirit that brings an end to violence, and to the causes that create it, a movement of the Spirit that uproots injustice, breaks down the walls of division, restores peace to our streets, and that allows the marginalized and oppressed peoples of our world to be able to breathe freely. We need a mighty move of God that unifies the Church, and completely transforms and upends society.
It’s difficult to know where to start. It’s hard to know what to say in a time like this. But all I know is that a movement of the Holy Spirit like this is going to start with confession, and repentance, and opening up our lives up to God, allowing God to breathe the Holy Spirit into each and every one of us and to totally and completely transform us from the inside out.
Only when we experience a move of God like this will peace and justice come to our world. Only when we open ourselves up to the work of God in our lives can we be agents of change and transformation. Only when we experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives can we be people to truly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and through deed.
When we experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we may not look any different on the outside, but only then will we be ready to soar!