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When was the last time someone breathed on you?
When I was a kid I sometimes teased my little sister by blowing a quick puff of air on her hair: pffff.
I could get away with that with my sister. I might get away with it today with my wife or my daughter. I wouldn’t do it to just anybody.
Think of the intimacy of feeling another human’s breath. A baby’s breath, rising and falling as you hold it against your chest. A lover’s breath on your cheek.
We don’t usually breathe on one another unless we’re close. Close as family, as loved ones, as members of an inner circle. Our breath comes from inside us. It carries our moisture, our aroma, our germs. Now, of all times, we know both how intimate and how dangerous breath can be. We wear masks to protect one another from what we might carry in our breath.
But our breath is also our life. The coronavirus steals people’s breath, putting them on ventilators to breathe for them, or taking it away altogether. This weekend we mark the more than 100,000 people whose breath has been taken away by the coronavirus in this country and countless more around the world. This week, too, we saw the breath of a black man, George Floyd, taken from him as a white man sat on his neck, choking out the same words as Eric Garner six years ago: “I can’t breathe.” Now this country has erupted in a wave of demonstrations like a kind of stifled scream of anger at the ongoing racism and injustice that clamps down on our whole society. As one columnist wrote, it feels in a way as if our whole society is gasping for air right now.
Today we hear about the followers of Jesus, huddled behind locked doors, three days after their friend and teacher had also been killed by the lawful authorities, gasping for air on the cross until he yielded up his Spirit and breathed his last. They’re stunned and off-balance, traumatized and grieving, yet confused by a bizarre hope from the morning’s stories from Mary Magdalene and Peter and John. And suddenly Jesus is in the room with them. And as he commissions them to share the good news, what does he do? He breathes on them. Awkward. Intimate. Dangerous.
They feel his breath on them, like the breath of a sibling or a lover: this incredible intimacy with Jesus, this intimacy with God. And he transmits something to them in that breath. It’s as if he’s giving them a holy infection. “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
We call it Holy Spirit in English, but we could just as well call it the Holy Breath. In Greek the word is the same. It’s pneuma, where our words pneumatic and pneumonia come from, and it can mean spirit, and breath, and also wind. Next week on Trinity Sunday we’ll read the creation story from Genesis which says that on the first day of creation “a wind from God moved over the waters,” or maybe “the Spirit of God moved over the waters,” and the fact that in English we have to choose between one word and the other means we miss the full richness of the meaning. Back in Lent we heard the great story of the dry bones from the book of Ezekiel, when God brings life to the dead by filling them with breath, or spirit, from the four winds of the earth. In our reading from Acts today we also had a wind, a mighty rushing wind that brought the Spirit. Today, the day of Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God.
The disciples get filled up with that Spirit. Once they were stifled and shut up in their grief and fear. But now they can breathe in a new way. And they start pouring out their breath in words of praise. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” the prophet Joel wrote. Slaves and free, women and men, old and young, and from every race and people and nation. This is God’s dream in action. A transformed world, a transformed universe, where war, greed, and inequality are changed into justice and abundance for everyone. As if to illustrate that vision, the Spirit takes their words and shapes them into every language on earth. This message is for every race and people, in all the diversity God made.
And they take to the streets to share that vision. It’s noisy and chaotic. Some people are drawn to them. Others think they’re troublemakers. Some think they’re drunk. But the Spirit can’t be stopped. The story goes on to say that three thousand people join their movement that day. The same Spirit breathes on them as they’re baptized. The spread rate of this holy infection is exponential.
Now this week we have seen once again, as we have seen many times before, just how deeply infected our society is with a different infection: the infection of racism. An infection that is the exact opposite of Pentecost which says that God prizes every person of every race and nation. And in response we are seeing people take to the streets. It is noisy and chaotic and sometimes frightening. There are those who are seeking to sow violence. There are many more who are seeking to make their voices heard and call this society to the values it claims to profess. But there is a rushing wind blowing, a wind of agitation and danger, a wind of exhaustion and exasperation, a wind of anger and yearning. I don’t know where this wind will lead us. But I know we need to listen for the Spirit in it.
Because we are the people of a movement that was born at that Pentecost two thousand years ago. In the vows of our baptism, which we’re about to renew, we are committed to resist evil; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to love our neighbor as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being. And in that baptism God filled us with the Spirit to go out and transform the world.
 Dahlia Lithwick, “America Gasps for Air,” Slate (May 30, 2020), https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/america-gasps-for-air.html.