“I Can’t Breathe – A Pentecost Reflection”

By Patrick Jackson

Do you have any idea how many times in a day that you breathe? According to one account, the average person takes 23,040 breaths a day.

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor drew upon this daily life rhythm to portray the power of breath at Pentecost. “We breathe air that circulated in the rain forests of Kenya and in the air that turned yellow with sulfur over Mexico City. We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo . . . Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last.” And then she imagined the last breath of Christ, which was unleashed around the earth, and filled that upper room on Pentecost.

The breath of God, this Holy Spirit, has been loosed over the world ever since the first moments of creation when a “wind . . . swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1) and then “the Lord God formed man . . . and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). And so it is, and ever has been, that the breath of God is the source of life – the source of our individual lives, and the lifeblood of the church which we re-christened on Pentecost. And yet as we celebrate the inhaling and exhaling power of the Holy Spirit, we are haunted by those desperate, gasping words from George Floyd as he lay pinned on the concrete: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Words spoken until George Floyd could speak no more.

Perhaps it’s a measure of God’s grace that shortly after George Floyd’s life was wrung from his lungs that congregations the world over gathered (virtually) to mark Pentecost. After the month we have had as a nation, we needed to be reminded that the church was not just born by the breath power of the Holy Spirit; the church was also unified by the power of the Holy Spirit. “All of them, the apostles, were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4). It didn’t have to unfold that way.

The Spirit could have given all who gathered that day in Jerusalem, assembled from all the nations, the ability to hear and understand the single language that the apostles spoke. But no. The miracle of Pentecost was that the Apostles spoke the Good News in the native languages of all those assembled. It was a dramatic demonstration of how the church was forged out of such a rich multitude. It was a unity born out of diversity, not uniformity.

The Apostle Paul conveys this unity in diversity to the fractious community in Corinth through his brilliant metaphor of the church as a human body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members . . . though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). The power of Paul’s imagery of the body, with each member offering their unique gifts enabled by the Spirit, is that it makes clear that this diversity is essential. The diversity found in the body is not simply decorative; it is functional and integral to the church. The body of Christ cannot exist in its fullness unless everyone is honored, needed, loved.

Inhale. Exhale.
Inhale the life-giving Spirit.
Exhale the toxins of bias and racism.
Inhale the blessing of God’s intentionally diverse creation.
Exhale apathy and inaction in the face of injustice and suffering.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Patrick Jackson is Co-Executive Director on Interwoven Congregations and Parish Associate at Bethesda Presbyterian Church.

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