I would like everyone to breathe in gently and then hold your breath for about 10 seconds. Then breath out.
That was not an exercise in mindfulness, although it could have turned into one, but conspiracy and inspiration.
A conspiracy is literally a breathing together, which has come to have sinister overtones. The act of breathing in is how we begin our lives, and continue them. Inspiration has come to mean to be energised to do great things or to do something new; but, basically, it just means to breathe in, something we all do without even thinking about it – including Queens and refugee Peruvian Bears.
Today, Pentecost, is a celebration of breathing, of being fully alive, of being part of a community which has breathed in the same air and of recognising that we can be inspired – with the helpful, for me anyway, re-assurance that inspiration doesn’t always have to be enthusiasm on steroids.
In our reading from the book of Acts we heard the dramatic story of the Holy Spirit descending like fire on the beleaguered and confused disciples at the great Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost, giving them a fresh confidence in the new understanding of faith which was just dawning on them. But that is not the definitive expression of the Holy Spirit we find in the Bible. Always behind the concept of Holy Spirit is the word for breath. In the opening of Genesis, it is the breath or Spirit of God that moves over the waters as creation is manifested. Life in the Hebrew Scriptures is everything that breathes. Elsewhere than in Genesis it is the force that inspires prophets, like Isaiah, and leaders, like King David. And for the prophet Ezekiel it was used specifically in the context of what we would now call profound religious or mystical experience. He found himself in heaven – in God’s presence – with the Holy Spirit as his guide. In St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia it is the spirit/breath which guides the believer into the ways of love, generosity, patience and faith and so on.
But this morning I want to home in on St John’s Gospel and explore two ideas which I have found helpful and which lead back to where I started, with us literally conspiring together and being inspired together.
In St John’s Gospel just now we heard an example of Jesus getting exasperated with a disciple. In this case it is Philip’s turn. Just to recall the situation: this is yet another scene that St John sets at the Last Supper, where Jesus washes the disciples feet, underlines the primacy of the commandment to love, and tells them that he is the way, the truth and the life and much else. St John’s message is that to see Jesus, to meet Jesus, and to be in his presence is to meet God and see what he is like.
In the middle of all this, Philip blurts out:
‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’
Jesus’ reply could be rendered:
What do you think I’ve been doing?
But there is more to be said than this.
Someone suggested to me recently that one of the big mistakes we can make about the Holy Spirit is thinking that it is an extra – the grand finale of Christian revelation, if you like!
In this passage one truth being expressed is that God in his entirety is to be found in the life and being of Jesus himself. He is not keeping anything back. It is almost as if Philip is expecting Jesus to unmask himself like the villain in the old Scooby-Doo cartoons, or empty out his pockets to show he has held nothing back.
Another insight being shared in this Gospel reading is about us as Christian believers. It is how we breathe in Christ that matters. Not what we believe about him, but the trust we put in him and the inspiration we find in him. Our love for him shapes our attitude to life, and our loving of the world and other people comes out of his life in us. That odd phraseology about Christ abiding in us and us abiding in Christ is like holding the same vision and sharing the same breath – conspiring together.
I have realized that this might seem like a maze of words. Trying to pick apart St John has this effect, because he piles images and ideas one on top of another, rather than putting forward an argument.
It’s like this, and this and maybe this.
And then at last we come across mention of the Holy Spirit and find where St John describes it – or her; in Hebrew and Greek the breath or spirit is always feminine – in terms not found anywhere else in the Bible: as an advocate. Sometimes the word he uses is translated as ‘counsellor’. It is undoubtedly a term borrowed from the law courts. God on our side, by our side, at the most important moments, as close as our own breath. Reminding us that, like all people, we have a precious and sacred life, God breathed.
When we pray together, sing together, worship together, we are part of a good conspiracy, inspired by the God who showed us who he is and shared our life through his Son Jesus Christ.