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Breathe! – Kevin Hackett

Eastertide Preaching Series: A World Turned Upside Down

This evening marks the beginning of our Eastertide sermon series, A World Turned Upside Down.  Each week, a brother will reflect on a theme drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, which can rightly be described as Luke’s “sequel” to the Gospel which bears his name. The title for the series derives from a phrase that he uses in the Acts 17.3, in which the community of believers was rightly accused of turning the known world upside down with their preaching and their new way of living and being.

We use it for this series in that same sense but also as a double-entendre, in frank recognition of the current state of a world undergoing massive shifts in religious consciousness and belief; in political and cultural identities; in understandings of poverty, disease and hunger—and their causes; in environmental damage and change; and of course, most recently in economic collapse.  The world as we know it has been overturned, and its our conviction that our collective experience of resurrection will have something to do with setting it right again (which is not the same thing as returning to what it was).

It has long been the tradition of the church to read the Acts during the 50 days following Easter because the life and mission of those first disciples of Jesus only made sense when it was interpreted through their experience of the resurrection, which was the definitive event that constituted them as a community of believers (not the experience of Pentecost, as is sometimes erroneously claimed).  To further focus our reflection, we will also employ a practice drawn from the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers, who were often asked by those who sought their counsel to “give them a word.”  Today, that word is breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.

I have a confession, however:  the word “breathe” does not actually appear anywhere in the Acts of the Apostles, though it is there, as we shall see, implicitly. It does show up in the Gospel according to John, but even there, only once, in the passage we’ve just heard, in which John has Jesus giving the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on Easter Day.  You may recall that when Jesus first appeared to his disciples, they are huddled together in fear in the upper room, and John tells us that “he breathed on them” and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

That’s a very different account of the giving of the Spirit from the one in Acts of the Apostles, in which fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples are gathered together in one place, and in a flash, they are welded together, holding all things in common for the singular white-hot purpose of mission. Luke gives us a story of miracles, church growth, church unity, and spiritual pyrotechnics, beginning on the day of Pentecost itself, with Peter’s public display of excess enthusiasm in a wild rush of wind and words.  In that one event, the church adds to its number thousands of new believers in a single day, and in a miracle even greater than that, they are all of one accord (believe it or not…).  Luke seems intent on showing a community of faith that easily overcomes any obstacle that it encounters, from without or from within.  Luke gives us a community of faith on the cutting edge of everything.

Which is a wonderful story, and it’s all true, but it sounds very unlike what most of us experience as church today.  Fortunately, we also have in the New Testament, many of St. Paul’s letters to those first communities.  Bearing in mind that when we read what Paul wrote, we are in a very real sense, reading someone else’s mail, we get a slightly different picture of what life together in the early Christian community looked like, complete with disagreements over how authority in the church should be structured and exercised, who was qualified to exercise such leadership, and an often strident engagement with cultural differences within particular communities.  All of which sounds a whole lot more like the church we know and love today.

But we’ve not heard from Paul today, we’ve heard from John, but he makes a good companion for Luke, because together they show us how diverse are the ways the Spirit.  The same Spirit which Jesus breathed onto his frightened disciples that Easter evening is the same Spirit that the Lord God breathed into the first man in Genesis, and the same Spirit who breezed through the upper room in Jerusalem is the same Spirit that hovered over the chaotic waters of creation.  There is one Spirit and every creature in which there is the breath of life, including each one of us, lives because of that Spirit.

So breathe.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.

It is interesting to me that word conspire (which contains the word spirit), simply means “to breathe together.”  Which means that we have just launched a conspiracy that might just turn the world upside down—again—and which gives us an important clue to how it might have happened the first time.

If you have been listening to what scientists have been saying about the thin veil of air that surrounds the earth, you will know that there is no new air.  Only old.  It’s all been here since the beginning, and it’s all been recycled.  What we are breathing and using is all there ever was or ever will be.  We are breathing the same air that was once in the lungs of dinosaurs.  We are breathing the air that the ancient Israelites breathed on the night they fled Egypt.  We are breathing the same air that Jesus expired as he gave up his dying breath.  We are breathing the same air that Paul used as he surveyed the view from Mars Hill.  The next breath you take contains may well contain air that was once in the lungs of the person you love more than anyone else on the planet—or from the lungs of your worst enemy.  And perhaps it will go from you tonight into the lungs of the woman or man or child who one discovers a cure for HIV or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or cancer.  It’s all one.  It’s the same Spirit.

As a post-script to her new book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle notes that we are midst of a major shift in Christian faith and practice, a new age that could rightly be called the Age of Spirit, a time when church hierarchy and governance as we have known it will be unnecessary and all the peoples of the earth will unite in one common purpose and vision.  If such a thought frightens you, it needn’t, that’s the vision held up for us by the Revelation to John.

We need not be frightened because where the Spirit of God is, there is grace and goodness and light.  Breathe.  Where the Spirit of God is there is freedom and health and life.  Breathe.  Where the Spirit of God is there is mercy and truth and love.  Breathe.  How else could we account for the extraordinary way a group of quarrelsome, competitive disciples started living and breathing and having their being together?  How else could they have understood that every person was the concern of the whole, that there was a common good which held pride of place in their life together

I find this prospect quite hopeful, that we might begin to see the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit of God would be poured out on all flesh—not a few, not some, not an elite group, but all flesh—and that all of us would have something to hear from the other.  I find it hopeful that the Spirit of God would indeed renew the face an earth that is desperate sick and literally dying because of our lack of care and stewardship.  I find the prospect of daily life lived without fear or despair or resentment mightily appealing.

This is what the Acts of the Apostles is all about:  widening the vision of God’s presence and power in the world, widening the vision of just who were God’s people, and widening and deepening our own hearts, so that no one and no thing is left out.  No wonder it turned the world upside down!

I’ll grant you it’s all far easier said than done, but we can’t say that it’s impossible because it’s been done before, and most of us, if we look honestly at our own lives can find evidence of that the same Spirit has been present to us and in us in ways that are occasionally remarkable but more often, simply ordinary.

If you find yourself today in a place of fear, fearing the future, fearing for your family, for your security, fear of any kind, Jesus says, “fear not.”  Jesus offers us peace that passes all understanding.

If you find yourself prone to despair for the sorry state of the church and the world, prone to hopelessness in the face of overwhelming challenges, don’t despair.  Jesus offers us hope in his resurrection.  If you find your own life and heart divided and plagued by petty hatreds jealousies and desires for revenge, don’t be discouraged.  Jesus offers us his heart of love.  To receive what Jesus offers, you might find it helpful to adopt a simple practice of breath prayer.  Jesus says, receive, which means we have a choice.  He offers a gift.  It’s ours for the having, ours for receiving, and all we have to do is breathe.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.

Breath in peace.  Breathe out fear.

Breath in peace.  Breathe out fear.

Breath in peace.  Breathe out fear.

Breathe in hope.  Breathe out despair.

Breathe in hope.  Breathe out despair.

Breathe in hope.  Breathe out despair.

Breathe in love.  Breathe out revenge.

Breathe in love.  Breathe out revenge.

Breathe in love.  Breathe out revenge.

Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.

Questions for reflection

In you own life, where are you experiencing a lack of clarity, a sense of disruption, the pain of loss?
How might the Spirit be leading you to a place of larger life and freedom and joy?

© 2009

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11 thoughts on “Breathe! – Kevin Hackett

  1. Dear Brother Kevin,

    Thank you for your sermon.

    I, also, wrote about Phyllis Trickle (and my experience attending the first-ever Emerging Church event, here, in Albuquerque on my blog:

    Peace to you and everyone at SSJE.

  2. Dearest Br Kevin, I am a probationer of the Fellowship of Saint John. I am currently teaching Christian Yoga in Los Angeles and I am in my third unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I am teaching next week at the Clergy Conference! These words are exactly what I needed to hear. So inspiring and beautifully articulated. As is the way – SSJE fills my sails. You Brothers mean more to me than I can ever say. Thank you so much. Lovingly, Greta

  3. Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for words of mystery and promise in the midst of our culture’s creaking. Who knew we were breathing the breath of dinosaurs – or Christ- ?!* I will be glad when I can see you and your brothers face-to-face. I look forward to “conspiring” with you.

    peace in Christ,

  4. Blessed Brothers – To simply breathe is much, much harder than we think. For example, mindfully try to count each breath in and out from one to ten. I can honestly say I never make it to ten. My mind drifts infinitely around and around. Do I still practice? Yes, the key is practice. Getting it wrong more often than right is most acceptable, even expected. In this, I take refuge in Grace!

  5. Thank you so much for the wonderful message of hope! Many of us are praying for the Spirit to renew the hearts of all, strengthening faith, and see one another through the eyes of Christ – so that we may be one people, as Christ prayed.

    I found your message particularly helpful on a day in which I have heard of yet more separations within the Church. The words soothed and inspired. God bless you!

  6. Asante/thank you, Br. Kevin, for your words of hope and love in a time of confusion and fear. Asante/thank you, SSJE, for your own witness as Community to people around a world-turned-upside-down. Asante/thank you, Mungu/God, for the blessings of Eastertide. Breathing gratefully (in and out…) with our brothers and sisters in Kenya, Dianne

  7. I really enjoy the first sermon of this series. The questions that followed the sermon made me think more in depth of where the spirit is leading on my journey. This sermon brought me back to my first question when I started my journey, “Where is the spirit leading me?” I am looking forward reading each week sermons from this series.

  8. At the time of my father’s sudden death and again during my mother’s longer process of dying, I grew to resent the statement: “Kari, I don’t know how you keep going.” Usually, I would respond (with as much sarcasm as I could muster), “What? Like I have a choice here?” At some point, my response evolved to: “Well, here’s how you do it: Step one, breathe in. Step two, breathe out. Then repeat.”

    Listening to your sermon brought tears as I remembered those excruciating times and as you brought a new interpretation to my otherwise sarcastic and resentful answer to the question “How do you keep going?” I spoke more truth than I knew: “Step one, breathe in. Step two, breathe out. Then repeat.”

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