Biblical life begins with a breath: that is, all creation begins with the Spirit moving over the face of the waters, like a wind from God. The first verse of the first chapter of Genesis tells the story, of how the breath of God stirs up the primordial water and starts the clock ticking with the first day of creation. God breathes the same breath into the first human being a little bit later, getting the lungs going and the heart beating, as the story goes.
All life begins with God the Holy Spirit. As the Creed says, the Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life.” The creedal affirmation tracks back to the story of creation, but it doesn’t end there. To say that the Spirit is the life-giver doesn’t mean that God intervened once in order to get things going, and then walked away to observe from a distance. People sometimes refer to this as the “clockmaker” theory: God winds creation up and then lets the clock tick and run down on its own.
The Creed posits something else: God the Holy Spirit as the One who initializes the project and then continues to sustain it. There is no walking away. The story of creation is still being written by the Holy Spirit, the finger of God. The world is upheld, every minute of its course, by God’s mighty power. At this moment, the Spirit is breathing life into the human race and into all creation. Without the breath of God, the whole project fails.
Our first reading this morning, for the feast of Pentecost, shows God the Holy Spirit still at work. It’s the fiftieth day after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and he’s promised the disciples that they will be clothed “with power from on high” (Lk. 24:49). The disciples stay in Jerusalem, gathered for the Jewish festival, when suddenly they are overtaken by a wind from God. It’s the same wind that blew at creation, moving over the face of the waters, but now it’s blowing in downtown Jerusalem. In fact, the disciples themselves are being blown into every corner of creation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, taking the good news of Jesus’ resurrection with them on the way.
The wind from God in Genesis brought life, but the wind that blows at Pentecost brings new life. It’s the new life of resurrection that’s now in play. In our Gospel reading, the risen Lord breathes on the disciples and sends them out in mission, to proclaim the good news of the forgiveness of sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jo. 20:22). No matter the power of death, no matter the worst that life can throw at us: Jesus has shared the forgiveness of sins with us. Jesus breathes the breath of new life into the church, equipping the disciples (and equipping us) for the mission that lies ahead.
The Holy Spirit is at work in creation, sustaining life at every moment; but also at work in re-creation. As St. Paul writes in the second letter to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). The Church “is his new creation, by water and the Word,” as it says in the hymn. At Baptism, we invoke the Holy Spirit, asking God to move over the water as he did at the first creation. In the sacraments, God is stirring things up once again, and making a new world through grace, God’s power and presence in our lives.
So, what’s it like to be filled with the Holy Spirit? A rushing wind, as in the Pentecost story; tongues of flame, as we heard today. These are spectacular visual images, but they need to be unpacked. Two verses come to mind in the unpacking and understanding, both from the third chapter of the Gospel of John.
The wind “blows where it chooses” (Jo. 3:8), Jesus says in that chapter, first indicating that the Spirit cannot be managed or restricted. In other words, God is going to do what God wants with us in our lives. The wind that stirred up the waters isn’t going to be contained. We won’t be able to harness it for our own purposes. We won’t be able to trim our sails on the mighty power of God, but instead will have to run the course wherever the wind from God is driving us. The wind “blows where it chooses” (Jo. 3:8), and not where we choose.
Second, God “gives the Spirit without measure” (Jo. 3:34), as the Gospel writer John also says in that third chapter. Once again, we are not able to calculate or quantify the power of God. Most of us put a significant discount on God’s power in our lives: we think we know what God can do (and can’t do) and we adjust our lives accordingly. But God “gives the Spirit without measure” (Jo. 3:34), which means we can’t figure it out or even make it add up. To be open to that power is itself a gift from God, one that will unlock the new creation and move us forward as disciples. All this comes from the power of the Holy Spirit, who makes us and remakes us through Jesus Christ our Lord.