Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Breathe in, deeply. Breathe out, gently.

Isn’t that incredible? We pull air right out of the space around us, hold it within ourselves for just a few seconds, and release it again. In that moment, the same thing happens inside us that is happening in these candle flames: oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. Without doing that, over and over, none of the rest of this works. And yet, none of us could say just how many times it’s happened since, say, the beginning of worship today. In the last minute? I don’t know. Even though it’s the most fundamental thing, most of us go through the day without giving it a second thought. That just boggles my mind sometimes.

I notice when it doesn’t happen, of course. Even when it just seems to get out of balance, when I get anxious and I breathe in without remembering to breathe out again. I’ve never yet suffocated myself for lack of awareness, but sometimes it feels like I might. Sometimes it feels like the rest of life will smother me, either in breathtaking joy or crushing sorrow. Sometimes we feel like there’s nothing left to breathe into: when our relationships die, when our hopes dry out, when our prospects turn to dust before us. Then, what do the breaths feel like? Shallow, uneven, almost tiring in the very act of inhaling? It seems like we may as well not do it, if only we had that kind of control over our diaphragms.

Thank God we don’t have that kind of control. Thank God there’s something in us that keeps breathing, keeps that exchange of air going, keeps the wind moving in and out of our nose and mouth. We keep breathing, even if only by instinct, and eventually the air changes. Eventually we’re refreshed, renewed, restored. It can take far longer than we wish; the bones of our previous selves may have dried up under the heat; we may feel too far out in the wilderness ever to be found; but it happens. As long as we keep breathing, new life comes.

I think that’s what Pentecost is about. The story we sang in our first hymn about the disciples gathering to pray and feeling a Presence among them unlike any they had felt since Jesus left them. The story of the prophet Ezekiel, addressing the valley of dry bones like Lincoln at Gettysburg, calling forth the breath that would bring them back to life. The Spirit promised by Jesus on the last night of his mortal life, the Helper that would reveal truth to us even when it felt like our truth had been hung up and killed. Time and again, we’re called into the darkest, most dreadful parts of life, and there we receive the gift of God’s presence. We see how profoundly transformative it can be simply to keep breathing.

It’s never quite that easy, of course, at least right in the moment. Right in the moment, between breaths, we’re suffocating. Our oxygen level falls off the longer that air is in our lungs. We’re drowning in what can’t sustain us and desperate for what will. Breathing is easy in the long run, but so often it seems like the last thing we could manage to do. Hard as it is to stop breathing, it can be all too easy to hold our breaths.

Breath can’t be held. The Wind can’t be clung to. The Spirit is never quite at rest. We can hold our breath for a while, but eventually it goes away. That will happen on its own if we wait for it, and there will be gasping and panting in its wake. Or it can happen gently, quietly, with our consent and participation. There’s breathing and then there’s breathing.

And Jesus said to his friends, on the night before he was put to death: “It’s better this way, because the Helper can’t come to be with you until I’ve gone.” He was here, he was filled with the Spirit, and he was utterly beyond our wildest dreams. But if that’s where the Spirit had stopped, the rest of us would have been like that zombie army of reconstituted bones, perhaps excited enough to worship Jesus, but not truly alive. The better way was for Jesus to share his very life with us, to breathe his own Spirit into us. This is the Spirit that would turn us into new people, that would invite us to participate in Christ’s own life. Without it, we wouldn’t quite be alive; with it, we can start to come alive in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

So we breathe out. We breathe in. Then repeat. In the end, it truly is that easy. We give away what we had, what we were, what we held onto for a time, and we receive back something new and enlivening. May we have the courage to let it go, the openness to let it in, and the awareness to recognize the Spirit again, today and always.