Pentecost is coming. We’ll celebrate the presence of the Spirit of God on Sunday. Pneuma is the Greek word for Spirit. It also refers to breath or breathe. The breath of God passed over the waters as God brought creation into being. The Hebrew word for breath is ruach, which gets translated as pneuma. God gave breath to the human beings that were created from the dust of the earth.
As I write this, word has come that another Black man suffocated at the hands of a police officer, as the man lying on the ground in handcuffs called out to the officer that he could not breathe. He pleaded for his life. He called out for breath. He may have been involved in wrongdoing. He may not have cooperated with the officer before the recording began. But his breath was extinguished from him before being taken to jail, before having representation, before appearing before a judge. His breath was taken away. Surely, we would gasp, and surely God weeps yet again.
At Pentecost, 50 days after Passover and our celebration of Easter, the breath of God blew through the house where the disciples were gathered, and tongues like fire were over the heads of the disciples as they spoke in the native languages of people gathered from every part of the known world for this Jewish festival.
Pentecost was a big festival representing the first harvest of the year. It was a time to give thanks for the blessings God gave. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts about the disciples speaking the languages of all of the people gathered there. That distinguishes this occasion from glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, which requires someone to interpret the meaning of otherwise undiscernible speech. This is spoken so that people understood what was being said just like people would speak it back home, in the old country. It was spoken in all of the languages of the people present, and it was spoken even in the languages of some tribes that had been extinguished generations before.
This act of pneuma, the breath of God, the Spirit of God speaking through the disciples was a great equalizer. It showed God’s concern for all of the world, for everyone in the world, and even those who had already passed from the world, those who no longer breathed.
The breath of God is a symbol of diversity, of God’s concern for every person in whom God has breathed the breath of life. Pneuma, breath, spirit has a sacredness about it. It is the sacredness of life.
There are others who struggle for breath, for life, as they fight the challenge of this virus we face. To be concerned about breath, about breathing, about life, about offering protection to others, about protecting those closest to us, as well as those whom we do not know is not about criticism or social correctness. It is about saving what God has given to each of us, the sacredness of breath.
Breathe, O Spirit of God, breathe new life into us. Breathe in such a way that we will come to understand the sacredness and the value of every life. Breathe in such a way that we will alight with a fiery determination to protect one another, will find within ourselves the resources to care for the most vulnerable, and have us come to know that none of us are to breathe easily until we all may breathe freely. O Breath of Life, breathe into us the breath of justice, the Spirit of mercy, the presence of lovingkindness so that we dare not take the breath of another through our lack of physical distancing or precautions for safety, or because we have taken offense at another, or deep seated prejudices that lead to excessive action.
May we know a new day like the day Peter spoke on Pentecost, as he looked back to the prophet Joel, expecting God’s Spirit to breathe a new word into us that would have our sons and daughters see new visions of purpose, our old ones to dream new dreams of caring, and those who had been enslaved to speak such prophetic words that we would be brought to a new day of equality. Breathe, O Spirit of God, breathe this new life into us.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman. They have three sons. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.