Sometimes we need a breath of fresh air.
Have you ever felt like you were suffocating? Air is all around us, all the time, we take it for granted, until it’s suddenly not there or becomes stagnant. We can live for a considerable amount of time without food, to a lesser degree without water, but only minutes without air. Sometimes, air can become unbreathable, becoming “stuffy,” like in a room full of sweaty church folks where the preacher goes on too long and the AC is broken.
Many of us have experienced the feeling of big city smog, especially when we migrate from the crisp clean air of the countryside. We find that big city air hard and heavy, maybe even choking us. It’s refreshing to get away from the city smog and breathe in the fresh air of nature once in a while. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study demonstrating the ill effects that smog (a combination of industrial pollutants, vehicle emissions, open burning, incinerators, and so on) can have on our health. Symptoms may include: coughing, throat or chest irritation, worsening of asthma, difficulty breathing, and lung damage… to name just a few.
Air can be an indicator of the condition in a room. Are you a parent? Perhaps you’ve been in this situation with your own baby… you entered their room only to find something had gone horribly wrong. When this happens, we just must pinch our nose with one hand and do that thing we are called to do as parents. Maybe you have been in an elevator where something went horribly wrong- someone’s “gas leak,” so to speak. If you have, you know it was not very pleasant. Perhaps you were the guilty party? When the elevator doors slide open, you breathe deeply of that fresh air! In fact, the EPA has developed a helpful Air Quality Index (AQI), that ranges from “good” (green) to “hazardous” (maroon). However, we don’t need a colorful graph to let us know when air quality is in the hazardous range, we can just smell it in some cases. Sometimes we need a breath of fresh air.
Sometimes children are born into this world and unable to breathe for themselves and so they are placed in an incubator. The machine provides their little lungs with fresh air until they can breathe on their own. Sometimes people suffocate and need emergency CPR, so we must push on their chest and breathe deep breaths of fresh air into their lungs until they can breathe on their own. Sometimes people get put on life-support; a ventilator breathes for them until they can breathe for themselves. Air is essential to life at every stage. We must breathe it in and breathe it out to survive. Sometimes we need a breath of fresh air.
Sometimes the air in our emotions can get stagnant, when we are paralyzed by fear and resentment. Sometimes the air of our minds can become a festering steam bath of lust, greed, and idolatry. Sometimes the air in our souls can become polluted, choked with stench of selfishness and ego. Sometimes organizations can experience air pollution, when the stench of greed defies morality, and dollar signs are more important than people. Sometimes even churches need a breath of fresh air, when the people trapped inside the walls are suffocating on the stench of their own hypocrisy, mediocrity, and fear. Yes, sometimes even the disciples needed a breath of fresh air.
God is the God of new life, always breathing on us fresh air
Creation begins with a breath of fresh air. The Spirit playfully sweeps over the swirling waters of chaotic nothingness and breathes forth elegance, beauty, and life (Gen 1:2). Later, God gets down in the newly-watered dust of creation and plays around in the mud. One of the first images we see of God is God at play. When God plays in the sandbox of God’s imagination, we get a universe. When God makes mud-pies, we get human beings. God gets dirt beneath the fingernails to form us. But then God breathes into us the breath of life (Gen. 2:6-7), and everything changes. God “breathes” נָפַח (naphach) into us the “breath” נְשָׁמָה (nĕshamah) of life חַי (chay) and human beings become נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh). We become embodied-God-breath-carriers. We become a living being, a reflection, male and female, of the very image of God. Made from the mud-stuff of earth, the breath of heaven now flows through our lungs.
That is until we get a belly ache from tasting the fruit of sin and start hyperventilating. Sin is like smog. So, we hide in the bushes, suffocating ourselves from the presence of God. The grand story of the Bible is God finding ways to breathe new life into us, even when we keep running out of breath, as we keep running away.
This is what Pentecost is all about. God giving us a “breath of fresh air.” I love when the “wind and flame” of the Wild One of the Trinity shows up breathing heavy billows of grace at Jerusalem in Acts 2. But I like John’s “Pentecost” story better.
Can you imagine the headlines in Jerusalem? “Another rabble rouser crucified!” “Obscure Nazarene who claimed to be God put to death, disciples scatter like roaches!” The disciples now find themselves in this terrifying situation. They took a gamble, they left it all behind, careers, fishing nets, families, and hometowns, to follow this one named Jesus and now it was all over… it ended on a Roman cross.
But three days later, earlier on that morning, a crazy report from a woman who mistook God for the gardener, then a footrace to the empty tomb. Yep, it’s empty… they came to believe something was happening, but didn’t necessarily grasp the reality of the resurrection, because they went back to their little room… in fear.
Here they are, trembling, holed up in a little room, terrified that they would face the same fate as their leader. Can you blame them? Wouldn’t you be scared, too? The whole place stunk to high heaven with the scent of terror. The stench of a bunch of grown men and women cowering in fear. I wonder what the Air Quality Index was in that room? Can you smell the anxiety of their stinky bodies, huddled together, trembling? Can you see them, running to the barred windows peeking out, checking the lock on the door? The air in that room was poisoned with terror- this is “hazardous” code maroon on the AQI all day. Then Jesus just entered into the room, and what an awesome entrance it was. He just materialized right there in their presence!
The room was full of chaos, but Jesus spoke “peace.” And when he spoke, with the familiar voice that they knew so well, the fear in the air began to dissipate. Have you ever heard the voice of Jesus bring peace?
Jesus turned the scent of death into the fragrance of joy. Then he says, “just as I am sent, I’m sending you.” You see, if it all ended in that little room, if all the time he invested in them and loved them, stopped there in that place, it would all be for nothing. He was counting on them; he was sent, and so now they are sent…'Just as I am sent, I’m sending you.' If it all ended in that room, if all the time he invested in them & loved them, stopped there, it would all be for nothing. He was counting on them; he was sent, & so now they are sent. Click To Tweet
Then he breathes on them and says receive now the Holy Spirit. God “breathes” ἐμφυσάω (emphysaō) a breath of fresh air into them (Jn 20:22). Just as God breathed into the mud to make us alive, God is breathing afresh on the mess of our failures to make us live again.
Notice how all three persons of the Trinity are present. All the Christology and Pneumatology of John’s Gospel is fulfilled. It’s the resurrection, Pentecost, and Great Commission all wrapped up in one moment!
Sometimes we need a breath of fresh air
Jesus puts them on divine life support. Like a baby in an incubator he begins to breathe for them. It was the sweet breath of Jesus, his very essence, his very power, breathed into their nostrils, that fulfilled his words “I won’t leave you alone, I’ll send my comforter, the Holy Spirit” and here it is (Jn 20: 19-23).
It was that breath that revived them, ignited them, equipped them, and sent them. They in turn, filled with the Holy Spirit, breathed that new life into others. The breath of fresh air is the turning point, an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they went forth and brought the Gospel to the entire world. Something about the breath… something changed with the breath. Sometimes we need a breath of fresh air.
The breath is disruptive to their suffocation. Jesus turns the scent of death into the fragrance of joy, with a breath.
Something about a breath of fresh air can change everything.
The church is sent, with a breath of fresh air
Literally, we carry the molecules of Jesus’ sweet breath in our lungs.
In fact, we are breathing out and breathing in the breath of our ancestors all the time. Our breath, theologically, and literally, entangles us with the entire caste of human beings who swapped breath in earth’s atmosphere—the great cloud of “withnesses.”
So, the myth of Caesar’s Last Breath—that we will inhale the same molecules that Julius Caesar exhaled—is potentially true. This theory states that Caesar’s final breath, gasped forth during his assassination, would have contained about a liter of air made up of about 25 thousand million million million molecules. Further, a liter of air represents 0.000000000000000000001% of all the air on Earth. Sam Kean, in Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of the Air Around Us  argues that roughly one particle of the last air that was breathed out by Caesar more than 2,000 years ago will appear in your next breath. Kean writes,
“Across all that distance of time and space, a few of the molecules that danced inside his lungs are dancing inside yours right now.”
My mentor Leonard Sweet often says, “the world steals our best lines.” Meaning, non-Christians take the church’s best truths and use them better than we do. I’m intrigued that I may carry in my lungs the molecules of Julius Caesar. But I’m awestruck when I think of how the very molecules of Jesus’ breath are stirring in my lungs. It is those very molecules that provide the church with her power.
Jesus disrupts the suffocation of decline by awakening us to our sentness.
If there is one fitting image for the church today, it’s here in John 20. How many congregations are stuck between the walls of their facilities, choking on fear and incertitude? What rational person has not, at times, wondered if Christianity in the US has ended, train-wrecked on a lonely cross? Most of our congregations look like this bunch of people holed up between the walls of our church facilities, paralyzed by our own fears, terrified of that same world that killed Jesus. Like folks crammed into a stinky elevator, aren’t we choking on the fumes our own fear and ineffectiveness? I know in my declining denomination, this has been the experience of the several churches I have served. We are stuck in that survival mentality, scared to death to venture outside the walls.
John Wesley said,
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
You know… maybe we have not done such a bad job with doctrine or even discipline, but I would ask where is the Spirit? The UMC symbol is a cross and a flame, where is the flame? Where is that supernatural, gaseous, breath power that transforms a bunch of losers holed up in a smelly little room to the disciples who will give their lives for the transfiguration of the world?
Throughout history, there are times when Jesus breathes his sending breath afresh on the church. There are times when we are called to move outside the walls of our familiar institutions. We are living in one of those times.Throughout history, there are times when Jesus breathes his sending breath afresh on the church. There are times when we are called to move outside the walls of our familiar institutions. We are living in one of those times. Click To Tweet
The church is in desperate need of a breath of fresh air today
Will God breathe on us afresh?
The answer is right before our very eyes, if we look for it. Every day is another Pentecost. Every day God breathes afresh on the cosmos and makes it new. Every day Jesus breathes on our lives and says “peace, be still” and “just as the Father has sent me, now I send you.” The risen Jesus promised to never leave us nor forsake us. We need to take time every day, to breathe deeply of the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit.
The Risen Lord has breathed the Spirit into us. Just as the disciples carried that breath into the world, so we carry that breath into the relationships where we live our every-day lives. Fresh expressions of church are springing up from the ground throughout our communities, where people work and play. Once again, we can join the God who makes mud-pie humans in playing forth new worlds. We can walk with God daily and breathe freely again. This is the good news of Pentecost.
You are God’s breath of fresh air
Will you go into the terror-filled spaces of a scarcity culture and speak “peace be with you”? Will you go and carry that breath that will kindle the flame of God’s love in the hearts of those who live in your neighborhoods and relational networks? Will you be the breath of fresh air that brings revival to your denominations and ministry networks?
There’s something funny about breath: you can’t hold in forever. If you try, it will kill you. You’ve got to breathe out. It’s a rhythm of inhale and exhale. You must give it away to keep it.
Fresh expressions are giving local congregations CPR. They allow us to exhale the breath of mission again. We can get outside the walls of our church facilities where we are hunkered down, paralyzed by the fear of a significantly changed world, and where we are waiting for Jesus to return, rather than joining him in the sentness now. They are awakening a new Pentecost, to go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, breathing the breath of Christ in the earth.
 Kean, Sam. Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of the Air Around Us. London: Doubleday, 2017.
 McKie, Robin. “Caesar’s Last Breath: The Epic Story of the Air Around Us – Review.” The Guardian. July, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/16/caesars-last-breath-sam-kean-review-decoding-the-secrets-of-the-air-around-us
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.