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An Opportunity to Renew the Church

May 31, 2020
Dysert O’Dea monastery ruins—County Clare, Ireland.

When we were in Ireland on our honeymoon we saw countless ruins of castles, churches, and ancient monastic settlements. This particular picture is of what remains of the chapel which stands on the site of an even earlier eighth century monastery, Disert-Tola, the Quiet Place (literally “the desert”) of St Tola in County Clare, Ireland. When I think about Pentecost, it was the first time that the Good News was shared with a worldwide audience. It is even considered to be the birth of the Church. The church is dynamic and ever changing as the Spirit continues to equip and encourage the Church to share the Good News in new ways. The message doesn’t change; the means of sharing can change due to circumstances. Today as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 Pandemic, I believe the Church has an opportunity to listen to the Spirit’s guidance as we seek to be the Church today and into the future.

When I first began to contemplate Pentecost-2020 I thought I knew where I was going with my message. The Church in this new reality of being a community outside of the building has been a challenge for some and has been embraced by others. I quickly learned while deployed with the Air Force or out on Air Force War Exercises that the chapel wasn’t a building. Sometimes it was a tent and sometimes it was a hangar. There were times where worship was outdoors as well. These were lessons that I carried with me after hanging up the uniform in 2011. I’ll admit that I had no idea that nine years later these lessons would be coming back to me. I believe it has been a valuable thing for the church I currently serve to learn. It hasn’t been easy but the members and leaders continue to explore new ways of being a community of faith without walls.

Isn’t that what the Apostles discovered as they began to understand what it meant to be a movement of people who followed Christ? The group first began meeting in the upper room for prayer, worship, and fellowship. Within one-hundred years they would be meeting in catacombs. When Peter spoke that day faithful Jews had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of the first fruits (Shavuot) which occurred seven weeks after Passover. It also commemorated God giving the Torah to the nation. On this particular festival celebration another gift was given to this newly formed group of Christ-followers or Followers of the Way. Pentecost is a celebration of the beginnings of the church and the spreading of the Gospel around the known world.

Scholars also point out that there was a “pre-Pentecost” event where Spirit was given to the Disciples. This is found in our Gospel reading for today from John 20:19-23. In this first post-resurrection meeting, Jesus appeared and offered the peace of God to them. In verse 22 we read the following: When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The interesting thing about the Hebrew word for Spirit, Ruah, is that it literally means breath. Jesus breathed on the Disciples and gave them the gift of the Spirit. This gift came with responsibilities as we read in the next verse: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (vs 23)

During the COVID-19 Pandemic we have learned how the virus slowly chokes the individual until they can no longer breathe on their own. This also happens when a patient has Congestive Heart Failure and their lungs fill up with fluid, literally drowning them. Breathing is something that we often take for granted. In my early practice of Yoga my instructor focused on breathing. Living at high altitude I have witnessed many cases where a hiker or resident cannot breathe adequately and they have to return to a lower elevation. Something that we take for granted will stop us in our tracks. Breathe… Be Still… Be… without breath we cannot Be Still… we cannot Be.

Ruah is also how God breathed life into Adam at the creation of the world. Ruah is also the last thing which departs a person’s body when they die. I have heard that last breath as Denise and I have walked with parishioners through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. In 33 years of ministry I have had that sacred honor too many times.

What has struck me this past week about life-giving breath (Ruah) is how it was forcefully stopped when a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota crushed George Floyd’s ability to breathe. The same thing happened in 2014 to Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of another police officer. The last bit of breath was squeezed out of these two men of color by the inappropriate use of force at the hands of law enforcement.

Breath is a critical requirement for living. Ruah, the Holy Spirit, is a critical requirement for being a Christ-follower. In a prayer that he wrote on the Vigil of Pentecost in 1961, Thomas Merton wrote the following:

And now Father I beg You to teach me to be a man of peace and to help bring peace to the world. To study here truth and non-violence, and patience and the courage to suffer for truth. Send me Your Holy Spirit, and unite me with Your divine Son and make me one with You in Him, for Your great glory. Amen. (Turning Towards the World – The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Four 1960-1963)

That is my prayer for all of us who seek to be Christ-followers. With the life-giving presence of the Spirit (Ruah) may we have the courage to listen to the victims of systemic racism. May we have the courage to hear their rage along with the courage to keep our mouths shut. Then may we walk together and work for reconciliation and peace. That is my humble prayer.

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  2. Ruah, breath and Pentecost intermingled this year, as beginning last Tuesday we saw again and again the video of George Floyd’s last breath. The flames of Pentecost contrasted with fires destroying neighborhoods, community centers, libraries and minority businesses. We were reminded that Pentecost came after the state sanctioned violent death of Jesus. A memorial continues to grow, which has become sacred space, Holy space, a place of prayer.

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