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Thursday, 7 April 2016

Breathe on me, breath of God

Here is my sermon from today's lunchtime Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

“Breathe on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew, That I may live as thou dost live And do what thou woulds’t do.” This prayer is based on the Gospel story that we have heard today of Jesus breathing on the disciples and the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit (John 20. 19 - 23). The hymn writer takes the picture language of the Holy Spirit being like the breath of God and extends it to all of us so that we pray, “breathe on me, breath of God.” What is it about breathing that is such a good metaphor for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? In beginning to answer that question, think consciously about your own breathing for a moment. Focus, for a moment, on the regularity of your breathing in and out.

When we breathe in we draw into our bodies the oxygen that we need for life itself. This is a picture of our taking in and being filled with what we need for life. In the same way the Holy Spirit is the life of God in our lives and comes to fill us with that life. What the Holy Spirit brings to us are all the characteristics and gifts of God. Paul lists the characteristics of God in Galatians - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. He also lists a whole series of different gifts that the Holy Spirit awakens in us; some are natural gifts and some, supernatural. But Paul says that the Spirit gives each of us at least one gift and therefore the Holy Spirit comes to give us the character and creativity of God. It is this - the character and creativity of God - that we draw into our lives in the same way as we draw the oxygen of life into our bodies when we breathe.

We breathe continually. There is no let-up in our breathing, at least not until we die. We can live a long time without food, a couple of days without drinking, but life without breath is measured in minutes. So in the same way that we constantly breath, we are to continually draw in the Holy Spirit into our lives. Sometimes Christians speak about being filled with the Holy Spirit as though it is a one-off experience - “have you been filled with the Holy Spirit?” others might ask us. By which they usually mean have you received one of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. But being filled with the Spirit is not intended to be a one-off experience. The letter to Ephesians encourages us to go on being filled with the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit first comes into our lives as we first give ourselves to him and then we need to continually receive the Spirit on a moment-by-moment basis. For me, this constant receiving seems closely linked to prayer. The letter to Ephesians also says, that we should pray at all times as the Spirit leads. God is looking for us to be in constant communication or conversation with him through the Holy Spirit so that we can see him and receive from him wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

As the presence and thoughts of God - the Holy Spirit - are continually breathed into our lives through this constant conversation so we continually see and begin to put into practice the characteristics and creativity of God in our way of life, our lifestyles. The prayer of the hymn writer was: “Breathe on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew, that I may live as thou dost live and do what thou woulds’t do.” This is also why Jesus can say to the disciples as they receive the Holy Spirit that they can forgive or not forgive sins. When we know and practice God’s characteristics and creativity then we are able to make the kind of decisions that God makes. This is possible because we have started to think and act like God.

However, it is important that we don’t stop there. Breathing is not solely about taking in. We breathe in in order to then breathe out. The pattern of our breathing is taking in and giving out, taking in and giving out, and so it should be in relation to the Holy Spirit. The characteristics and creativity of God cannot only be expressed inwardly. Love, joy, peace etc. cannot be seen unless they are shared. Paul continually emphasises that the gifts of the Spirit are not for our own or the Church’s benefit instead “the Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all.” Just as we cannot live if we do not breathe out as well as in, so we will not come alive as Christians unless we give out as well as take in.

There are then to be two constants in our lives. A constant conversation with God in which we draw into our lives his Holy Spirit - his presence, his thoughts, his characteristics and his creativity. This is to be coupled with a constant giving out of his characteristics and his creativity for the good of others so that the Holy Spirit is available for others to draw into their lives too.

Finally, breathing is something so fundamental to life that we do it all the time without thinking about it at all. In the same way, the Holy Spirit comes in order to bring us to the point where living the life of God because you natural to us that we do it intuitively, without having to think about it. We start by consciously living the life of God in order that that life begins to become natural to us. When this occurs then we will genuinely pray with our lives the hymn writer’s prayer: “Breathe on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew, That I may live as thou dost live And do what thou woulds’t do.”


Breathe on me, breath of God.

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