Growing in Spirit #2

May 22, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
May 22, 2016

“Growing in Spirit – 2”
John 20:19-23

The night that I found out my sister had died in a car wreck, with two of her friends, Eric and I jumped in the car and headed to Hutchinson. On the way, I began to hyperventilate. Thankfully, Eric was driving. I could not catch my breath. My heart rate accelerated and my hands and feet began to tingle from the loss of air. The air was literally sucked out of me. Just breathing became my only focus. It was all I could do at that moment. Perhaps you have had a similar experience when all the life in you felt as if it had been sucked out.

Last week, we talked about the breath of God’s Spirit in our lives. This is breath as life itself… breath that gives life and continues life and gives strength in times of heartache. The presence of God is symbolized by breath and the wind.

Our traditional word for today is a story of when the disciples were going through a traumatic time. Their leader and teacher had been crucified. They were uncertain if their own lives were in danger. They didn’t know what to do next. But Jesus appeared to them… and he breathed on them.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:19-23

He breathed on them. This is Biblical shorthand for “he gave them the Spirit of God to comfort, heal, and empower them”. The breath of God has immediate life-giving power. Over and over in the Bible there are stories of God’s breath bringing with it a refreshing power, strength for living, and the presence of God’s own self. Can you feel it? Can you hear it? God’s own breath is giving us life abundant! Take a moment to listen to the wind and reflect on God’s presence in your own life.

Play audio of wind.

During the 1st Pentecost, the story tells of people speaking in all different languages, and that those from that part of the world understood the various languages. Today, we hear some people claim that they can “speak in tongues”. Congregationalists aren’t very big on this notion… okay, it would be more accurate to say that we simply think it is a bunch of hot air!

So what does Pentecost mean to us? We can’t speak Coptic, or Greek or Hebrew. We aren’t well versed in languages of other times and places. But, I would suggest that all of you have the language of the heart. You have the voice the world needs. You know the universal language of love. And the language of hope. And the language of beauty. And the language of joy. The story of Pentecost reminds us that God’s breath gives us this universal language and, for the love of God, we must share it!

As I was developing this sermon, I googled “what is the universal language?” This is what I found:
• A warm smile is the universal language of kindness. William Arthur Ward
• Math is a universal language; numbers belong to everyone. Daniel Tammet
• Feelings or emotions are the universal language and are to be honored. They are the authentic expression of who you are at your deepest place. Judith Wright
• Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else. William Hazlitt
• Football fans share a universal language that cuts across many cultures and many personality types. A serious football fan is never alone. Hunter S. Thompson
• I think cinema has this beautiful component. It’s a universal language. Paolo Sorrentino
• Music is that universal language which unifies the spirits of mankind. Paul Horn
• Painting is the only universal language. All nature is creation’s picture book. William Morris Hunt
• I discovered how science is truly a universal language, one that forges new connections among individuals and opens the mind to ideas that go far beyond the classroom. Ahmed Zewail
• Coffee is a universal language in itself. Jackie Chan

They all have a point. All of these have a special and significant way to impact people around the world. But I had a different idea. What if the universal language incorporates all of these, but is even greater?

When the air gets sucked out of your lungs, try this: inhale slowly and deeply and as you do think “be still and know”. As you exhale, breathe slowly and steady, and as you do think “that I am God”. As you breathe in, take in the peace of God. As you breathe out, exhale the stress and heartache. And then breathe in again the love of God.

I have often wondered why Jesus repeatedly said to the disciples: “Peace be with you”. When they were angry, he said it… “peace be with you.” When they were afraid, he said it… “peace be with you.” When they were alone, he said it… “peace be with you.” He repeated it as if it were sacred text. Peace. And then, the text says he breathed into them.

What is this universal language we each possess? When we breathe in God and we exhale peace, we know the language that transcends our differences. Call it the breath of the Spirit, or the love of God, or the universal language of humanity. What does it mean for us? How can we breathe in a way that what we say and do are part of the Spirit’s work? How can we live in a way that speaks to our belief that love always wins?

Today, we have a world full of politicians, diplomats and scholars who can speak more languages than the people on Pentecost Sunday could ever dream of, and yet we still cannot achieve world peace or a true world community.

This, of course, we know from the old Genesis story of Babel: In our arrogance and desire to be like God, we end up building walls around ourselves rather than bridges to heaven.

Ever since, we have babbled narcissistically at each other in our own languages of self-justification and marginalization, using carefully constructed languages of blame and self-justification (“It’s his fault he’s poor; he made such stupid decisions!”; “Well, it isn’t my fault – I had no choice!”).

This only widens the chasm between us and the other. Yet somehow, on Pentecost, those walls are broken down. Why? It wasn’t the languages themselves; it was that they were speaking a universal type of language. This is the language the world needs today. It isn’t necessarily a language made up of words. It is a language that crosses our barriers and shows in our actions.

Hans Urs von Balthasar says that Jesus’ miracles were a kind of sign language for those who could not understand his teaching – a kind of “visual aid” explaining the love he was preaching about – and St. Francis de Sales literally developed his own system of sign language so he could teach a deaf man about God. This is the lesson of Pentecost. The universal language is love; it is God’s first language.

One of the strongest evidences of character and personal impact is the relationship one has with others. Maybe the recognition that we are not always right is the best process of growth and can equip us to listen to others whose opinions or convictions we may not like. Agreement and surrender are not mandatory but compassion, respect and openness must be. These are signs of a universal language.

All of you have the ability to speak this universal language. It is not the English language or the Spanish or French language. It may include music and art; or science and math. But it is greater than these. It is the language of God’s Spirit – the language of God’s breath in you. You all have this language of the heart. It is the language of gratitude, acceptance, joy, compassion, and love. You have the voice the world needs to hear. For the love of God, share it.

Resources Used: Universal language quotes.

Fawcett, Brett. “Love is the Universal Language of Pentecost”. Western Catholic Reporter. May 16, 2016.

Sandberg, Sheryl. “It’s the hard days that determine who you are”. May 16, 2016.