Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31; Psalm 8; Matthew 28.16-20
In the name of God, Creating, Redeeming and Transforming. Amen.
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Those are words that might possibly come to define these months that we are living through. I can’t breathe. First Covid19, attacking people’s ability to breathe. And seeming to target the vulnerable – the elderly, particularly those in care homes; those with underlying health conditions; those in black, asian and minority ethnic communities. And the death toll in those communities particularly stark amongst those who have responded most selflessly to the pandemic – those essential workers we have begun to appreciate with new eyes: carers, transport workers, those in the NHS. Covid19 has attacked that most fragile, basic and necessary aspect of being human – our breathing. And in the wider lockdown that all of us have experienced – for how many of us has that been an increasingly suffocating experience, as we have felt choked by the need to stay indoors, not able to physically meet with family and friends; unable to escape situations of abuse, or trapped by the suffocating anxiety of an uncertain future, of financial pressures and worries. I can’t breathe.
And, of course, this last week, those words have resonated across America and beyond. The dying words of a man being suffocated to his death; the police whose job it is to protect and save lives, now becoming, as all too frequently before, the administrants of death to a black man. I can’t breathe. Is it any wonder that those words have been picked up and shouted at demonstrations across America, succintly expressing both the particular brutality experienced by George Floyd, but also the wider sense of frustration and rage at a system, a political order, a society, which suffocates the life from black communities and people? I can’t breathe.
Breath is the most basic, and taken for granted, aspect of being human. To live is to breathe, and to breathe is to live. For that reason religions have always brought our breathing to mind, to consciousness: whether that is in basic breathing techniques for meditation and prayer, or as a sign of the life given to us by God – the breath breathed into the dust of the earth to create life; or as an analogy for the divine life within us – the Spirit and breath of God. To live is to breathe; to live in faith is to recognise that breath as a sign of the living Spirit within us and all life. ‘I can’t breathe’ expresses a radical challenge to that which is most sacred and most basic. We are suffocating, and we need the breath of God to blow through us like never before.
Words from our Old Testament reading this morning:
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
In a world seemingly suffocating and fainting, what has faith to offer; how might we bring breath to mind and sense?
Our breath connects our spirit to God’s Spirit – it is neither solely one, or the other; our breath is an analogy of our participation in the divine. We breathe because God breathes in us. And it is that participation in the action and life of the divine that the Trinity tries to name and shape. On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate and deepen our trust in God who is creative power, saving love, transforming freedom. The mystery that is God is named by the Trinity as beyond, with, and within us; as above all, through all and in all; the Trinity points to a God from whom, by whom and in whom all things exist, struggle toward freedom and in that freedom find their true home and end.
The Trinity is therefore a dynamic image – an image of a personal God, but not of three persons sat around in some sort of heavenly conference. It is a dynamic image because it speaks of God in terms of movement and relationship, continually reaching out and receiving back. Giving life to all things. To attend to breath is to attend to that gift of life within us, and within every living creature; it is to attend to the mystery that we exist and to trust in that which has given us life, to trust our creator.
But God does not simply create the world and sit back to admire the handiwork, but in the Word, the Logos, through whom all things are created, God enters creation, becomes involved, and is encountered here. At the heart of creation lies the mystery of a man so open to the claims and possibilities of love, so fully alive to the breath of God within him, that that engagement of God in love shines out. The human Jesus of Nazareth confronts the dominating power of evil and death. The relationship of love between Creator and Word is, in that confrontation, stretched to breaking point, as Christ journeys into the horror of the power that, on the cross, snuffs out the breath of life. But from that horror, new life is offered. The Risen Christ breathes new life into broken disciples, giving them the faith to live no longer in the fear of death and the power of domination, but to trust in the power of the saving love of God. And we too breathe in that faith, the faith to protest against a world that suffocates, and create a world where all might breathe.
Faith witnesses to that Spirit within us – transforming our broken lives, our unjust structures and desire to dominate; transforming us in and for God, a transformation achieved by the gift in love of freedom. We are not coerced, dominated by an all powerful God into transformation – rather in the Spirit, in the gift of breath and life, we are gifted our true selves, the promise and possibility of true humanity. We and all creation are invited through the Spirit to participate in the divine communal life of the Trinity. In prophetic action, in the searching after justice and peace, in generous lives of love, in the glory of what humans and our whole earth and cosmos are capable of, the mystery of the Spirit is revealed and creation is turned toward its maker.
Jesus said to them, ” Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Breathe. It all starts with breath – attending to our own and that of all creation, to the breath of God. Attending, nurturing and not destroying breath, to the ends of the earth. That is why we will fight the pandemic with all the reources we have available – so that all may breathe. Why we must use this moment of fracture to reset and re-imagine – so that all may breathe. Why black lives matter – for the Spirit gives life that all may breathe. We are not made for suffocation, but for breathing, breathing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.
Questions to consider:
How does/might the discipline of attending to your breathing play a role in your own spirituality and practise?
How does the Trinity help you think of/speak about/pray to God?
One of the things that the Trinity does is help us focus on what God does (create/redeem/transform) and on the relationships between the persons of the Trinity (God the Father begets the Son; the Son is inspired by the Spirit; the Father breathes the Spirit into all creation; the Son intercedes to the Father for all creation etc). What changes in how we think of /speak about/pray to God, when we imagine God as a verb, rather than a noun – a (transcendent/immanent) agent, rather than a thing?
What does it mean to say that our vocation (as human beings, and as part of all creation) is to participate in the life of God?