Breath of Life

First Sunday in Creation Cycle,   September 13, 2015

Psalm 104

Over the next several weeks we will be observing the Season of  Creation.  This is an initiative that has gained in popularity in several churches, in Australia, in the United Church of Canada.  The idea is to set aside a few weeks in the year to reflect particularly upon Creation as one of the foundations of Christian faith, especially because this is an aspect that has been somewhat neglected in our tradition.

Within our lifetimes we have been forced by the environmental crisis to become more aware of the natural world, and our place in it.  This awareness is not something that our Christian faith has been particularly effective at cultivating in us.  Indeed many would say that Christianity has been part of the problem.  After all, the modern industrial world arose in the Christian West, and many of its attitudes and assumptions are rooted in traditional Christianity. We have imagined God as so totally otherworldly that we have lost a sense of the holiness of the natural world; and so it has become for us just something to be used and exploited for our own needs.  At the same time we have lost the sense that we are also part of the natural world.  We have thought of ourselves as immortal souls, as though we were only trapped by chance in our bodies and in this world, and were only waiting to be released and taken away to heaven.  These are heresies as old as Christianity, and they have always been with us, and they have coloured our relationship to creation, and sometimes caused us to forget our Old Testament heritage.  Today, as we come to realize that our industrial civilization has declared war on the natural world, and that this war will eventually kill us – today we are called to reexamine what our faith has to say about the created order.  What we have discovered is actually a treasure trove, a rich tradition that we had neglected and sometimes even forgotten.

We begin this Sunday by reflecting on the theme of Spirit, of wind, of breath.  Because these three are the same in the languages of the Bible: ruah is the Hebrew word.  What we separate, what we think of as three very different things, are really one and the same in the Biblical way of thinking.  So for example when we read, at the very beginning of the Bible, that the ruah of God moved over the face of the waters: does it mean a wind from God, or does it mean the breath of God, or does it mean the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit?  Well, the point is, it is not one or the other, it is all three together.  Or when we read in Psalm 104, as we just did:

         when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created

“breath” and “spirit” are the same word, and we could just as easily read them the other way around . . .

The point is, the ancient Hebrews did not think of God’s Spirit up there somewhere, and the breath of life as some purely mechanical process that goes on down here.  They are the same thing in the Old Testament understanding, the Spirit is God’s presence in the midst of creation, breathing life into the dust – or, in somewhat more modern language, awakening the chemical compounds that make us up to life.  That means that each breath we take is a sacrament of God’s life-giving presence in creation.  In the Old Testament understanding, all life is sacred, because it contains this sacred breath of life, a sacrament of God’s goodness and generosity.

And what about us?  What does it mean to be human, what is the essence of our humanity?  Here again, the answer lies with a Hebrew word.  I have given you one Hebrew word this morning, ruah, Spirit or breath – now I’m afraid there will be a second one.  The word is nephesh, the word most often used in the  Old Testament  to describe the essence of a human life.  In the second creation story, for example, we read that:

God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living nephesh.

The word is most often translated in our Bibles as “soul”.  It is the core of who we are, our soul.  But again, something gets lost in translation. Because the way we tend to think of our soul comes from quite a different place than the  Old Testament.  It comes from Greek philosophy, where the soul is immortal and immaterial, it comes from some immortal realm, from heaven perhaps; it doesn’t really belong here trapped in our bodies, but is waiting to be called home.  The Hebrew word nephesh, on the other hand, has very different connotations.  Its most basic meaning is throat, or gullet.  It refers to that part of us that receives food, and drink; and that part of us that receives each breath.  If the principle of life is ruah, God’s breath or spirit, then who we are is fundamentally nephesh, the part of us that gasps for that breath.  Nephesh names us as living beings, rooted in this world; and it names us as needy creatures, dependent on God for our daily bread, and for each breath we take.   Just picture a bunch of baby birds in a nest, with their jaws wide open: that is what it means to be a nephesh; that is what it means to be human.  We are one creature beside all the others; the crown of creation, yes, called to a special relationship with God, but still one needy creature beside the others:

    when you take away our breath, we die
and return to the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, we are created

Now we probably don’t find this a particularly comfortable point of view, at least at first glance.  We don’t like to think of ourselves as needy, dependent beings.  Indeed, a good deal of the energy of our society goes into convincing ourselves that we are strong, independent beings, that we have got it all together, that we don’t really need anyone.  It is nonsense, of course.  It is nonsense in our daily lives, where even the most independent of us is carried by all kinds of networks of care and support; and it is certainly nonsense in light of our true identity.  We could not last a minute without the miracle of life burning within us, a miracle we cannot control. We are always just one breath away from death.  And that breath is a gift of God given to us a few thousand times a day: the gift of life given anew each moment.

We certainly don’t like to think of what that implies: that we are not only needy and dependent beings, but that we are mortal beings.  Sure, we all know that we are going to die.  We know it in theory, at least, even if in our heart of hearts we may think like one writer, who wrote: “I know that everyone will die; but I always assumed that an exception would be made in my case.”  We know that we will die; but then there is that doctrine of the immortal soul that holds out one last little shred of denial: my body will die, but my real core is immortal, and will rise up to be with God.  Well, the Old Testament would tend to suggest gently that this is not the case. For the Old Testament, we are mortal beings, through and through. Out of dust we have been created, and to dust we shall return. Now that does not mean that the promise of redemption to life eternal is not true.  It just means that there is nothing automatic about it. There is no immortal part of us that will survive by its own power.  For our life beyond the grave, as for this life, we are completely dependent on God’s grace and goodness. That life will come as God’s gift, according to God’s faithful promises.  There is nothing for us to do, nothing to hold onto, except trust in God’s faithfulness and love.  That is enough.

And this is where I think the hard Old Testament truths about the human condition are actually good news. They put our hope on a firm foundation: not on the idea that our real self is elsewhere, which leaves us unrooted and dissatisfied in our lives; not in the delusion that we might be reincarnated, and come back as someone completely different for one more ride on the merry-go-round; not on any other dodge that attempts to put us in control. Rather, our only hope rests on one thing alone: that we are loved.  That God who created us, loves us. It is that love and that love alone that bears the promise of life beyond the grave.

And when we realize that, we realise that it is this same love that sustains us in this life. We are not self-made men and women; we are not simply drifting through life as something to be taken for granted.  With every breath we take, we are sustained by the Spirit or breath of life that runs through all creation, that rejoices and delights in creation.  Like a nestling, we are fed each day by that tender and joyous mother bird, the Spirit of God. If we can only learn to see that, if we can only remember not to take our life for granted, but to know ourselves as dependent, needy, loved creatures; if we can only see ourselves as part of the infinitely complex web of life that is woven by the Spirit of God for the joy of it: then our response can only be thanksgiving, can only be joyous praise and celebration of the source of all life.