When my parents took me to a swimming pool as a child, I would play breathing games. I tried to blow out enough breath that I would sink. Then I would hold my breath under water as long as I could. I have not entirely outgrown this odd habit. I still sometimes try to sink. And I still sometimes see how long I can hold my breath.
After four decades of doing this, I can say that if you breathe out and just keep blowing, pretty quickly your chest tightens up and you feel pressure building in your head. You run out of breath. Then you have to breathe in.
Holding your breath is the same in reverse. Your chest tightens and, after a short time, you have to breathe out. The odd thing is that you feel relief as soon as you start to breathe out, even before you take the next breath. It is like holding that stale air is itself a problem even before oxygen deprivation really kicks in.
The point of this is incredibly simple: there is a rhythm to breathing. We have to breathe in, but we cannot just breathe in. We have to breathe out, but we cannot just breathe out.
The point is obvious. But hold it in your head as I read a passage from the gospel of John that we talked about at clergy conference this week. Jesus has appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. “And Jesus said to them . . . , ‘ . . . 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’” (20:21-22).
Two things are happening, and they go together. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them. And Jesus sends them out to do the work that he has been doing.
The disciples have breathed in the Holy Spirit. But they are not supposed to hold their breath, not indefinitely. They have to breathe out, to breathe the Holy Spirit into other people, into the people all around them who are hungering for God’s Word and God’s Holy Spirit.
And it keeps going. After breathing out for a while, they will have to breathe in again, they will have to return to Christ, the source of their life-giving breath, to receive another shot of God’s Spirit. And then they will have to breathe out once again.
That is the rhythm of the Christian life. Breathing in, and breathing out. Being fed, and feeding others. Receiving God’s grace, and spreading God’s grace.
Even Jesus had to experience that rhythm, as we see in our gospel reading for this morning.
We are still in the first few days of Jesus’ ministry, and it is off to a great start. On this particular day, Jesus begins by preaching in the synagogue to general astonishment.
Then, as our reading begins, Jesus goes to Peter’s house. Now when I go home after Church, what I want to do is take a nap. Jesus does not get a nap. “All who were sick or possessed with demons” came to him. Mark tells us that “the whole city was gathered around the door.”
Jesus cured “many of them,” but not, apparently, all of them. My guess is, Jesus wore out. Jesus had given and given and given. Jesus had breathed out the Spirit and kept breathing out the Spirit.
After a while, even Jesus needed to breathe in. Even Jesus needed time to reconnect with his heavenly father. So the next morning, Jesus got up as early as he could, while it was still “very dark,” and went to a deserted place to pray, a place where he could breathe in God’s Spirit
Unsurprisingly, Jesus does not get much time. While Jesus was praying, Mark tells us that Jesus disciples hunted for him. “Hunt” is a striking word! When the disciples find him, they tell Jesus, “everyone is searching for you.”
The demands of life, of relationships, of ministry intrude. Jesus has to get back to work. But not until Jesus has had a little time simply to rest in the presence of God, to absorb God’s Spirit and God’s peace and God’s love and God’s power.
The people of Capernaum experience the same rhythm in reverse.
Everyone wants a piece of Jesus. Jesus has been breathing on them. The people of Capernaum have received from Jesus the Spirit of God. Truly the kingdom of God has come near them (1:15). And they want more.
But just as Jesus, having served all day, needed a change, so did they. They, having been served all day, now need to serve in turn. Jesus needed time to breathe in. They needed opportunity to breathe out.
So Jesus leads his disciples to neighboring towns where he can continue his ministry. The people of Capernaum are left to look after themselves.
The key to this passage is its picture of the rhythm of the Christian life. Jesus does ministry—breathing out. Then Jesus retires to a deserted place to pray—breathing in. Recharged, Jesus returns to ministry, again breathing out the Spirit of God.
The people of Capernaum breathe in Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ power, the Spirit of God. And then they need to minister to each other, to those Jesus had not yet healed, to a hurting world.
And, of course, the same is true for us. We come together for prayer and sacrament. We are fed. We breathe in the Spirit of God.
And then, at the end of the service, we go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit and committed to doing the work that God gives us to do. After working for a week, we come back together for another infusion of God’s Spirit, another shot of the breath of life.
Our baptismal covenant reflects this rhythm. After working through the creed, the first question is, “will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?” That is all about breathing in the Spirit of God.
And the last question is, “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” That is all about going out into the world to share the gifts that God has given us, to breathe out the Spirit of God that Christ has breathed into us in worship.
That rhythm, from nurtured in prayer, to serving the world, and back to prayer, is essential for all of us. But where we are in that rhythm depends on where we are in life. God gives us different gifts and God calls us to do different things at the different seasons of our lives.
As we move inexorably towards Lent, I encourage you all to reflect on how you are experiencing the rhythm of the Christian life right now. Do you need more time for prayer, for worship, for rest in the presence of God? Or do you need to get to work? Is God calling you to increase your service in the world? Is it time for you to breathe in or out a little more?
As a community of faith, we need to create opportunities for both breathing in and breathing out, for being fed and for feeding, for resting in the presence of God and for sharing the presence of God. And as the people of God, we need to live into that rhythm.
May God give us the grace and guidance to do so. Amen.