When I was a child summer was often a time when I would get to spend time at the lake. And in the water as much as possible. To this day I still very much love water and being in it. As a child I marvelled at the heroic feats of strength and endurance that the adults around me could accomplish in the water and I worked hard to emulate their success. My grandfather taught me how to dive off the dock into the water. My father taught me how to hold my breath under the water. My grandmother taught me how to keep my head above water and to stay in one place. And my mother was the one who introduced me to the water in the first place. Both my grandfather and my father could hold their breath underwater for what I believed was a very long time. Some of the male adults would sometimes dive into the water and swim all the way to the neighbour’s dock under the water. I was amazed by this incredible talent. I wanted nothing more than to be able to do the same.
So over a number of years, my brother and I would practice holding our breath under water, swimming at length underwater, diving as deep as we possibly could from the dock, and all sorts of trials that only children can think up when creating their own endurance trials. And, at the end of every summer we would challenge the adult of the year to a race. Who could go the farthest underwater in one breath? I can tell you honestly that the children never won.
At some point, however, I got better at holding my breath for longer periods of time. Inevitably, the childrens’ endurance games grew more complicated. On one particular day, I decided to dive off the dock, as deeply as I could, twist my body and spin to swim under the dock and come up on the other side. An interesting trick that was complicated because you had to dive so deeply. My grandparents dock was built on logs for floatation and chained to other logs that were chained to wooden piles – but these were BC forest logs, huge. And like icebergs, the majority of their girth was underwater. They were also covered in mossy algae that I found to be quite slimy, so I always wanted to be as far away from them as possible.
Determined, I took a deep breath of air, dove as deeply as I could – ears tinged with a popping sensation, turned underwater and proceeded to swim under the dock. I marvelled at the quiet, how everything seems so different underwater, how our sight still manages to work underwater. Very soon, however, I realized that my body wanted air. At about the halfway point I was fighting an urge to ascend to the surface. There was no space between the logs to come up – one had to go the whole distance for safety reasons. I thought that I could go back, but it was about the same distance either way. In hindsight, it was a deeply theological place for me to be. Immersed in water and desperate for the breath of life.
“In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)
I love that passage. I especially love to hear it in the Hebrew language because there is something about that ‘wind from God’ that captures my attention in the Hebrew text. The Ruach Elohim – the wind/breath/spirit of God.
The Ancient Hebrew language has many names for God, because there was one name, the true name that was not spoken. In English it is pronounced Yahweh. There is a deeply held belief about the name of God, the breath of God, and the breath within in us. Our lives are held in tight relationship with God, not only because God breathed life into the first human beings, but also because the very name of God is the act of breathing and we are centred and dependent on that very act. Every breath, or ruach speaks the words and life of God to us.
The Gospel according to John says this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
In that beginning, the Ruach Elohim, the breath of God, swept over the face of the waters and drew up and spoke the words: ‘Let there be light,’ and that thing came into being and was life and was light.
The word of God became flesh. The very breath of God that moved over the waters in the beginning, at Creation, that stirred in the winds, is the one and same as Jesus. That word of God became flesh. And lived and moved and breathed among us. Pure life.
And in today’s gospel reading that pure life says these words: “51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Like the Jewish people who struggle to understand what Jesus is saying we can get hung up on the interpretation of eating the flesh of another human being and the disgust that arrives along with that image. However, Jesus is offering something that goes beyond the physical flesh. Something much more complicated, yet essential to everyone around the world. Something that we actively engage with: we consume the flesh and blood of Christ. It’s a borderline offensive statement – that we confess whenever we participate in communion.
Jesus says, ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me.” Pure life.
What happens when we eat and drink food? It gets broken down and becomes a part of us. It nourishes us and sustains us in the activities that we participate in. Life happens.
Jesus says, ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me.” We consume Jesus and he becomes a part of us. He nourishes us and sustains us. Gives us strength and is a part of us.
Jesus, the flesh that is the Word of God.
The Word of God that is the breath of God.
The breath of God that moves over the waters.
The Ruach Elohim.
Life, according to the Gospel of John is tied to God. What you need to live is provided in abundance from God, into and through eternity. That future is something we cannot do for ourselves. Our lives are held in tight relationship with God, not only because God breathed life into the first human beings, but also because the very name of God is the act of breathing and we are centred and dependent on that very act. Every breath, or ruach, speaks the words and life of God to us. Jesus is the living bread. Pure life.
I’m sure you’re all still wondering about that child immersed in water and desperate for life-giving air.
Back under the dock, in the deep, my lungs were desperate for oxygen. My swimming became more frantic as my lungs began to sear with pain and feel as though they were trying to escape for themselves. My head was throbbing as I climbed upwards through the water willing myself to break through the surface. When I was still just below that elusive surface I felt as though I wasn’t going to make it. That despite my efforts and struggles, the distance was just too great. But the eyes sometimes play tricks under water.
As the sadness and disappointment crept into my mind, my forehead broke the surface and soon my whole head. As my face emerged from the water I gulped the air around me and breathed deeply of its offering. Pure life. Before the realization of what I did and the pride could take over, I was simply grateful. Grateful for a body that could breathe again. Grateful for a body that could work when my breath was held. Grateful for life. The Ruach Elohim. Pure life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
This week’s image is borrowed and adapted from photographer and blogger
Ming Nomchong’s article
Being Down, Looking Up.