Day of Pentecost, Year C
5 June 2022
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
My maternal grandfather spent WW I in India, interned by the British. When I was a young boy he would tell me of the days when he was sailing the seas and about his time in India he always said that those years were the best years of his life.
When WW II began he was 55. He was working for the local brewery in my hometown. He was trained as an engineer and at the brewery he fulfilled the function of a millwright.
I am told that at some point he joined the Nazi party as he was afraid that he’d be among the many young boys and old men drafted near the end of the war. But I think that he needn’t have been afraid. The misery of the war was great and keeping the beer flowing would have been a priority. He was indispensable.
When I was growing up, he and my grandma lived in the same house as us, which was when I got to sit on his lap and he told me stories of his younger years. I also remember that one of his retirement benefits was the monthly delivery of a case of beer (a German case is bigger than a Canadian case), sometimes delivered by a horse-drawn wagon.
That was the long way of telling you that I did not grow up in a family of pietists and that alcohol was not taboo in our family. It was always present but used sparingly.
My own experience with alcohol is probably not unlike that of many. As I grew older, gatherings and parties I attended included the presence of alcohol, and a couple of times I had too much to drink. It was not an experience I cared for as having had too much to drink meant that I was no longer in control. Yet being in control was important to me, not only because I did not want to make a fool of myself but also because my family home was unhappy and I was determined to deal with it as I was able, not pretend there was no problem.
It was the scoffers’ remark about the disciples being intoxicated and Peter’s rejection of that claim that made me think of my grandfather’s retirement benefit. I always discounted the claim of drunkenness as a curious detail of the Pentecost story and never gave it much thought, except perhaps to remember that drunkenness later in the day was a possibility for people who could harvest grapes but could not stop the process of fermentation.
But it’s not the alcohol I want to dwell on but my desire for control. Realizing that many things were beyond my control I wanted to be in control of at least the small things I could be in control of. Later in the New Testament control shows up as a virtue, namely self-control. The Apostle Paul speaks about it beautifully in his Letter to Titus where he speaks of the qualities of elders and bishops, “… a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:7-9)
And yet, when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the disciples, it is not about control. There is a reason that the scoffers accused the disciples of being filled with new wine. They were not acting in a way simple Galileans were expected to act. They were likely not even acting in a way they were expecting. They stood in a public square in the middle of a festival drawing attention. Certainly no Lutheran would have done that, or at least no Lutheran I know, for we are modest people and we have self-control.
But it turns out that Pentecost is not the festival of self-control. It is not the festival of a modest private religion that does not seek to bother anyone else. Rather, when the Holy Spirit comes over the disciples it is the day their conversion becomes complete, for they aren’t supposed to be in control of their lives, God is supposed to be in control.
Maybe that is why we have such a hard time with Pentecost. It’s not just that talk of the Holy Spirit seems elusive to us, but that we don’t like the idea of not being in control, for we are people who were raised not to stand out, not to create problems, and if we were to stand out, we are supposed to stand out as over-achievers, as people who stand out because we are so good at conforming that we are more conformist than anyone else.
But Pentecost is not about us being in control. It is about God making all things new, which means that God must be in control.
And if Pentecost is about God being in control than it is not surprising that there are people here from every nation, and that pretty soon the others, Gentiles, will be included in the church. It is no surprise that the church resists the empire because not Caesar but Jesus is Lord. It is no surprise that this opposition to Caesar becomes the mark of those we consider saints, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Daniel Berrigan, and thousands more who with Jesus stood against the powerful and stood with the lowly. The only conformity they sought was to conform their life to the life of Jesus.
Let me revisit the accusation of the disciples having been filled with new wine one last time. The thing that supposedly happens when you drink too much is that when you wake up you do not remember the things that happened while you were intoxicated.
Of course, there are many ways to be intoxicated, alcohol is not the only one. We can be intoxicated with our own accomplishments, or with our possessions, which I think is capitalism’s favourite way of keeping us from being faithful followers of Jesus. The more we have, the more we worry about what we have, and the less time there is for God’s kingdom. There are only so many hours in a day.
But the function of the Holy Spirit is not to make us forget, which is another reason why it cannot be that the disciples are filled with new wine. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to help us remember, by reminding us of everything that Jesus has taught. In this way, the Holy Spirit wants to keep us from conformity to the world so that the church may conform to the kingdom we pray to come.