Drunk and disorderly – in New Jersey a person who is charged with disorderly conduct can end up with a fine of one thousand dollars, and up to six months in jail, or at least be charged with a misdemeanor resulting in sentence of thirty days and a fine of five hundred dollars. That’s how much we value the peace of our communities and the good behavior of our citizens.
And even though wine was very much a part of daily life in ancient Israel, and had a role in the Sabbath meal and prayers, public drunkenness was very much frowned upon. And yet that is the way some by-standers understood what was happening on the day of Pentecost – those followers of Jesus were drunk and disorderly, filled with new wine! And in some measure, that charge was not so far off-base.
The disciples were gathered together for prayer and worship on a public and religious holiday: Pentecost – which in the Jewish calendar is both the spring wheat harvest and the celebration of Moses’ receiving the Torah, the Ten Commandments. It was an important time – a day for as many people as possible to gather for worship in the Temple in Jerusalem; crowds had come from so many parts of the Jewish diaspora, all with their own languages and dialects. And in the morning the disciples were gathered together for prayer in someone’s house – with the windows open; and while they were praying there was an overwhelming experience of wind, and fire, a rushing and blowing sound, tongues of fire appearing above each person’s head. And we all know what the combination of fire and blowing wind brings on: an uncontrollable situation.
Add to this the disciples spontaneously proclaiming the mighty things that God had done; they were speaking in languages they did not know, but the words were being given to them, and they were loud enough to draw a crowd out in the street, where the people who had come to Jerusalem from so many diverse places heard them, and heard God being praised and proclaimed in their very own languages. No wonder they were thought to be drunk and disorderly!
And it was all because the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the disciples, just as Jesus had promised at his Ascension. It’s as if God was saying to those gathered: You think the resurrection was something mind-blowing? Well, take a look at this! If you were going to make a billboard poster or a Facebook meme out of it, you could have a picture of a dove, surrounded by flames with the words, “The Holy Spirit: disrupting worship and the world since Pentecost 33 AD.”
These are dangerous, disruptive images because the power that was poured out when the Holy Spirit was given was a power strong enough to change people’s lives, strong enough to shake up the status quo, strong enough to break through and overflow all institutional and hierarchical containers so that the power and the truth of God working in and through God’s people would be unleashed upon the world. That’s the whole point of Pentecost – the Spirit of God working in and through ordinary, everyday men and women, followers of Jesus, to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition here and now in our world and in our communities.
The Spirit does this by coming at us slant, sideways, like the wind which blows where it chooses and we can’t see it, but we can see its effects. And so the Holy Spirit is continually surprising us, catching us off-guard, empowering the most surprising people to be agents of change, proclamation, and hope. If we look back over the whole story of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, we will see this pattern over and over again: God choosing the least likely person to be God’s partner, messenger, agent of divine help, and salvation. God is always choosing the youngest, the second-born, the one with the poor track record or the stutter, the outcast to join hands with the Lord and move the story along. Even Moses, that great hero and leader, the one who received the Torah - Moses was on the run from the law after having killed a man, hiding out in the desert, tending his father-in-law’s sheep, saw the fiery bush but put up a fight in answering God’s call because he stuttered…it’s almost like a Johnny Cash song.
So in this new chapter of God’s relationship with his people and his creation, the Spirit was poured out on all the disciples – not just Peter, not just James and John, or even the rest of the Twelve. The power of the Spirit was given to all so that the gift of each person’s wisdom, experience, perspective, personality, and talents might be vehicles and agents for God to be at work in the world. That’s enlivening, and invigorating, but it’s also scary – from an institutional point-of-view – because the Spirit doesn’t usually follow chain-of-command or the proper channels; in the Christian life there is no straight line from point A to point B, or at least rarely. It’s much more like God the Spirit to push us, and nudge us, and sometimes blow us off-course to get us where God wants us to go.
Another thing to remember about the Spirit is that he is not given for the private good of any single individual, but for the good of the whole Body of Christ – which of course is the whole Church Universal, but is equally the Body of Christ as it is constituted here at All Saints’ as we live and move and have our being in this place and in the neighborhoods where we live and work. We need one another if we are to do the work God calls us to; we need each other’s wisdom, insight, discernment, understanding of Scripture, we need one another’s prayers, and we need each other to feast and play together, to work together, and to see the face of Christ in one another.
Pentecost was not just the kick-off of the Church that we remember yearly, but it is the fundamental power and pattern of God’s life with us here and now: the Spirit working in surprising, disrupting, and enlivening ways in and through and amongst every single person who proclaims Jesus as Lord – and frequently in those who don’t. A quote from Bette Davis in the movie “All About Eve” (slightly amended) says it well: Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride. Fire, wind, and water – the Spirit of God is here and continues to call us into God’s future; fasten your seatbelts. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
The Day of Pentecost
May 24, 2015