Sunday, May 19, 2013

"We're not drunk."

The Spirit descends, like fire, the Church is born, and Peter - blessed Peter - stands up and gives the first sermon of the newborn Church. The Church’s first sermon. No training, no M.Div. degree, no pastoral care seminar in advance, and it starts like this: “We’re not drunk. It’s only nine in the morning.” A buddy of mine one time told me you could be reasonably sure you had a drinking problem if you were drinking before 11 o’clock in the morning. Noon, to be conservative. Unless you were in an airport, he said. Or watching soccer. Or, best of all, watching soccer in an airport - then, all bets were off. “Hey! We’re not drunk,” Peter says. A modest beginning to the Church’s first sermon. And yet, three-thousand hearers became believers with these words. Depressing for the rest of us. Evidently, the people just needed an assurance that the preacher wasn’t sauced. But why would they think that he was? 

As a kid, I use to assume it was because of the languages. A whole mess of incomprehensible speech, thrown out all at once. If we were to speak in different languages tonight over dinner, with one another, an outsider might rightly suggest we were drunk. And yet, the whole point of the Pentecost event is the opposite of the insinuation that the languages got in the way; Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. The miracle is precisely that their speech was made comprehensible. For this reason, one theologian suggests that the Church’s imagination for the charism of speaking in tongues should include teachers, because each heard in her own language, and understood. The Spirit makes things plain, accessible. The Spirit points to Christ in simplicity and truth. Each one heard, in her own language.

Why, then, did the people think the disciples were drunk? I wonder if it wasn’t a function of the Gospel itself:

Each in her own language, hearing the witness - the strange, Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The upside down story in which the poor our blessed, the meek inherit, and the slaughtered Lamb is the reigning King. You have to admit, the story has some tipsy to it. We take the language for granted, maybe. The people heard the disciples speaking about God’s deeds of power - power that didn’t look much like power they knew - and they didn’t hesitate to say that these words had the vibe of a mostly incoherent drunken rant.

You understand. Love your enemies is less something you hear from the socially mobile, promising, and adept-at-advancing-in-the-ways-of-the-world entrepreneur and more on the lips of the melancholy cowboy slouched beneath the jukebox, broken with regret, an evening’s worth of whiskey on his breath. The contention that death has been defeated and is no longer to be feared; the proclamation that forgiveness, mercy, and the peace of the Lamb have dawned, have become the watchwords of the in-breaking Kingdom; well, good luck selling these in the malls of the Empire. 

These men are filled with new wine.

Notice: that the Gospel seems foolish is not our objection tonight through post-modern lenses from the pinnacle of our present, enlightened perspectives, but on the Church’s very first day. From the Church’s beginning. These men are drunk.

There is this tendency, from our side of post-Enlightenment Christianity, to applaud ourselves for seeing the outlandishness of stories that the ancients, in the credulity of their day, simply (we assume) accepted without question. That is, we take for granted that the Gospel made sense in its original context and only seems strange later, with the benefit of post-Darwinian scientific knowledge. But it is not so. Day one, the hearers called “BS,” said this is a profession that finds no basis, no application, no relevance in a world in which rulers rule, the sword metes out judgment, the dead are not raised, and in which kingdoms worth following do not find their kings up on crosses.

Over against the doubt of every age, their own and ours, Peter stands up in the crowd and preaches this sermon, “We’re not drunk.” That is, “We know what we preach. We are not unaware that this proclamation renders the lives of those who preach it unintelligible, nonsensical, unless Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”

The story of this moment and this sermon is remembered in the physical appearance of our bishops. Our bishops wear purple shirts, rings with purple stones, and other purple things. The color is a particular shade of purple derived from the amethyst stone. Amethyst, from the Greek, meaning “not drunk.” Not drunk being a witness to the Church’s self-understanding: we may look goofy, sure, but it’s not what you think; the Spirit in our lives proclaiming Christ, and him crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.

On my bolder days, I wish people would look at me and say, “If he’s not drunk, what is he?”

[Quick aside: the not-drunk/amethyst tradition gives Christians something other than old-fashioned moralism to consider in our relationship with alcohol. It’s a theological issue. At stake is the credibility of the Church’s mission and witness, especially when living the life of Christ leaves us, in the eyes of the world, looking foolish. If we are drunk, we lose the opportunity to account for our upside-down lives by proclaiming Christ crucified.]

The Spirit proclaims Christ and, with Christ, the upside-down Kingdom. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and whoever loses his life will keep it.” 

Finally, Peter tells his listeners that the same Spirit who proclaims this upside-down kingdom will be poured out on daughters and sons, women and men, young and old, slave and free, and they shall prophesy.

I wonder if you know that you are the daughters and sons on whom God has poured out God’s Spirit. I wonder what visions and dreams God will give you with which to challenge the old world to whom the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control of the Spirit have come.

I wonder what it means for Becca to graduate and begin her work at St. Mary’s with this Spirit upon her. I wonder what it means for Terri and Zach, working this summer back home, to have this Spirit upon them; I wonder for each of us, here, what it means that we move with this Spirit; that you carry this Spirit; that the Holy Spirit of the living God carries you.



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