Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sermon: Drunk on the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
Drunk on the Spirit
James Sledge                                                                           June 4, 2017 – Pentecost

How many of you have ever seen someone speak in tongues? If so, I’m guessing it probably wasn’t at a Presbyterian church. I’ve only seen it once. I was visiting a service with a group of other seminary students. It was a huge service, with hundreds of worshipers, and it happened a good ways away from me. To my admittedly untrained eye, it looked like an odd combination of worship hand-waving and a seizure. I couldn’t hear it well, but what I could was unintelligible.
When the subject of speaking in tongues comes up in the New Testament, it usually speaks of something similar to what I saw. There’s even a technical name for it, glossolalia, from the Greek words for “tongue” and “speak.”
You could attend hundreds of Presbyterian churches and never see anyone speak in tongues or do anything labeled Pentecostal. For me, Pentecost has little to do with the glossolalia version of speaking in tongues. It’s about our reading from the book of Acts, where tongues instead refers to speaking in other languages.
This is a version of Pentecostal that a Presbyterian can handle. The Spirit gives the disciples abilities they hadn’t had before. I’m perfectly fine with being Pentecostal if it means the Spirit unearths some previously unknown talent. I’m happy with the idea of the Spirit empowering us to do things we didn’t know we were capable of. I could be that sort of Pentecostal. Thank you, Luke, or whoever writes the book of Acts, for giving us this tamer, more palatable version of speaking in tongues.
But there is something odd in the story. After telling us that people from all over could hear the disciples speaking in their native languages and that everyone was amazed, the story adds, But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Even Peter seems to accept that reasonable people might think the disciples are drunk. His defense is, “We may look drunk, but hey, it’s only nine in the morning.”

Living in the Washington, DC area, I regularly hear people speaking in other languages. Sometimes I recognize the language; other times I don’t. But in neither case am likely to think they are drunk. I have seen people speaking a foreign language who are drunk, but it isn’t the language they speak that tips me off to their condition.
I’ve long thought that Peter’s comment about it only being nine o’clock was pretty funny, but I’ve also wondered why this business about being drunk is in the story at all. It’s totally unnecessary. We could move directly from people being amazed that they were hearing in their native languages to Peter proclaiming that this was the work of the Spirit, evidence of the day foretold by the prophet Joel, and the story would still be the story familiar to many of us. So why this digression over whether or not the disciples are drunk?
I think I know. The book of  Acts focuses on Spirit enabling and empowering the Church to answer its call, to undertake its mission, and so it speaks of tongues from this perspective. But Acts will not let us conclude that the Spirit is only about giving us abilities. This story also reminds us that the Spirit in us will make us look strange, odd, weird, even drunk, to those who see us.
Just when Acts gives this staid Presbyterian a tame version of Pentecost that doesn’t ask me to wave my arms, flop around, or babel incoherently, it reminds me that having the Spirit also means losing control and acting in ways sure to get me noticed, even sneered at.
In just a few moments, we will ordain and install those God has called to be deacons and ruling elders in this congregation. They would not have been nominated and elected if they were not people with significant gifts, abilities, leadership skills. But to a great degree their “success” as elders and deacons will depend on something more than those gifts and abilities. It will depend on their being able to hear the voice of Jesus and follow where he leads. And that requires the Holy Spirit’s presence.
To those being ordained and installed today, I encourage you to open yourselves to the Spirit, to let her open you to the call of Jesus. I say the same to all of us here today, for our faithfulness as a congregation and as individual disciples is about our willingness and ability to hear Jesus calling us and following where he leads us.
 So drink deeply of the Spirit, of God’s abiding presence poured out for us. But remember, you cannot drink deeply without getting just a little drunk.

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