Sermon for Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 20, 2018 8:30 AM
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηπόρουν, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες·τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
ἕτεροι δὲ διαχλευάζοντες ἔλεγον ὅτι γλεύκους ⸆ μεμεστωμένοι εἰσίν.
Σταθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος σὺν τοῖς ⸀ἕνδεκα ἐπῆρεν τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀπεφθέγξατο αὐτοῖς·ἄνδρες Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ οἱ κατοικοῦντες Ἰερουσαλὴμ πάντες, τοῦτο ὑμῖν γνωστὸν ἔστω καὶ ἐνωτίσασθε τὰ ῥήματά μου. οὐ γὰρ ὡς ὑμεῖς ὑπολαμβάνετε οὗτοι μεθύουσιν, ἔστιν γὰρ ὥρα τρίτη τῆς ἡμέρας,
Now all were amazed and were at a loss for words, saying to each other, “What does this mean?” Others, though, making fun [of them] were saying, “They’re drunk on grape juice!”
Then Peter stood up with the Twelve and raised his voice and spoke his mind to them, “Judeans and all you residents of Jerusalem, get this and pay attention to what I’m saying, Don’t think that these fellows are drunk, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning!” (Acts 2:12-15)
I’ve often puzzled over the teasing the apostles took at the hands of their detractors on that first Pentecost: “They’re full of new wine!” (Acts 2:13) Only that’s not exactly what the Bible says. What puzzles me is that the detractors jeer at the apostles for being full of γλεῦκος, “grape juice,” that sweet must of grapes whose alcohol content approaches zero until fermentation takes hold. Maybe the hecklers were teasing the apostles by saying that they didn’t know the difference between real wine and grape juice or had somehow gotten drunk off the mere idea of the strong drink that γλεῦκος might have become if left alone for the god Bacchus to do his intoxicating work on it.
But I do like Peter’s reply to his detractors, “These men aren’t as drunk as you think, for it’s only nine in the morning!” Check with us later this evening, guys. If we’re still speaking Phrygian and Cappadocian, Parthian and Pamphylian, then we really are plastered! Or something like that. But you have to cut those eavesdroppers outside the apostles’ secret hidey hole a break: They hadn’t seen any tongues of fire or heard a rush of wind. All they had heard was a bunch of frightened Galileans jabbering away in their coarse, low-class Aramaic and then suddenly they were hearing Latin and Arabic and Elamite wafting from the window of the room where these indomitable defenders of true religion had concealed themselves. I’ve got to admit that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t have been my first explanation for that transformation either.
What does surprise me is that Peter and the others did know exactly what had happened. It surprises me because the Holy Spirit for any Jew of the first century would have been so far down on their list of possible explanations for anything as to be unrecognizable, unthinkable. Oh they knew all about the Holy Spirit, to be sure. Scripture told them that God had created the world by agitating the dark waters of chaos with the Spirit. They knew that the prophets of old had spoken in the name of the LORD of Hosts by means of the Spirit. But they also knew that prophecy had ceased after the death of the prophet Malachi and that when Judas Maccabeus had cleansed the temple of the shame the Greek king had brought upon it, he could find no prophet to tell him what to do with the stones of the desecrated altar. The Holy Spirit had ceased from Israel. So, Israel found its guidance from scribes and sages, helped on rare occasions by an echo from heaven, the so-called בת קול that signaled the Lord’s will. But the guidance of the Spirit, the guidance of the prophets, had long disappeared.
How did Peter so quickly surmise that the old prophet Joel had this very morning, this strange morning with its vision of flame and the sound of a rushing wind as though creation itself were commencing once again? When Jesus told his disciples moments before his departure into heaven that the Holy Spirit was going to come upon them, I can’t imagine they cared much. That Holy Spirit, after all, was a story from their past, an abstraction from their teachers; but the resurrected Jesus was real and stood there with them, and his presence made them whole. Made them whole, though, until it disappeared. Made them whole until clouds above the Mount of Olives took their Lord away. Suddenly then, they were once again the frightened, disoriented, not-quite-faithful disciples they had shown themselves to be on the day of crucifixion. They had each other—such as they were—and that was about all.
But you see prophecy, real prophecy works like this: you don’t think much about it—indeed, you might even forget it entirely—until something happens; then you remember. Then you know what the prophet meant. Or in this case, the disciples knew exactly what Jesus meant when he told them they were about to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. With that rush of wind and those tongues of fire, they had known exactly what the Lord had meant when he told them that. This was that Holy Spirit Baptism, and it wasn’t anything at all like getting soaked in the waters of the Jordan River. Instead, it was like getting soaked in the rebirth of the world, the Big Bang, that explosion of love and peace and justice that would make all things new. So, Peter remembered right away what Joel had said centuries before about old men dreaming and young men having visions, about slaves and even women—can you imagine it?—even women getting drenched in the loving power of that Spirit from God and telling all their neighbors that the Day of the Lord had arrived. Peter remembered. Peter knew.
So if they were all drunk, they were all smashed on something much more potent than grape juice, γλεῦκος. Their intoxication came from a power and a love that had gone unrecognized for centuries, a power that could order and set straight a rootless world, a love that could break the hearts of the proud and mend the hearts of the oppressed. Come back this evening and see what we’re saying then! And if we’re saying it in Greek or Aramaic, or in English or in Mandarin or in Setswana, then maybe you’ll join us at the table of fellowship to imbibe this heady brew that God has served us.
We’re not serving γλεῦκος this morning either but the real thing. Maybe it’s too bad, though, too bad that nobody walking along North Main Street this morning is likely to tease us about being a bunch of drunks when we stumble out of the doors of Trinity Church on this Pentecost. And if some grape juice could help that, then I’d be the first to invest in a bottle of Welch’s for us to share. For I believe the one thing you and I need more than anything else is a dose of that disorienting Spirit of God that had Galileans speaking perfect Pamphylian one fine spring morning in old Jerusalem. We need a language lab, a speech course, some rushing noise of wind and flames of fire that will loosen our tongues and our hearts to tell people on the street outside something people on the street outside need to hear—and they need to hear it in their own language, not religious code or pious slogans.
Those who teach our children and grandchildren in North Carolina need to know that their sacrifices for our kids, their commitment to their young charges and their dreams for them are not as opaque to us as our legislature would have them believe. Students at the Santa Fe High School need to hear that their Father in Heaven loves their lives much more than those who served those precious souls up on the altar of death Friday. Mourners in Gaza need to know that those they have just buried are still God’s beloved and that their massacre was not just another ho-hum exercise of some abstract national policy but a catastrophe that resounded in the highest halls of heaven. Hungry people in Surry County need to know that there’s food for them at Trinity Church but more importantly that there is a store of good will, respect, and even love that can change their lives and Trinity’s life as well. Would that a bottle of grape juice would be enough! Would that some γλεῦκος could make us speak God’s word in language real people could understand.
But that’s exactly what happened on the first Pentecost, and that same creative, order-making, loving Holy Spirit that exploded in the apostles’ secret lair did not fizzle out that evening and fly back into heaven. The gift of speaking God’s truth in exactly the language our neighbors, our friends, our family, and our worst enemies need to hear it resides right here with us and can fill us with every bit of the fervor and passion it filled those timid apostles. And if somebody would say we’re drunk on γλεῦκος, then we might invite them to have a taste of that life-giving Spirit with us.
 See 1 Maccabees 4:46. Josephus, Antiquities 12.7.6, omits this detail.