Are we open to the intoxicating power of the Holy Spirit, or are we dispiritingly sober? (Listen.)
One of my happy places is Little Creatures brewery in Geelong – or any big barnlike place which serves hot chips, a decent pint, and a place to hang out with family and friends. I also love being around a dinner table with simple food and backyard flowers, hosting people in the process of getting to know each other. I love chatting in a coffee shop, latte in hand and the hiss of an espresso machine in the background. I love sitting at my desk having Zoom drinks with friends; I love making coffees at Anglicare and swapping tall stories with clients and volunteers; I love lazing around the garden with a glass of wine or mineral water, and a cheese board, and guests. Basically, it doesn’t take much to make me happy: good food, good drink, and good conversation.
I’ve been thinking about all this in light of tonight’s reading. The disciples were all together in one place when suddenly a sound like the rush of a violent wind descended from heaven, tongues like fire fell upon the believers, and all of them were suddenly able to communicate to surprising people, as the Spirit gave them ability. And while many were astonished and delighted, and while many came to trust in Jesus and to be baptised as a result, others sneered. “They’ve had a skinful!” they said, “They’re drunk!”
What strikes me here is Peter’s response. He doesn’t deny that the disciples appear to be intoxicated; he doesn’t pretend they’re acting normal. Instead, he simply points out that, thanks to Jerusalem’s liquor licensing laws, it’s impossible for them to be drunk at this time; something else is going on instead.
Of course, there are many ways to be drunk, and by no means do I condone them all. There are melancholy drunks and angry drunks and violent drunks: none of which lead to life and growth and connection. So I don’t think the disciples were roaring around town shouting abuse at women and king-hitting strangers. None of these signs of intoxication would have led to mass baptism, or the ensuing regular gatherings for teaching, fellowship, meals and prayer.
But there are also happy drunks, and this is what I think of in relation to this story. In my happy place, which is not so much drunk as relaxed, I witness a general loosening. The inhibitions which often separate us from one another and block us from real communication are eased. People become more talkative, not only with friends but with strangers; social barriers come down, and everyone’s okay. Occasionally, someone will sing, and that someone might be me.
As tongues loosen further and people open up, they begin to speak generously, vulnerably, passionately. And in golden moments, personal stories, even testimonies, emerge. We pay attention and people shine, glowing with God-radiance like Moses. Old relationships are deepened and new relationships formed; once again, love is born.
I love drinking to this ‘point of hilarity’; a point recognised and blessed by Augustine, and again by Martin Luther and Robert Farrar Capon and many other faithful folk. This point doesn’t even need alcohol, just a spiritual openness, a willingness to be unguarded and generous, brave, even exuberant, in the company of others. And, of course, it needs time. For connection doesn’t happen when everyone’s thinking about another engagement, the late night, the early start: it needs every person to be present in the moment, living wholeheartedly in God’s time, together.
So, eased inhibitions; reaching out to strangers; radiating life and joy; speaking in words others can understand; enjoying being alive together; sharing truth and belly laughs: when people thought the disciples were drunk, this is what it looked like, and it was all the intoxicating work of the Holy Spirit.
And it’s why so many people welcomed their message. For on that one wild and crazy day, three thousand people were baptized and added to their number. The newcomers weren’t attracted by closed boundaries, by diffidence, by sobriety. Instead, they were attracted by generous communication, exuberant love, overflowing joy: they were attracted by good news.
I look around at our group, and I wonder. Most of us are good at maintaining a certain image. We’re most of us pretty reserved about faith. We rarely talk about it with strangers or even each other; we try to appear as normal as possible. We’re basically clean living; few of us are seen drunk in public, let alone before noon. In fact, I know some of you are squirming to hear that my happy place is a brewery. For the most part, we seem to be fairly sober, careful, considered, self-controlled and ethical; if we drink to excess, we do it in private.
This careful thoughtful culture of ours means that we’re great at creating safe spaces and maintaining clear boundaries; we’re great at curated hospitality. We’re great at quiet listening, and considered prayer, and what one friend calls contemplative sadness. We’re great at critiquing institutions and pondering big questions—and these things are all important. We need to protect vulnerable people; we need thoughtful prayer; we need space for questions; we need room for grief.
But there’s more to faith than this.
For the Spirit of Pentecost is not about conformity, not even to the broad Christian left, nor is it about middle class niceness or being good. Instead, it rushes in like a violent wind; it stirs things up; it sets people on fire; and it sends them out, exuberant, ready to speak with all the wrong people as they are equipped. This Spirit is all about interruptions and surprises. It’s about being filled with passion and being pushed beyond the safety of our little groups. It’s about appropriate boundary-breaking and bravery; it’s about confidence and enthusiasm and new and surprising friendships; it’s about seeing people come alive.
So I wonder how we hear this story, when the first disciples were so outgoing, so communicative, so loving and joyful and intoxicated by an uncontainable Spirit, that people thought they were drunk? And where do we find ourselves in this story?
Do we let the Spirit flow into and through us, or do we block it? Is there enough reckless energy and wild hospitality to make others wonder if we’ve been drinking, or even to notice us at all? Or are we so sober and self-controlled that evidence of the Spirit is little more than a pilot light?
For if all our spaces are curated and safe, how will the Holy Spirit break in? Would we welcome tongues of fire, or would we bring out the fire extinguishers? Do we want to be set alight, newly gifted, and sent? Or are we comfortable with our lives right now, unwilling to grow and change?
And if all our relationships are tightly boundaried, how do we communicate with strangers? Do we go beyond our safe little groups and encounter new and diverse people? Can we speak their language? And if we can, do we speak of faith with infectious enthusiasm, or are our words so carefully chosen that there’s no space for tears or belly laughs or confession or forgiveness, or the Spirit’s recklessness and joy?
My friends, these are things to consider. For we are not called to a private faith; nor are we called to spiritual sobriety or closed groups. Instead, those of us who follow the Risen Christ must be open to the Spirit of Pentecost, who interrupts our comfortable lives and sets our hearts on fire; who showers us with gifts unimaginable and empowers us to share the good news widely, extravagantly, abundantly, generously, in language that everyone can understand.
This Pentecost, then, I encourage you to consider these things and allow for surprises: let yourself go! Reach beyond your comfort zone, talk to a stranger, risk enthusiasm, invite someone weird and wonderful to tea. And in a few minutes join me around Christ’s own table, where the Holy Spirit is poured out like wine and we can drink deep. Freshly intoxicated, we will risk vulnerability, sing in public, embody diversity … and maybe even share a few belly laughs.
In the name of the one accused of being both glutton and drunk: Jesus Christ, our Lord: Amen. Ω
Reflect: Do you normally equate Christians or churches with happy drunks? Why not? What, if anything, blocks you personally from being uninhibited, open-hearted, and confident about your faith?
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