Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 19, 2024

Acts 2:1-21 Commentary


One year, the week before Pentecost, I was volunteering with an interfaith food pantry, hosted by a Christian congregation.  Twice, my fellow volunteers — both Jewish — asked about the change in the sanctuary decor and so I had the opportunity to talk with them about Pentecost. I mentioned how all the Jews were gathered in Jerusalem at the time. They nodded knowingly and said, “they were there for Shavuot.” And I replied, “No. For Pentecost.” And they replied, “No. Shavuot.” And I went, “ooooh.” Because I had never really thought about why they were all there to begin with. Why were all of those Jews — from all around the known world: Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Asia, Egypt, Libya, Rome — gathered in Jerusalem?  I supposed I had always assumed they were there so the Holy Spirit could come and they could become Christian and start the church.

In fact, the Jews were gathered in Jerusalem then — just as many Jews today still gather 50 days after Passover — to celebrate Shavuot.  Shavuot is the festival of weeks, the celebration of the Harvest but also (and here’s where it gets interesting) the commemoration of the giving of the law, the Torah, to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In fact, the name of our season of Pentecost comes from that 50 day period between Passover and Shavout, which (of course) align roughly to Jesus death/resurrection and our celebration of Ascension and … Pentecost.

These two holidays are inextricably linked by the calendar and, it turns out, their themes. Whereas one holiday commemorates the giving of the law, the other holiday celebrates the giving of the Spirit. In Christian Scripture, these two are often held together. Sometimes they are held up in comparison or as a challenge to one another. Sometimes they seem to complement and build off each other.

Comments, Observations and Questions:

God’s people under the influence of the Holy Spirit appear to be God’s people under the influence. Peter has to get up and clarify. Right off the bat. One of the most significant sermons in all of Scripture begins with this caveat. “We’re not drunk.”

So when the Apostles filled with the Spirit are accused of being 3 sheets to the wind, they have to clear up the misunderstanding. But, this isn’t the only time good people pursuing righteousness have been accused of overindulgence. Jesus was thought to be a drunkard because he hung out with disreputable people.  When Hannah went to the Temple to ask God for a son, her prayer was so fervent that the priest thought she was drunk. NT Wright levels this challenge against the church today: “some Christians have been so concerned to keep up safe appearances and to make sure they are looking like ordinary, normal people that they would never, under any circumstances, have been accused of being drunk, at nine o’clock in the morning or any other time.”

It’s important to offer that caveat because the stories of drunk people in Scripture are never commended or held up as virtuous. Noah’s drunkenness is a clear indignity that his sons must protect. Abigail’s husband is drunk when he refuses King David. King Xerxes and all his buddies are drunk when he asks his wife to come dance for them. None of that leads to anything good. And Scripture is clear in setting up drunkenness over and against righteousness. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”

So, perhaps, the New Testament relationship between the Law and the Spirit is something like Scripture’s treatment of drunkenness and wine.  The law teaches us that drunkenness is no good.  It makes us stupid and inconsistent. We hurt ourselves and others with this behavior.  There’s a bit more black-and-white; right and wrong to it.

But when we are filled with the Spirit, we live in a space that requires wisdom. And this is like the way Scripture teaches about wine.   Take the book of Proverbs.  It speaks frequently of the foolishness of those who drink too much.  It tells us wine is “a mocker” AND it tells us that wine is a blessing, a tonic and a hospitable gift.  Wine is used to heal the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. I Timothy says that we should al take a little wine for our stomachs.  But the book of Revelation uses wine 11 times for such epithets as “wine of adulteries” and “wine of the fury of God’s wrath.” We are to refrain from behaviors like drinking that cause harm to ourselves or others.  And Jesus himself uses the metaphor of wine to talk about being filled with new life, which require us to shape and adapt our old ways of living.

The law can tell us right from wrong and can list good and bad behaviors.  But the Spirit is needed to make us wise.  To help us discern behaviors that lead to wholeness, righteousness and justice.  To help us practice attitudes of grace and righteousness.  To live with care and intentionality, to minister boldly and redeem the time we’ve been given.

But — fair warning — living by the Spirit’s wisdom won’t protect you from accusations of drunkenness. Living by the Spirit’s wisdom may mean understanding and adapting the law in your current context in ways that may upset previously held categories. It won’t be so easy to live in clear judgment of what is right and wrong. Imbibing the wine of the Spirit requires the work of discernment and wisdom in the life of the believer.


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