Catching Fire

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21


Good morning! Every time I hear this morning’s lesson from Acts, I’m reminded of my freshman year of college. In particular, verses 13-15, in which some people say, “they are filled with new wine,” and Peter disputes this by saying, “these people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” Filled with new wine . . . at nine o’clock in the morning. At this point, you might be wondering why this reminds me of college. Or worse, maybe you’re not wondering at all!

Actually, this story starts at about 10:30 in the morning. It was in August, 1989, and it was my first day of classes. The course was Political Science 109, Intro to American Government. The professor was late. That seemed really strange for the first day of class. Five minutes went by. No professor. Ten minutes passed, still no professor. The students were anxious. Some people talked about leaving, but most of us were freshmen and we weren’t sure how long you had to wait before it was safe to leave.

Somewhere between 10:40 and 10:45, the professor stumbled into class. He was drunk at 10:30 in the morning! Or so it seemed. For a couple minutes, he tried to slur his way through the beginnings of a lecture. Then one student finally had the nerve to call him out. This led to a discussion of what the professor’s duties to the class were, how the law dealt with someone who had a disability or a disease, how those laws have changed over time, and that sort of thing. When I left that classroom, I realized that I knew a lot less about law and government than I thought I did. I also got some laughs out of the professor’s drunk act.

The fancy, academic term for what had happened is social dislocation. I went into that classroom with a set of expectations. I assumed that the professor would offer an engaging lecture that introduced some of the key topics for the semester and that everything would proceed in an orderly fashion. I was shaken loose from my previous expectations and my mind was opened for deeper learning.

Some students weren’t amused by this. A lot of my classmates were studying to be engineers or doctors or accountants. They were taking the class to fulfill a humanities requirement. They had to be there and they were hoping that Poly Sci 109 would be easier than advanced calculus or circuits or organic chemistry. They weren’t there for the professor’s drunk act—they just wanted to come to class, find out what they were going to learn, and get on with it. They expected something neat and tidy, a nice, orderly class. What they got was a professor who challenged their expectations. Some of us embraced this approach, while others grumbled that this wasn’t what they had signed up for.

This is what the Holy Spirit does. The Spirit disrupts things; it blows in like a violent wind. After it blows through, things are changed. But not everybody likes the change, or believes that the change was real—like the students in that Poly Sci class who weren’t amused by the professor’s drunk act.

Today we celebrate Pentecost. This is the birthday of the Church, and the Pentecost story is the story of the Holy Spirit and how it unites us, empowers us, sparks our faith, and calls us to action. The Holy Spirit is often represented as a dove or a flame. I’ve also seen it depicted as wild goose. The idea is that the Spirit is something that provokes us, but it’s something we cannot contain or capture. There’s even an element of sacred mischief in the Holy Spirit—like a political science professor pretending to be drunk on the first day of class.

In our reading from Acts, we can see the Spirit connecting and uniting all of the believers. The Spirit empowers all the believers who are gathered there to understand one another, to communicate with one another. But some people don’t want to hear this. They don’t believe their eyes and ears, so they jump to a rational explanation: These people are drunk! At nine o’clock in the morning. They’re like all the engineers and pre-meds in that poly-sci class who don’t want to be bothered with the professor’s drunk act, they just want to be told what material they have to learn and what they need to do to get an “A” in the class. At times, each and every one of us is like the pre-meds and the engineers in that class.