I love church signs. You know the ones—they don’t just say the church name and the worship times; they’ve got a Bible verse or a quote or, even better, some ill-advised attempt at humor. Here are a few of my favorites:
WITHOUT THE BREAD OF LIFE, YOU’RE TOAST.
HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS; TEXT AND DRIVE IF YOU WANT TO MEET HIM.
And this one, a “quote” from God:
DON’T MAKE ME COME DOWN THERE.
Last week, I got a text message from Kate, our children’s minister here at Centenary. She was in Colorado for Vacation Bible School training, and she had spotted a church sign she thought I would appreciate.
Now, the timing is important to understanding it—this was right before Pentecost, which the day when we remember the story we just heard from Acts chapter 2. The sign was playing off the part where people thought the disciples were drunk. Here’s what it said:
PENTECOST CRY: DUDES ARE YOU HIGH?
If the first Pentecost had occurred in Colorado shortly after the legalization of marijuana, you can imagine that onlookers might have said, “Dudes, are you high?” instead of, “They are filled with new wine.”
The disciples were filled with the Spirit with a capital “S,” but others were thinking only of a different kind of spirits. What ensues is a comical scene. The others say to the disciples, “You’re drunk!” And Peter replies, “Are you kidding me? It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning!”
Obviously, Peter never went to college. Anyone who has ever been to a Duke football tailgate knows that it being 9 o’clock in the morning is no guarantee that people are not drunk.
But really, who could blame the others for thinking the disciples might be drunk? Not too long before, their friend and teacher was crucified. Jesus rose from the dead, sure, but he gave them a huge assignment to “go and make disciples of all nations” and then just peaced out. He said he was sending them a helper, an advocate, but when they got together in that place, it was just the same rag-tag bunch of misfits. Plenty of people might turn to some lesser spirits while waiting around for a Holy Spirit they weren’t sure was.
You can probably tell I’m interested in this pun that connects the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, with this odd euphemism we have for strong drink, spirits. It’s funny because from day one, right from Pentecost, the relationship between the church and alcohol is a strange one. This hasn’t changed—if anything, it’s gotten weirder since then.
The brand of Christians that call themselves Pentecostals believe strongly in the power of the Holy Spirit, but most of them abstain from alcohol completely. Some Christian groups are known for having wine at social gatherings, while for some it is taboo. Catholics and Episcopalians use wine for communion, but most Protestants stick with grape juice.
The Methodists actually have an interesting history when it comes to alcohol. Methodism first gained popularity among blue-collar workers in England. The movement’s leaders observed that alcohol and alcoholism was particularly destructive to these families.
Methodists got on board with the temperance movement out of concern for how alcohol can damage communities. Using grape juice in communion is a pastoral gesture to recovering alcoholics. (Of course, it also didn’t hurt that Thomas Welch, who invented the process of pasteurization to prevent the fermentation of grape juice, was a Methodist.)
Even today, the United Methodist Book of Discipline says this about alcohol: “We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons.” Methodists are allowed to drink but are we encouraged to practice “judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint.”
Early Methodists saw something that we don’t talk about much in our society: alcohol is dangerous. A report from the World Health Organization calculated that in the year 2012, alcohol killed 3.3 million people. The causes include everything from cancer to violence. Sure, a glass of wine at night gives you antioxidants, but excessive drinking raises your risk of developing over 200 diseases, not to mention the dangers involved in drunk driving.
Yet, Jesus turned water into wine. And there is that famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Alcohol is not inherently evil. I know many of you appreciate good wine and beer, and I say amen to that in moderation—but how do we know when our relationship to alcohol is unhealthy?
A few years ago, Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte started a Lenten tradition. As many of you know, it is common for Christians to give something up for the 40 days leading up to Easter. Lent is a time of self-examination and preparation. And so, the pastor urged the congregation to give up alcohol for Lent and to donate the money they would have spent on alcohol to a “Spirit Fund.” Glad to know I’m not the only one who appreciates this pun.
Not only did this practice raise money for local substance abuse programs, it also gave the church members an opportunity to examine their relationship with alcohol. Many were surprised at how hard it was to give it up. Several ended up seeking treatment for alcohol abuse. And those for whom alcohol was not a real problem returned to the bottle with a better perspective on the role it plays in their lives and how it impacts others.
In researching for this sermon, I learned that the term “spirit” as applied to alcohol comes from Middle Eastern alchemy. During the processes that led to creating medical elixirs, the vapor given off and collected was called a “spirit.” The term was used more broadly to refer to a volatile substance.
This is where the connection between spirits and the Holy Spirit becomes more than just a funny pun in my mind. The Holy Spirit, just as alcoholic spirits, is volatile. More than that, she is dangerous--the Acts 2 passage talks about "blood, and fire, and smoky mist." The poem we used as a prayer earlier talked about the Spirit’s grace scorching us. The Spirit comes in a fire that continues to burn to this day.
I love The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. There is a quote in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that is overused by preachers, but it’s just too good to pass up. One of the children in the book is asking Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the great lion who is Lewis’ Christ figure in the novels.
This is her question: “Is he—quite safe?”
“Safe?” says Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
The Spirit isn’t safe. But she’s good. We tend to domesticate the Spirit, to make her into a pretty dove that gently flutters by and does not disturb us. But activist Mother Jones (though she was talking about something else when she adapted an old quote by Finley Peter Dunne) best summed up the role of the Spirit this way: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Alcoholic spirits numb our problems; the Holy Spirit heals them. Alcoholic spirits wreak havoc on our bodies and our communities when used in excess; the Holy Spirit yanks us out of our routine and puts us to the uncomfortable work of seeking justice for all people.
The Spirit is not safe, but she is good. She comes with the power of a lioness and the presence of a dove. She comes to be with us, to guide us, and to make us behave in ways that make people say—“Dudes, are you high?”
Sarah S. Howell