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We Are New Wine

Acts 2:1-21
© Stacey Steck

A quick Bible quiz to begin this morning. What do the following Biblical characters have in common, besides coming from the Old Testament?: Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah, Shalmaneser, Balthazar, and Nebuchadnezzar? Well, it turns out that they each have a bottle size named after them, specifically and traditionally bottles that hold champagne, although some other spirits have begun using these designations. Each is a bigger and bigger size, the Nebuchadnezzar being a bottle the equivalent of 20 regular bottles of champagne.

Perhaps those who saw the disciples that Pentecost morning thought the disciples had been passing around a Nebuchadnezzar of new wine. Not able to really comprehend what the Holy Spirit was doing among the new believers, the old guard put their somewhat unorthodox behavior down to intoxication. Never mind that booze never really helps anyone become clearer in their ability to communicate, they still somehow thought that the disciples were aided in their linguistic tricks by alcoholic spirits rather than by the Holy Spirit.

It is possible that those in the crowd were not only mocking them for being drunk, but also taunting them with one of the Hebrew words for “new wine,” tirosh, the root of which means “to take possession of.” In other words, they were insinuating that the wine, not the power of the Holy Spirit, had taken possession of the disciples. Luke is writing, of course in Greek, and uses the word gleukos, so we don't know for sure that they were taunting them with tirosh, but gleukos is properly translated as “new wine” in the sense that it is basically fresh grape juice, not fermented. But the word was also frequently used for a highly inebriating kind of sweet wine. It seems clear that the crowd implies they are drunk, so it must be the latter. In fact, it most likely could not be “new wine” in the unfermented sense of the term, because as many as eight months must have elapsed between the vintage and the feast of Pentecost. And so, it is probably a safe bet to say that there was ridicule going on at more than one level.

The truth is, of course, that the crowd was not entirely wrong. They had the right words, but the wrong idea. They had been taken possession of. But the disciples weren’t drinking new wine; they were new wine. They weren’t imbibing from an old harvest. They were embodying a new harvest, the sweet juice of the just picked, freshly crushed Jesus Christ. They weren’t consuming anything; they were sharing everything. They weren’t tipsy; they were topsy-turvy, turned upside down like the kingdom Jesus had described to them. They were a new wine that would gladden the hearts of the world. If they acted the same as drunk people, so be it. I’d be giddy too filled by the Spirit! Maybe they danced. Maybe they whooped and hollered. Wouldn’t you too? Who could blame those who attributed their joy to the wrong Spirit.

Jesus of course alluded to this pouring out of new wine when he told the disciples that “no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled and the skins will be destroyed.” There is some disagreement about exactly what Jesus means here, but it is clear he is talking about new and old and the conflict between them. This is what the disciples, and those who witnessed them, were just beginning to experience. The new wine would be a threat to old wineskins. The ways of being God’s people would need to grow and change to be able to accommodate people from all the places who heard their own languages spoken, to allow participation of those whom the prophet Joel foretold, the old and the young, the men and the women, the slaves and the free, to include fishermen and farmers, prostitutes and tax collectors. This new wine was going to have an influence on the central nervous system of an entire people, and that was bound to cause some disorientation. Again, the crowd was right. They knew new wine when the saw it, even if the taste was not immediately to their liking.

Some religious new wine is simply awful, literally. When my friend Michael Spezio and I traveled to Greece to visit the Eastern Orthodox monasteries of the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, we tasted some. One night after a long day’s hike, we arrived later than all the rest of the pilgrims and missed the appointed mealtime. But the guest master was gracious enough to provide even for latecomers and so we were ushered into the kitchen, where we were fed but where we were also offered some wine made by the monks themselves from the grapes they grew on the grounds of the monastery. And so we accepted and drank some. We learned two things from that particular experience. The first is that is that although these monks were gifted by God in many, many ways, winemaking was not one of them. This was easily the worst wine ever made anywhere in any period of history. The other thing we learned is how strong is the mind’s control of the body, a fact we learned when despite the overwhelming urge to just spit out that God-awful mess, we were able to get it down our throats and still offer a gracious thank you to our hosts. Yes, it is important that the church be good wine that makes people joyful, not bad wine that makes people want to gag and spit it out.

But even when it is good, new wine takes some getting used to. I remember once as a young child, that I was playing with my little neighbor friend on his front porch, and his grandmother was sitting there supervising us while we were playing. And then all of a sudden she began to sort of sing to herself. Well, it was actually more like humming, and she wasn’t really singing or humming like it was a real song she wanted us to join in or anything, but she was just sort of letting it come out of her, maybe even making it up as she went along. And I thought that was just the weirdest thing I’d ever seen or heard. And being the obnoxious child I was, I told her to stop making that noise. And with wonderful grandmotherly grace, she educated me on both manners and music, and now I can see how she was a kind of new wine that I had just never experienced before, that took some getting used to, but that was just what the world needs more of.

Pope Francis seems to be new wine in some corners of the church, doing those crazy things like washing the feet of women and prisoners, like hopping down into the crowd instead of cruising along in the Popemobile. I’m sure some people are thinking he brought a nice stash of Argentinian wine with him to the Vatican. And I’m sure people said similar things of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi when he started preaching to the birds and stripping off his clothes in the middle of the town square, and selling all his possessions to live a life of poverty. If these guys are new wine, pour me a cup. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were new wine. Remember them? The ones who taught us how to stand up for ourselves and to speak the truth to power and to protest non-violently and effectively. They took some getting used to, didn’t they, like new wine? But now they seem like fine wine. We still have a lot to learn from those who drank new wine once upon a time.

You know, we read the Pentecost story and it sounds almost like some kind of nice little fable about the birthday of the church, but it was probably a little more like a chaotic, Spirit-filled street protest than white American Protestantism would like to believe. In a way, God called the disciples out into the streets to protest the death of an innocent man by an unjust use of imperial power. It’s not part of today’s Scripture reading, but a little later in the same story, Peter calls out the truth, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” Jesus may have been raised from the dead, but Peter was protesting what is still happening today.

Make no mistake, neither George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, or any of the other black Americans who have been murdered by police or vigilantes, none of them were the Messiah. Not even close. They weren’t perfect, they weren’t saints, they may not even have been very nice people. But they did not deserve to die at the hands of those outside the law. No, the flames consuming buildings in Minneapolis and elsewhere are NOT the flames of Pentecost, but the people gathered peacefully in streets around this nation make their chants that to some ears sound like the words of drunk people, but which are in fact, spirit-filled words spoken by people who have been given the courage to make the same kind of speech Peter made, and call out the evil and injustice of this world, and, like the disciples, put themselves on the line, risk ridicule at the least, and possibly violence by people who could not understand what they were seeing, and sneer at them dismissively saying “They are filled with new wine.” May they make Dr. King proud.

I hope you have come across some of these “strange” people in your lives, people who might be mistaken for being drunk, but who in fact are evidence of God’s Holy Spirit being poured out. Pentecost is a time to remember and celebrate and emulate such characters. It is the time to remember that we too are new wine, that the giving of the Holy Spirit was not a once for all-time event, but a continuous, outpouring of grace that flows like a fine wine that gladdens the human heart. It is a time to start acting like new wine again especially if we have turned somewhat sour or vinegary. That’s what happens to wine once it’s opened and left unconsumed. While it just sits there, the chemicals do their thing and it turns into something resembling, but not much better than, Mount Athos monastery wine. It becomes good for nothing. And remember what they gave Jesus on the cross? Not new wine to gladden his heart, but vinegar to crush his spirit. The old stuff, the sour stuff. Is that what we want to give the world in his name?

Most of us won’t experience what the disciples did that day, that being taken possession of by the Spirit that might make people really say, “What are you, drunk?” But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exhibit the same characteristics of that new wine. Beyond the speaking in different languages, what made them new wine? Well, basically, it is the difference of how they acted before and after Pentecost. Remember how they began right after the crucifixion? Locked away in an upper room, afraid. Now, they are acting fearlessly. Before, they were timid, running away in the face of threat. Now, they are acting boldly. Before, they were huddled together for safety. Now, each goes his own way to spread the good news wherever God sends them. Yes, it was this fearless, bold, action that made them new wine, and that can make us new wine too, if we respond to the Holy Spirit.

What do you do with new wine? You drink it! The disciples allowed the world to drink them in, and that created a new generation of people the world thought must be drunk, but who were really just more new wine flowing for the following generation. And so it goes until our own times. So go out this afternoon and act drunk! Well, at least be bold, be fearless, and take action on something that matters to the world, something that matters to God. Let yourselves be poured out as new wine, not old vinegar, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Don't Let Anxiety Kill You

If you wonder about the abrupt ending, please note that parts of Western Rowan County lost Internet service on Sunday near the end of the end of the sermon!

In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them.
Purify My Heart (Refiner’s Fire)
Revelation Song
I Will Change Your Name

Overlooking the Obvious

In case you’d like to listen again to the songs we sang, here are YouTube links to them.
Who Am I
The Steadfast Love of the Lord
Hear Us, O Father

Mark 10:17-31
© Stacey Steck

I’m not very proud of the following self-disclosure, but if one cannot laugh at oneself, life will be very long and boring. For years – and to be honest, I was until I was well into my thirties – I was a little confused about the concept of anesthesia. You know there are two kinds, general and local. General anesthesia I understood. They put the mask on your face or inject you with something and you fall asleep using a generally available and accepted form of medication. Local anesthesia, so I believed, was what each doctor personally decided to use, what was locally available and preferable. So, in New York, the doctor might hook up a bottle of nitrous oxide, and in Louisiana, a fifth of bourbon. It turns out that in this case, “local” referred to a specific part of the body, not a drug of choice, and I was forced to once again face my humanity, and acknowledge my limited intelligence, and laugh at myself.

The rich man in our story in Mark this morning has similarly overlooked the obvious. Despite remaining faithful to all God has asked him to do through the commandments of his tradition, he has overlooked the very reason for the commandments in the first place, namely that we might live as God intended, in the fullest possible shalom, that no one, not even the foreigner and the stranger in our midst need live in scarcity in the midst of the incomprehensible abundance of God’s grace and generosity. Likely well into his thirties before being faced with the truth, the rich man is forced to once again face his humanity and confront the limits of his understanding of what God requires.

It would be easy to pick on rich people using this passage, but probably a waste of time. You already know you are rich, compared to the vast majority of the world, and you already tithe to Thyatira, wink, wink, and give to charity, and try to live simply so that others may simply live. If you are not doing these things, come talk to me and we’ll discuss your spiritual life. But more than that, picking on the rich would be a waste of time because even though this man’s wealth is a key element in the story of his faith, and even though it is likely a key element in many of our stories of faith, if we focus on the money, we miss the point of the story. For all the Scriptural cover it provides, this morning’s treatment of the text will not be a stewardship sermon, well, at least not in the traditional sense. You see, just as Jesus has said elsewhere in the gospels, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus knows that this man needs a local, rather than general treatment, and so do we. For this man, it was his wealth, and it may be for you too, but for others it may be something else, and we would do a disservice to Christ and ourselves to overlook the other obvious things that make it difficult to “inherit eternal life,” to use the rich man’s words.

I want to focus for a moment on a very small, but telling, part of the story. Although Matthew and Luke also record a version of this story, Mark is the only Gospel writer to include the little description, “Jesus looking at him, loved him, and said, ‘You lack one thing.’ ” “Jesus looking at him, loved him, and said…” We can’t know exactly what Mark had in mind by including this phrase, but I construe it as his recognition that Jesus loved the man enough to speak the truth to him, not in the legal sense, but rather to speak the truth this man needed to hear. It does not take a divine genius to discern if someone is rich; often a simple look will suffice to observe fine clothes and manner. But it does take divine courage and compassion to go straight to the heart of a person’s need and to confront him or her at the point of their hardest conversion. It takes love, a divine love Christ reveals in this encounter with a man asking a variation of the question we all ask, “How do I enter into a deeper relationship with my God and Creator, a relationship that makes sense of my past, guides me in my present, and assures me of my future.”

The divine love with which Jesus spoke to the rich man is the same divine love we need still today, that truth spoken to us because we are in need of the physician to diagnose and treat our local, which is to say our personal, maladies of self-delusion, or at least our tendency to overlook the obvious in our lives. The famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony once remarked, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires,” and although that might sound kind of cynical, there is still a lot of truth in what she said. It is part of our situation as human beings plagued with sin that we confuse our wants with God’s wants for us. In the case of the rich man, his desire, at least up to the point where he seeks wisdom from Jesus, was very likely to be able to live comfortably guilt-free, secure in the knowledge that he had done what was required of him, and he saw the fulfillment of the commandments as the route to such a life. He conveniently overlooked the fact that God desires not only a life of obedience, but also of compassion and justice and mercy, and had he read his Scriptures carefully enough, he would have read the parts about gleaning, that harvest tradition of leaving behind what falls on the ground to be picked up by the poor, and of jubilee, when land and other property are to be returned every so often to their original owner to discourage the accumulation of the kind of wealth that undermines authentic community. He would have learned the connection between God’s generosity and his own. He would have learned that by God’s design his life was so profoundly connected with all of God’s people that his wealth influenced the living conditions of others. But instead, he turned his own desires for a comfortable, guilt-free life into God’s desires for him, and he succeeded perfectly in meeting the lowest expectations he could, as high as the standards of the law might be. I would give him a little more benefit of the doubt that his question to Jesus was sincere had he shown the least interest in following Christ, but, we are told, he was shocked and went away grieving. Despite having the truth spoken to him in love, he is not ready to accept the demands of that truth on his life. His self-delusion continues.

What I think is important about this passage is how it points us to examining the disconnections we make between God and certain aspects of our lives, to overlooking what to Jesus is the obvious, and to us is the convenient and comfortable. As I said earlier, money is for many of us one of the biggest of those areas. But it is not the only one. We may live lives of absolute simplicity, giving away all but what we need to survive, and still harbor a resentment against someone which keeps us from following Christ. We may lead generous and resentment-free lives, but persist in denying that we are lovable and go away sorrowful at the invitation to be loved by God in Jesus Christ. We may lead generous, resentment-free, love-filled lives, but delude ourselves that adultery does not affect the commitments we make to our spouses and our children, not to mention God. I think you get the picture. Each of us will have those key points of overlooking the obvious contradictions of the lives we actually lead with the lives God calls us to lead. And it is at those points that we may thank God that Christ, looking at us, loves us, and says, “You lack one thing,” and points out that one thing, or those several things, which remain a barrier between us and the most intimate form of communion with God and indeed all creation.

Good news comes in many shapes and sizes. If we are indeed the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County, we are sometimes called to be its purveyors in the way Jesus did in his encounter with that man, by looking, loving, and speaking the truth in that love saying, “You lack one thing,” and pointing out that one thing, or those several things, which are needed to truly follow Christ. We do that not to control or manipulate, but because God has given us eyes to see, and courage to speak to the needs we see in those whom we know or meet. We do that invitationally, and when our advice is sought, but also when we see injustice that cannot be ignored. We do not do it casually, or to try to change people’s behavior that we don’t like, but because we want to pass on the healing we have experienced when we met the healer of our places of self-delusion.

Jesus’ encounter with the man in Mark is followed by a dose of hyperbole about the possibility of the rich entering heaven, offered in the very graphic image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Not only does this image remind us of how challenging it is to overcome those choke points in our lives, but it calls to mind another of Jesus’ hyperboles. Elsewhere in Scripture we are reminded that it is best not to attempt to remove a speck from someone else’s eye without first removing the log from our own. Being the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County begins with being ministered to by the same loving Christ revealed in the challenges offered by others, those around us and those who have gone before us. We each need to confront those points of self-delusion unless we are to be hypocrites for Christ. We may take a while overcoming what keeps us from following fully, faithfully, and consistently, but at least if we are working on them, slowly if surely giving away our possessions, so to speak, we have a place of integrity from which to offer what we have to offer. And lest the prospect of personal transformation paralyze us, let us remember how our passage from Mark concludes, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.” May God bless us as we confront those areas of our lives in which God can do the impossible in Jesus Christ and as we seek to bring good news to those folks who, like the rich man, are seeking a relationship with God that makes sense of their past, guides them in their present, and assures them of their future. Amen.

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