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.