Luke’s account of the Holy Spirit’s arrival in Acts 2 is literally wonderful. The wonders spill out: Flames dance on the disciples’ heads without a single hair being singed. So great a panoply of languages are heard by the crowd that the local mavens point to the church as an exemplar of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Those who come to faith are brought to a baptismal festival bigger than a mass Moonie wedding.
Lost among all the spiritual glitter is one further wonder we easily pass over. When the spectators speculate that the disciples spirit-led speech is mere drunken babbling, Luke reports Peter’s defense. “These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” (Acts 2:15) It could be understood that it’s a wonder that the gathered soon-to-be apostles are sober. Perhaps Peter doesn’t believe in the “It’s-five-o’clock-somewhere” rule and thinks the tippling could reasonably be expected to begin only later in the day.
The odd detail is in keeping with the whole of his sermon. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:38). In other words, “Your eyes deceive you. If you can’t discern gospel exuberance from being hammered, you’re also going to mistake the truth about Jesus. Let me set you straight.”
Peter’s odd statement points to a wonder even bigger than the pentecostal star power. It reveals a God who works under the sign of the opposite. Our Lord is the God who looks nothing like what our sinful through-a-glass-darkly vision leads us to expect. That on Pentecost God’s Spirit should function through a dozen seeming inebriates should be no surprise when this same God saves through the ignominy of the cross.
The mere fact of Peter being the one to proclaim the Pentecost gospel is itself a sign of the opposite. Among the twelve he’s the doofus who kept getting it wrong. He chastised Jesus for his passion prediction and got called Satan for it. He rashly skipped across the ripples like his rocky namesake to join his water-walking rabbi but sank as soon as he saw the irrationality of it. He thrice denied knowing Jesus to save his own skin. No HR office would think to hire him as the Spirit’s press secretary.
All of which makes Pentecost not the festival of glory we commonly make it but a cruciform string of details that elicits the same response from us as from the gathered crowd of Parthians, Medes, and other bling-entranced cretins. They ask, “What shall we do?” as if Peter’s preaching has given any indication that there’s any doing left to them. Even after they’ve been given the truth, they’re still as muddled about Jesus as they were about 9:00 a.m. blitzedness.
“What shall we do?” is a question continually asked of theologians of the cross. The gospel is never about the doable. The disciples had watched the interchange between Jesus and the rich man who asked what he should do to inherit eternal life. After seeing the guy leave unwilling to detach from his 401k, they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ retort is that the doing and the saving is God’s not theirs (Matthew 19).
The song of the world could easily steal its title from The Police’s “ De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” The world and the law embedded in it relentlessly demand that we do, do, and do, more and more. As Martin Luther said in the Heidelberg Disputation, “The Law says ‘Do this,’ and it is never done.” The law’s thirst is unquenchable. But the gospel in turn draws out belief in what’s already accomplished.
In Heidelberg, Luther distinguished between a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross, arguing that the former calls something what it is not, but the latter calls it what it is. The Jerusalem crowds call the disciples drunkards, but Peter knows they’re actually filled with the new wine of faith. They see Jesus’ naked humiliation, crucifixion, and death fifty days earlier as defeat and shame, but Peter declares it is salvation itself sealed by the resurrection.
Peter proves himself that spring morning to be the first true pastor and preacher, because he turns away from the visible glory of accomplishment, action plans, strategy and tactics. He’s had Spirit fire doing a jig on his head, and he sees clearly. When the crowds ask for a job description, he says it’s not about doing but about being done to instead. Linguistically, “Be baptized” is passive voice; it’s done to you, not by you.
Then, for all his clear-sightedness, Peter fumbles his job by telling the crowd to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” He makes the classic preacher’s error by not shutting up once the gospel is declared. He keeps talking and quickly shifts back to being a theologian of glory.
Yet Peter’s proclamatory peccadillo can’t undo the baptism done to the three thousand in Jerusalem. They must have felt a certain drunken exhilaration, yet they all had to go home. No Kaaba in Mecca nor even a raised ebenezer for them. Whatever emotion they felt, however thrilled they were to be included under the Spirit’s gathering embrace, the ushy-gushy feelings would dissipate, but the fact remained. They had been made into the body of Christ, not by their doing but by what the Lord had done for them at Golgotha.
Jesus’ doing is the thing that lasts. It’s what is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It’s what allows us to say in present tense, “I am baptized.” It’s what makes the church born of Pentecost preaching into the church of the cross not the church of bright, shiny tchotchkes. It makes believers into unprepossessing saved sinners who look like the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
As despised and uncomely as mid-morning drunks, the church revels in the cross and never reels against the woes that betide its members. Nine o’clock glory always fades to some kind of hangover before quitting time, but the Spirit’s fervor for you begun on Pentecost brings the undying delight of being attached to the vine. We’re not tipsy like the world supposes; we’ve lost ourselves to something better.
Want something you can do? Try simply enjoying what’s already been done for you.