Wednesday, November 21, 2012



It was the first Christian Pentecost, around 29 A.D., in Jerusalem. The disciples were “all in one place together.” (Acts 2, 2) Suddenly, tongues of fire descended over the heads of the disciples, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they started speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues, at least in this first manifestation, was an ability to speak in one’s own language while one’s listeners heard what was said in their languages. This came in very handy in this instance because there were Jews from throughout the Diaspora, or dispersion, in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, and most spoke languages other than Aramaic. But, as St. Paul points out in the 14th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, to most listeners, speaking in tongues can sound like so much babbling. So in response to this first speaking in tongues, some observers said of Peter and the Apostles (Acts 2, 13)

They have had too much new wine.”

What is remarkable is Peter’s response to the charge that he and his buddies had been drinking too much “new wine” (Act 2, 15):

“These people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.”

So Peter’s defense against charges of drunken babbling is not so much that he isn’t drunk but that he isn’t drunk yet; after all, it’s only 9:00 A.M. You almost expect him to follow with something like “…but if it were happy hour, well, then you’d have a point.”

I’ve found this passage and interpretation thereof fascinating since a great friend, and Jesuit priest, pointed it out to me more than twenty five years ago. If indeed Peter did have some trouble with the new wine, he would be exhibiting a condition that is very prevalent among people back then and people now; alcoholism is a big deal now and it was a big deal then.

More importantly, if it were indeed true that Peter was an alcoholic, this would be only one instance in which he was the most human of all Apostles, the Apostle to which most of us can most easily relate.

Like many of us, Peter was headstrong and impetuous with sudden and passing bouts of bravado and pseudo-strength followed by a realization of his innate weaknesses and a consequent reassessment of his seemingly rash actions, very human traits and actions that seem to be especially manifested in alcoholics, both practicing and recovering.

The examples of these traits in Peter are abundant. St. Matthew, in his account of Jesus’ walking on water (Matthew 14, 24-33), tells us that St. Peter, obviously impressed by this heretofore undiscovered ability of his Master and wanting to both please and imitate him, said

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come out to you on the water.”

and, hardly waiting for Jesus’ assent, went racing out to meet Jesus on the waves. There he was, caught up in the moment, strutting his stuff…for a few minutes until he realized something like “Hey, wait a minute; I’m walking on water! I can’t do this!” and started sinking, only to be saved by Jesus.

This tendency to act now and think later on the part of Peter again displayed itself at the Transfiguration. There they were, Peter, James, John, and Jesus, up on the mountain, all but Jesus thinking this would be what had become by then a routine prayer session, when, suddenly, Jesus’ (Luke 9, 29)

face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.”

and then who showed up but Moses and Elijah! If Peter ever needed a drink, this was certainly the time, but I digress. Peter quickly realized that this was no ordinary day on the hill, but, rather than, like James and John, simply drinking it all in and enjoying it, he immediately blurted out (Luke 9, 33)

“Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Luke even points out

But he did not know what he was saying.

Effectively, what Peter was saying was something like “Man, this is great! Let’s just stay up here and never come down to the reality of life.”

and thus became like so many Christians throughout the ages who think that signing up for Christianity means, first, going to heaven, which is a great place to be, and that, as an additional bonus, sticking with Jesus will somehow keep trouble away and make life easy. But most of us know that, while Jesus does promise a place in heaven for us, He promises nothing of the sort in this life. He’s not going to take away our troubles; indeed, following Him will result in plenty of trouble above and beyond life’s normal trials. But He does promise us that He will be with us during those troubles; after all, He experienced most of them while He was here. But Peter didn’t want to hear that; He wanted to keep the good stuff on the mountain and avoid the painful stuff that awaited him down in the valley and thought his Master was the ticket for achieving this goal.

Peter’s impetuousness comes through again at the Last Supper when, after Jesus tells his Apostles (Mark 14, 27)

“All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be dispersed.’”

Peter replies

“Even though all should have their faith shaken, mine will not be.”

(If my thesis about Peter’s having an excessive love of the fruit of the vine is true, this may have been the 1st century forerunner of the Manischewitz talking. After all, at least according to the three synoptic gospels, the Last Supper was a Seder, and one can be confident that more than the wine that Jesus transformed into His Precious Blood was being consumed at the meal. Note that Peter, James, and John were having a very difficult time staying awake an hour or so hence in the Garden of Gethsemane at a not, by any stretch of the imagination, inconsequential time. But I digress.)

Jesus, being the cooler head at the table, replies (Mark 14, 30)

“Amen I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

and, as always, He was right. When the heat was on, Peter, being human and afraid, denied even knowing Jesus despite his previous bravado.

And then, after the resurrection, when Jesus tries to make everything okay again between Him and Peter by asking Peter three times (John 21, 15-19)

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter gets “distressed,” not understanding at all what Jesus was trying to do and replies in an exasperated fashion after the third time he was asked

“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!”

The guy pops off, falls down, and fights back when Jesus tries to lift him up. Sound alcoholic? Sound human?

Then, getting back to that first Christian Pentecost….

Peter, inspired by the Spirit and now clearly not full of “new wine,” launches into a long explanation of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications not only for his Jewish listeners and for all mankind. Three thousand people are convinced and want to be baptized, to sign up, if you will. So what does Peter do? He doesn’t look into their backgrounds. He doesn’t ask if they’ve been good. He doesn’t ask them to renounce their existing faith. He doesn’t make them jump through hoops. And he doesn’t make them feel like he is, through his great graces and manifest goodness, doing them some kind of favor. He, and his buddies, simply baptize them…all three thousand of them. (Acts 2, 41). Impetuousness does have its positives!

Later on, when the family of Cornelius, a Gentile, undergoes a Pentecost like experience, filled with the Spirit, speaking in tongues and all, Peter doesn’t check the rule book and say something like “Wait a minute; these guys aren’t Jews like us. This can’t be real. Our rules tell us only Jews can be filled with the Spirit. No, these guys can’t join us! Not these infidel Gentiles!” Instead, he says (Acts 10, 47-48)

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”


He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Again, impetuousness has its positives!

Speaking of impetuousness having its positives, thank God Peter was the often weak, yet headstrong far beyond his abilities, man that he was. Why? Because God’s glory and strength is manifested through otherwise weak and very ordinary and fallible people…people like Peter…and us. So there is hope for all of us, who can all easily relate to Peter’s manifest humanity.


If Peter were the kind of guy who thought through everything, who carefully considered his every move, we might not have had the Christian faith that we have today. No rational person gives up everything for what seemed like, nearly literally, a wing and a prayer. No rational person follows an itinerant preacher up a hill for God knows what purpose. No rational person decides to get out of a boat and walk across the water. No rational person gets up and talks to a group of thousands of people not having the faintest idea what he is going to say. No rational person breaks all the rules and lets insiders in on this great thing we really should save for ourselves. And no rational person goes to his death by being crucified, upside down, as tradition says Peter was.

So, unless you (perhaps, too,) are alcoholic, raise a glass to St. Peter this Thanksgiving. His very human tendency to shoot first, aim later, to rush in where wise men fear to tread, his impetuousness too late tempered by reason…his very alcoholic traits…are among the greatest things for which we should be utterly grateful.

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