A sermon preached on May 23rd, 2021 – Pentecost Sunday – entitled, “Waiting for Power from on High: Pentecost and the Origins of Alcoholics Anonymous” – based upon Acts 2:1-21.
Pentecost makes for a great story, what with all the weird stuff that happens: the mighty wind, the tongues of fire, the supernatural capacity given to the Apostles to speak the Good News of God in other languages. And yet there is a danger that it can be the sort of story we put on the shelf as something that happened once upon a time 2000 years ago but which has little relevance for life today.
And that would be unfortunate, because if we but have the eyes to see, the Pentecost story gets re-enacted time and again in the present.
In the early 1930s there a rich, Rhode Island businessmen by the name of Rowland seemed to have everything going for him with one glaring exception. He was an alcoholic. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop getting drunk, and his binges threatened to destroy his life.
As a rich man Rowland had the means to seek out the very best help available. Psychoanalysis was all the rage in those days and the most famous psychiatrist in the world was the great Sigmund Freud. Rowland wrote to Freud asking if he could travel to Austria to be his patient, but Freud was apparently overbooked and turned him down, which in hindsight was most fortunate.
The second most famous psychiatrist of the time was Carl Jung. Once Freud’s disciple, Jung and Freud had parted ways twenty years earlier over core beliefs about which they passionately disagreed.
Rowland wrote to Jung making the same request. Jung was willing to take him on as a patient so Rowland travelled across the ocean for an extended stay in Austria for the sole purpose of entering psychoanalysis with Dr. Jung. Over the course of several months of intensive psychoanalysis Jung helped Rowland to a great deal of insight regarding things buried in his unconscious that had a hand in driving Rowland to drink. During his treatment, Rowland remained sober and with his new found insights he concluded that he had been cured of his alcoholism.
Thanking Dr. Jung, Rowland departed Vienna to head home to the United States, but by the time his train reached Paris Rowland had already descended into another episode of binge drinking. He returned to Dr. Jung, begging him to continue treating him, but Dr. Jung told Rowland that regretfully psychoanalysis had accomplished all it was likely to do for Rowland, and there was no sense continuing.
Jung, however gave Rowland some advice the nature of which points to the crucial difference between Freud and Jung. Freud believed religion was bunk, a childish fantasy that human beings needed to outgrow. Jung, in contrast believed human life contained a spiritual dimension that was critically important.
Jung told Rowland that at this point the only hope for him would be found by his undergoing what Jung vaguely referred to as some kind of “vital spiritual experience.” Jung acknowledged this would not be easy, given the Spirit isn’t something one can command to show up when it suits us. Nonetheless, Jung suggested Rowland get involved in the Oxford Group, a relatively new but increasingly popular Christian fellowship. The Oxford Group was a collection of small groups of Christians who met together regularly in what they understood to be the manner akin to that of the earliest Christians. They owned no buildings and had little by way of theological creed. They had no formal leadership, believing that their true leader was the Holy Spirit.
The Oxford Group had four basic tenets they followed in their meetings:
- “The sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian”.
- “Surrender our life past, present and future, into God’s keeping and direction”.
- “Restitution to all whom we have wronged directly or indirectly”.
- “Listening for God’s guidance, and carrying it out”.
Rowland took Jung’s suggestion, and over time as he attended meetings of an Oxford Group Rowland came to experience some sort of “vital spiritual experience” in which the Holy Spirit became very real to him, and for the rest of his life Rowland managed to maintain his sobriety.
Returning to the United States, Rowland sought out some fellow alcoholics who were similarly desperate to find a way to leave behind their destructive binges. Four such men were willing to join Rowland in establishing their own Oxford Group, and through their meetings, the others similarly experienced the power of God in such a way that they were able to find the path of sobriety and serenity.
One of the four men in the group had an old drinking buddy known as Bill W. Once a “golden boy” on Wall Street who had achieved great wealth at an early age, now at the 39 Bill’s once promising career had been completely derailed by his chronic alcoholism. When the friend approached Bill about joining their meetings, Bill was surprised to find his friend so serenely sober, but Bill’s skepticism over his old buddy having “gotten religion” led Bill to reject the invitation.
In time though Bill experienced another episode of binge drinking that landed him in a hospital under the treatment of a doctor who specialized in addiction. Bill sobered up, but he left the hospital feeling profoundly depressed. He envisioned for himself a life of ever-increasing addiction.
One night Bill’s friend visited him in his home, attempting to persuade Bill to turn his life over to the care of the Christian God who his friend assured him could set him free from his addiction to alcohol. His friend left Bill that night with no indication that he would seriously consider what he had shared with him.
Later that night, however Bill lay in his bed in utter despair. He cried out, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there is a God, let this God show himself!”
Later Bill would describe the sensation he suddenly had of a bright light filling his bedroom, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. Bill began attending meetings of the Oxford Group and never drank again.
Bill’s doctor was greatly impressed by what had happened to Bill, and encouraged him to find a way to share what he had discovered with other alcoholics.
Some of you will recognize where this story is headed. Bill ended up in Akron, Ohio where he began what came to be known as Alcoholics Anonymous. Drawing from his experience with the Oxford Group, Bill came up with what are now known as the 12 steps.
In order to make AA more welcoming to all people – particularly, perhaps people who had had negative experiences with people who purported to be “Christian” — Bill intentionally sought to make AA less self-consciously Christian – referring in the 12 steps simply to a “higher power” – or to “God as we understand Him.”
Nonetheless, the first three steps resonate with the basic movement of Christian conversion.
The first step involves admitting one’s powerlessness over alcohol, the result being one’s life has become unmanageable.
The second is coming to believe that a Power greater than oneself can restore one to sanity.
The third was to make a decision to turn one’s will – one’s very life over to the care of God as one understands him.
The other nine steps involve a commitment to an ongoing process to sustain the spiritual awakening experienced in the first three steps: A person commits to honestly acknowledge and confront their character flaws, to make amends to people who they have wronged, to engage in prayer and meditation to maintain a connection to the “higher power”, and finally, having experienced a spiritual awakening through the practice of the 12 steps to carry the message of hope to others.
It was also understood that the ongoing process would be supported by continued meetings with others who shared their commitment to the same recovery process – meetings at which the honest truth regarding their struggles to stay on the path would be humbly shared, and mutual support and accountability provided.
Late in his life Carl Jung wrote a letter to Bill in which he put forth the idea that at the root of addiction is a misplaced spiritual longing.
In the eighty years since Bill W. started AA, the 12 steps and AA meetings has helped millions upon millions of alcoholics throughout the world find sobriety. Although the medical field has developed other ways to treat alcoholism that can at times be effective, AA remains to this day the most common pathway through which people find and sustain sobriety. The 12 steps have been used to address a whole host of other forms of destructive addictions.
Rowland, Bill W, and Jung all came to see that what we call alcoholism is simultaneously a kind of disease to which certain people are genetically predisposed as well as a form of bondage that includes moral and spiritual components.
What the church has traditionally called “sin” is a kind of addiction.
Sin involves a kind of chronic self-absorption that is tied up with fear and shame and a compulsive dishonesty regarding the destructive powers at work in our lives – powers not just “out there” but also inside of each of us. It involves a prideful determination to go it alone, keeping the pretense of being in control even when we aren’t, with inevitable harmful consequences to both ourselves and others.
You can take the twelve steps and substitute the word “sin” and for the world “alcohol” and the steps become applicable to the lives of all of us.
So, with the story of the beginning of AA in mind, lets return to the story of Pentecost.
In AA they talk about “hitting rock bottom” – the point at which one’s bondage makes such a mess of a person’s life that it brings them to their knees. With a new found humility and honesty the possibility arises that a person may finally be able to reach out for help in a way that up until this point their pride would not allow them to do.
That’s exactly what we see in the story of Peter. At the Last Supper he adamantly declares he is “in control” — that he personally possesses the power over his fear required to lovingly stand at Jesus side come what may. A few hours later he hits rock bottom when his terror – his self-absorbed instinct for survival at all costs trumps his love of Jesus and leads leads him – as Jesus had predicted – to three times denying he ever knew Jesus.
Something similar occurred to the other disciples as well, who also said they would never abandon Jesus.
Hitting rock bottom would have been the bitter end of the story except for the glorious mysteries of what happen soon afterwards – first the resurrection of Jesus – and then the mysterious promise the risen Jesus made to his disciples that if they simply wait together in Jerusalem they would receive “power from on high.”
It makes you wonder whether Bill W. had this story in mind when he came up with the term “higher power.”
So, now fully recognizing they aren’t running the show – God is – the disciples humbly wait for the day that finally comes during the festival of Pentecost when that mysterious power “from on high” descends upon them.
Their “vital spiritual experience” – to use Jung’s term – is beyond words to express, so they resort to poetry – to metaphors – to convey something of what they experienced – describing it as being like “a mighty wind” – or like “tongues of fire.”
They are changed by this power on the inside. Peter in particular rises up to be the man he couldn’t be before – utterly humble and yet simultaneously powerful – knowing the power isn’t his own – it belongs to God. And he knows, as the 12th step states, that the message of God’s liberating love revealed in Jesus must be shared with others who long to be set free.
You may or may not know that our church hosts five noon time AA meetings each week in our Fellowship Hall. During the Pandemic, we were one of the few churches that continued to allow recovering Alcoholics to meet in our building. We knew there were some risks involved because of the possible spread of Covid at the meetings, and so we required the participants to follow strict guidelines. But we also recognized how critically important these meeting are to the people who attend them. With a profound sense of gratitude, people who attend these meetings have repeatedly thanked me and our church with a profound sense of gratitude for allowing them to meet in our building.
There is something so important about joining together with others who are on a similar journey simply to practice utter honesty about their struggles, and seeking together that higher power – the Holy Spirit – that brings freedom.
At the first Pentecost, barriers of language and culture were overcome. The same thing happens at AA meetings. Rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, all races, ethnicities and religions come together knowing they have one essential thing in common – a commitment to stay on the humble path that leads to sobriety and serenity. Some folks attend a meeting almost every day – they consider it that important to stay in touch with their higher power.
AA keeps their meetings intentionally simple. AA doesn’t possess money or hierarchy – things that would give opportunity for egos to compete for control. Participants don’t let themselves get distracted by arguments over politics or theology — they keep the focus on working the program and the central question: How’s it going day by day for you in turning away from the temptation to drink, and turning instead to God? In the process, they develop a grater capacity to love – particularly people with whom they might otherwise have seemed to have little in common.
In a certain sense, AA meetings seem to me to be little re-enactments of the original Pentecost Story.
We have a lot to learn from AA. Each week during this Pandemic I’ve made a point of emphasizing how vitally important it is for us to come together to connect as best we can in shared worship – through livestream if necessary – to keep us connecting us to the source of all love and life.