An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Drunk and Disorderly for Jesus

A sermon on Ephesians 5:15-20 by Nathan Nettleton
There is no recording of the whole service this week, because the pastor forgot to hit the record button!

According to something I heard on the radio, last Friday was National Prosecco Day. Who knew that was a thing? Not me. I don’t think my beloved was so surprised, but as far as I can tell, Margie’s thought that every Friday for the last decade or so was National Prosecco Day, and she and her friends certainly do their bit to support the industry. I predictably failed to do my bit. Sparkling wine is a bit wasted on me. It’s a pleasant enough drink if there is nothing better available, but for that sort of money I could buy several outstanding craft brewed beers and get a great deal more enjoyment out of them.

Besides, in the extract we heard tonight from his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery,” but he doesn’t say any such thing about beer, and every now and again a really really suspect method of biblical interpretation goes in your favour! 

It reminds me of a conversation I had the other night with James’ wife Jude. She was telling about a conversation she and James had had with some nutter who reckoned he had worked out from the Bible and the news exactly when Jesus was coming back. Jude had said to him, but didn’t Jesus say that we can’t know the day or the hour? Yeah, he replied, but he didn’t say you can’t know the month! Funnily enough, you can take the Bible so literally that it becomes absolutely full of holes again!!

I do want to spend some time looking at Paul’s statement about drunkenness tonight, and I’m aiming to do it without resorting to that kind of dubious biblical gymnastics. 

This letter has a couple of chapters of “practical applications” towards the end, and we began looking at them last week in that sermon that was 90% introduction. This whole sermon will probably be shorter than that introduction! Anyway, the short extract we heard this week follows straight on from what we heard last week, and I want to focus our consideration of it around Paul’s quirky word-play on the image of drunkenness. 

Paul writes, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” In my paraphrase of the passage I’ve rendered it, “If you’re going to go getting yourselves ‘under the influence’, make sure its the influence of the Spirit and not of the wine!” I was endeavouring to highlight the deliberate humour in Paul’s words, because he is clearly playing with the image of “getting full”, or as we might put it, “getting a skin-full”. 

He continues this play on images in the following verses where he uses the idea of singing together to illustrate what he’s talking about. He’s saying you don’t need a “skin-full of booze” to get you singing together – there’s another way.

One of the things that I think is really interesting about this play of images, is that it is double edged. Do you remember those exam questions you used to get where they’d name two things and then ask you to “compare and contrast” them? Well this is a similar kind of thing. Paul is not simply setting up two patterns of behaviour and contrasting them – one good and the other bad. He is calling us to note some similarities as well. 

We’re going to look at the contrasts first, but if you’re feeling unsettled that Paul might also be making a positive comparison between drunkenness and spiritual living, just remember that he wasn’t the first to do it. Remember what happened on the Day of Pentecost. The Book of Acts tells us that most of the onlookers thought that the newly Spirit-filled believers had just had a skin-full of booze. We’ll come back to that.

The contrast or opposition between a boozy lifestyle and a Spirit-filled lifestyle are more familiar to us. In some churches, being a non-drinker is considered to be one of the essential signs of your Christian commitment. The Methodists, the Salvation Army and, in some parts of the world, the Baptists have all been associated with a strong anti-alcohol stance. It will be no surprise to you that I don’t identify with that view – I enjoy a drink and I enjoy it fairly often. But I still recognise the contrast!

The image that Paul is using here is not simply that of drinking, it is that of drunkenness. There are various reasons why some people routinely drink to the point of drunkenness. It produces an altered state of consciousness, which can often be quite pleasurable, at least at the time, and I guess there are a few people who get drunk regularly just because they enjoy that experience. 

My observation though, is that most of the people who regularly get drunk do so, not so much because they like the way it feels, but because they don’t like the way they feel the rest of the time. It is an escape, a way out. It is a way of numbing, for a while, the pressures and pains of a life that is not providing the satisfaction, joy and fulfilment that we all long for. When life is feeling like a failure, we tend to be less concerned about the consequences of something like drunkenness. It makes us feel a little better for a while and if things are crap anyway, it can’t make them that much worse.

Paul begins then by contrasting this with life ‘under the influence’ of the Holy Spirit. The contrast begins as a continuation of the practical instructions that began in last week’s reading. Here he is urging us to be careful and clear-headed in the ways we live. He tell us that we are living in evil times and that we can easily get sucked into wrong things if we don’t have our wits about us. “Live wisely. Don’t do anything stupid,” says Paul. 

There’s no one more gullible than a drunk. Their defences are down and they’ll fall for anything. The one thing most drunks wake up dreading even more than a hang-over is hearing back what they did the night before. Even if it is not particularly bad, it might still seem embarrassing in the cold light of the next day. 

Back when Acacia was in kindergarten, one of the kinder mums was very funny, even when dead straight sober, and she was from Glasgow which meant that her accent often made her jokes sound even funnier, and like many Glaswegians, she certainly liked a pint or four. I think she was the parents’ committee president or social secretary or something. Anyway, I was picking up Acacia the day after the night of the rowdy Kindergarten Community Trivia Night, and I overheard another mum saying to the Glaswegian one, “You were great last night. Your second speech was an absolute cracker.” To which she replied, “O my f**king God. Did I make a second speech?!”

That dreadful moment when you have no idea what you might have done or said. And it can be a hell of a lot worse than finding out that you made a second and even funnier speech last night. Paul is clearly of the opinion that drunkenness, no matter how good it might feel at the time, is not the pathway to the fullness of life that God desires for us all. To find the pathway of the full and limitless life, you’ll need to have your wits about you. So the contrast is clear.

What about the comparison though? We are less used to thinking of good Christian living as being anything like habitual drunkenness, but I think Paul is doing this quite deliberately. And I think that perhaps the reason we have trouble with the image is because we have tended to fall into exactly the error that Paul was hoping to get us to avoid. 

We are so used to thinking of Christianity as very nice and proper and sober and dignified, and Paul was wary that in encouraging us to be careful and wise we might over react and become stiff and starchy and miserly. Christians can be the ugliest people in the world when they get like that. They become lifeless and life-denying — no, no, no! — and Paul is hoping we won’t fall into that.

So he sets about counter balancing his good sober advice with this image of “drunk and disorderly” Christian living! His word-play on getting “full” suggests that he sees some similarities. 

Today he might even have alluded to other drugs of choice, and encouraged us to get high on the Spirit. Paul draws on the image of alcohol as a social lubricant – as something that enables people to relax and celebrate and enjoy one another’s company. You know the image. We’ve all seen groups of people who might otherwise be rather uptight and distant having a few drinks and marching down the street arm in arm singing joyously at the top of their voices. 

Paul picks up this idea and suggests that you don’t need alcohol to get you singing – getting high on the Holy Spirit can achieve the same desirable goal! He does suggest that “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” might be an improvement on bawdy drinking songs, but then Luther, Watts and Wesley all wrote hymns to the tunes of some of the drinking songs of their day. Our hymn “Covenant Wine” does the same thing with a drinking song from the sixties, written by Tom Paxton and then made a hit by the Fireballs. We should have sung it tonight if I had planned ahead better.

Someone (Mark Twain perhaps?) once said, “Alcohol doesn’t change a person, it just unmasks them.” Some drunks are violent, lecherous and belligerent. Some are pathetic, broken and sad. And some are uninhibitedly joyous, funny and sociable. It is clearly this latter group that Paul is holding up for comparison. 

I remember at my induction service here, Alan Marr preached and told a story of being in Sydney the night of the Mardi Gras. By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he found himself running into the protest march of the ultra-moralistic Festival of Light. Alan commented that in terms of a spirit of joy, colour, celebration and creativity, the contrast between the two marches – the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras and the dour, predominantly ‘christian’ protest – could not have been more striking. 

That comment was very much in the spirit of what Paul is saying here. If Christianity seems to be lifeless and starchy, then you’re doing it all wrong. We are, after all, followers of Jesus, and Jesus was accused, repeatedly, of being a drunkard and a glutton. And it is pretty hard to imagine how any starchy tea-totaler would ever get themselves accused of that. Not only was Jesus accused of that, but on another occasion, we are told that he produced gallons and gallons of good quality wine at a wedding where everybody had already had an absolute skin-full and had drunk the house dry. 

Total abstinence is a very important and life-saving choice for some people, but it certainly wasn’t something that Jesus ever got himself known for or advocated as an essential for everyone else.

But Paul’s point here is not actually about whether you drink or not. There are drinkers who are miserable and judgmental and belligerent, and there are soft-drink-only people who are joyous and generous and gracious. Those are the kind of differences that matter, not whether you drink or not.

Jesus calls us to live life to the full; to love, and share, and celebrate. So lighten up! Loosen up! The Spirit of God is poured out. Get a ‘skin-full’ for Jesus!

Questions for thought and discussion.

  • What are some of the characteristics associated with drunkenness that take us away from living as Jesus would have us live?
  • What are some of the characteristics associated with ‘teatotalism’ that take us away from living as Jesus would have us live?
  • What are some of the characteristics associated with the ‘influence of alcohol’ that should be evident in those under the ‘influence of the Spirit’?
  • How do we go about increasing those positive characteristics in our life together?


  1. Vincent Michael Hodge

    I am not sure that the main message of this sermon – which to me says that seeking the spirit of the God of Jesus Christ does not require us to be without joy and laughter and which i support wholeheartedly– is served by comparisons of the demeanour of people who support either Mardi Gras versus the demeanour of supporters of the Festival of light. In fact I am not even sure that Ephesians has any relevance to whether people drink alcohol or do not drink alcohol. For me all that Paul is saying is that drinking wine is a path for some away from the Spirit of God rather than a life of truth and repentance. His emphasis is on seeking truth, love, one Body in Christ rather than a collection of disparate dissolute pleasure seekers bent on their singular pursuit of satisfaction. He judges the behaviour on its source and on its fruits. So for me Mardi Gras is an ambiguous exercise and that judgment or lack of it has nothing to do with morality or truth. Much like the way people dress or do not dress at public beaches and even in workplaces. Whether Festival of Light people are out to be kill joys because they are living a life of inner unhappiness is not a judgement I can make. I can only judge whether i agree with their official view of what the Christian Scriptures lead me to think about how people live their lives. Just so I cannot see a drunk and call them dissolute in their inner selves. We know now that such behaviour can be a medically induced condition. My own father was an alcoholic and my mother could not stand drink. Both were happy joyful people in many ways. Ephesians makes a lot of comparisons of bad versus good – it is not a style of writing that our current culture adopts without far deeper analysis and description. Such shallow writing is closer to the preserve of tabloid newspapers than what we regard as complete writing postures. So when we interpret Paul we need to be careful about taking the positive and leaving the negatives for what they are – ambiguous statements with a lot to think about.

    What is key to Ephesians is the text that follows on from the text for this week. Paul talks about “submission”. Many people only hear that text at weddings and it has become for many a text that denigrates women. However read in the context of the whole letter we easily see that the key theme is submission to Love for the whole household of God. Paul continually repeats a reference to “walking” throughout the letter – it is a writing based upon action and probably influenced his choice of the metaphor about drinking wine since being drunk obviously prevented people from walking straight and true and with purpose.

    The current issues with Islam obviously are topical since that religion is based upon submission to the Will of Allah. So we Christians and Muslims have much in common but also much that breeds conflict through misunderstandings as much as through different views of truth.
    So Ephesians is about LOVE – not agreement but LOVE. And that is difficult when even our friends adopt answers that take us further apart. Perhaps that is why Ephesians emphasises how our redemption was ransomed with the Blood of Christ. So singing hymns and praising God is not simply a mardi gras nor need it be as sad as funeral procession. Paul emphasises how e are all to seek unity as we are members of One Body. he would not writing about in such a long letter if the task was easy and clearcut.

  2. Vincent Michael Hodge

    PS: Interplay of Mardi Gras and Festival of Light. Sparkle and Dim light – The Outlandish and The Just Out There – Fascinating parallel between Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and Lent ( Fasting and Penance). The earliest Carnivale seem to be occasions where Church authorities permitted outlandish street processions which mocked ordinary respectability through dress, masks and processions. This was all a pre-emptive exercise followed by the Lenten austerity. So it seems that we have always had that inculturation of the dark/light – what I think in Italian art is taken up with Chiaroscuro – the jester and the philosopher. Life and Death. maybe that is reflected in the writing scheme of Ephesians where we have the obvious enmity/judgment of the two poles of behaviour. What is counter cultural is that Paul’s Ephesian letter says that Repentance and Joy go together – the Christian life is not about Licentiousness (Prodigality) on one hand and Prudence (Frugality) on the other – Christian Life is about joy and singing but in LOVE as we celebrate our diversity and unity – thesis -antithesis- synthesis. all done with Love which brings deep springs of joy, streams of living water – not just the shallow draught of the bottle!

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