Sunday, 20 May 2018

Pentecost and The Book of Joel


Today is Pentecost, when the Church community remembers God pouring out his Holy Spirit on the disciples fifty days after Easter. Over the past week, I have been reflecting on the events of Pentecost, as told in the book of Acts. One of the things I noticed was that Peter quotes extensively from the prophet Joel and interprets the events of that day as a fulfillment of what Joel is saying. Now, Joel is not a book that I (and probably most Christians today) are overly familiar with, so I thought it would be worth my time digging into Joel to see what it might add to my understanding of the events of Pentecost. I also thought it might be worth dusting off this old blog and posting some thoughts on it here, in case someone would find my musings helpful. So here is a quick summary of the Book of Joel, and how it relates to the events of Pentecost.

Joel begins by describing a plague of locusts, which destroys all the crops and vegetation in the land, which brings about a famine. Joel tells us that this is not just an act of nature, but an act of God’s judgment on his people who have forgotten him. The people are not able to produce any crops (gran and wine are often sighted in this book, see Joel 1:9), which means they are unable to produce what they need to survive, but also what they need to offer to God. Furthermore, not only do they and their community suffer, their livestock, and even the plans and the wild animals of their land suffer also (see Joel 1:20.) When we live outside of God’s way, the while of humanity and the whole of creation also suffers. We are living in a time when we are finding out just how true this is. Our collective greed and consumption is causing untold damage and pollution to the planet God has given us as a home, which is now culminating with us damaging the global climate, and it is the poor and venerable which are bearing the brunt of the suffering this is causing.

Joel then calls upon God’s people to acknowledge the fact that they are living outside of God’s ways and to repent. And it’s a no holds barred type of repentance: sackcloth, morning, fasting, the works, (Joel 1:13-15.) in which everyone is asked to take part; not just the priest and ministers, but the elderly, the children, the infants, even the brides and grooms on their wedding day (Joel 2: 16-17. Imagine having to tell a bridezilla that they must postpone their wedding day because some Prophet guy has called for national repentance!)  It is a call echoed by Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38.)

Now, repentance isn’t the most popular concept for us today, especially when you start adding weird things like skipping meals and wearing sackcloth into the mix. It conjures up images of an angry, wrathful God who we only worship out of fear. But this is not how Joel say that we should see God. Joel calls us to:

Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:13. See also Exodus 34 6-7, Deuteronomy 4:31, Psalm 86:15, Micah 7:18)

God loves us deeply, and is longing for us to repent, to come back to the fold and to follow him. And as Peter explained at Pentecost, he has gone to great lengths to help us to do so, thought the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2: 22-37.)  Because of this, we can have confidence that if we do repent, God will hear us, forgive us and reconcile us to him (now that is a word which is popular right now, at least in the community I am in.)

In the next part of Joel (2:18-27) God tells us what will happen if we do repent: he will restore what was lost, and we will see the land will be restored to its former glory. However, the promise does not stop there: God’s plan is taking us to a new place. And that brings us to the part of Joel with Peter quotes.

 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
 And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Joel 2:28-38, Acts 2: 17-23.)

Joel describes a future event where, because the people responded to God's love by repenting and turning to him, the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all, which Peter asserts was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. What is striking about this passage when read in its Old Testament context is the universality of the invitation. It is open to “all people”, regardless of age, sex or social class. While the Holy Spirit is poured out at times during the Old Testament, it is only on a few people, at limited times and in limited ways. Joel is looking forward to a time when the Spirit will come on and dell in all the people, the only pre-request being their posture towards God; they must be people who have turned towards God, having repented from the bad stuff in their lives.  And it is this pouring out of the Spirit that we see at Pentecost.

After the prophecy about the Spirit, Joel describes what God will do after the Spirit is poured out; the he will bring judgement upon those who continue to live outside of his will (Joel 3:1-16), but that he will dwell with his people forever (Joel 3:17-21) in an image which reminds us of Revelation 21-22, when God make all things right. The Spirit is not poured out just cos, but to help bring about the reality of God dwelling with his people.  While Peter doesn’t mention it at Pentecost, it is clear thought-out the New Testament that the Spirit is at work bringing God’s kingdom to Earth, culminating on the day when God will bring Heaven and Earth together, when he will dwell with his people forever.

 Joel helps is see the events of Pentecost more clearly and adds to our big picture understand of the Spirit. The Spirits helps us see what God is doing, not only thought dreams, visions and prophecy, but also by helping us to understand God’s word, The Bible. The Sprint gives us the tools (often call the Gifts of the Spirit) so that we can partner with God, as he builds his kingdom thought us. The Spirit helps us grow in the character of God, helping us to become people of love, joy peace etc, so that we can show who God is by the type of people who we are.  And the Spirit helps us to set our relationship with God right to begin with, to help us repent and turn away from judgement and distraction, and give ourselves to God, so that we can be a part of his Kingdom, and what he is do thought his Spirit today, to bring about this future reality where God dwells fully with his people.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Tackling the Israel Folau Ruck-us


Israel Folau. What a hullabaloo you have caused. And for those of us of the Christian faith: what a mess.

I guess you could say that this is my attempt to clean the mess up. A theological cleaner. Maybe I should add that to my bio on Instagram. Sounds pretentious enough…

Instagram, the place where this whole debacle began. The place where a user by the user name of mike_sephton ask Folau a simple (or maybe not so simple) question: “what was gods plan for gay people??” A question, to which Folau answered “HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.” Since then… well, I guess you could say all Hell has broken loose…

This was a couple of weeks ago now, but the story just won’t go away. Just five hours ago as I write this, All Black TJ Perenara tweeted his own thoughts on the matter, which has already captured the media’s attention once again. So, it doesn’t look like the story is blowing over any time soon. And whatever your thoughts on the issue, it’s not a pretty look for Christians. And from what I have seen of Facebook, Christians are divided on the issue. Yay for unity!! Or not…

So, where to begin? Well, I would like to go back to the beginning (yes, it’s a very good place to start, yada yada) and look at the question which started it all, and the answer which Folau gave, and maybe think about what answer he (or we) should have given to the question.

Just to remind us what we are talking about: The question (grammatically clean up) again: “What is God’s plan for gay people?”
Folau’s answer: “Hell, unless they repent of their sins and turn to God."

 What I think Folau has tried to do, is give a very brief gospel message in replay. And while on the surface, it may look like a fairly orthodox (if blunt) Christian response, he has in fact got the gospel message mixed up.  

God's plan is not Hell for anyone (homosexual or otherwise.)

God’s plan is to save people from Hell.

That’s why God became a man, Jesus.

That’s why Jesus dead on the cross.

Hell is what happens when people say no to God's plan. But it is not what he wants for anyone.

And this is not just for LGBTQ people: this is for all of us. There is not one gospel for straight people and another for LGBTQ people, there is one gospel, for all.

 Now, to be fair, Folau has later said that that he his answer was not just for gay people, but what he believes God’s plan is for all people, in an extended article where he elaborates on what he meant. (see https://www.playersvoice.com.au/israel-folau-im-a-sinner-too/#srjCJTAAqgpwx2fF.99 for what he said.) Maybe this was his intention. It’s hard to tell when he is writing after the fact. But ether way, if your're asked what is God’s plan for a particular group of people, and you answer “hell,” it’s going come across as a condemnation of that group of people, no matter what your intentions are. And even here, Folau is make the same mistake in what the gospel teaches about Gods' plain for humanity. He speaks about God's plan for sinners, then quotes 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10. But again, this is not what God wants for us, but what happens if we fall outside of Gods plan.  

So the repose given by Folau shows a lack of understanding of what the gospel truly is. And on one level, that’s okay: we are all on a journey of discovering more and more of what the gospel looks like, and we all need grace while we are on that journey. I hope and pray that as Folau journeys, he will understand the gospel better.

But it also shows a lack of another Christian value: wisdom.

He lacked the wisdom to see how his answer would be understood by those who would read it, and what a storm and controversy it would create.

He lacked the wisdom to point to the love of God, to tell the story of what he has done to save us, instead he appeals to human fear.

He lacked the wisdom to clarified what Hell is and what it means, in a world where there are so many misconceptions out there of what it is.

He lacked the wisdom to see that if you want to loved someone, you need listen to their story, to care about their story, and to speak into their story, that you need to care who they are to be able to love them. (Again, see https://www.playersvoice.com.au/israel-folau-im-a-sinner-too/#srjCJTAAqgpwx2fF.99)

Then again, perhaps I too lack wisdom for jumping into this controversy also…

Wisdom and understanding.

Two things Paul would often pray that God will give, by his Spirit, to the churches he wrote to.

Two things lacking for Folau’s answer.

My hope and my prayer is that God will pour out his Spirt of wisdom and understanding, on Israel Folau, and on his Church today.