Thursday, 12 May 2016

Pentecost: In the last days

The end is nigh!

Is the end nigh?

Luke writes down the following ominous words declared by Peter as he describes the events of the first Pentecost:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh!’

In the last days, in the end times! This is what could be described as apocalyptic language coming to us from 2000 years ago at Pentecost!?

What Luke’s audience understood these words to mean is difficult for us to comprehend: did they think the end was associated with the end of the Roman occupation? Was the end associated with the return of Christ? Was the end an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the world?

As modern Christians we should understand that when the day of Pentecost was unfolding there had been no long and detailed reflection about Jesus identity and his mission.  There was no scriptures other than the Torah – the books we call the Old Testament.  What there had was the experience of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection!  They had witnessed his presence in the world and they were still trying to make sense of.

It is in this context that Peter boldly quotes the prophet Joel as if the end times were upon them: “In the last days”.  Whatever the people who heard these words thought the idea that the end times were close is undoubtable.

The sense of the proximity of the last days that the first followers of Jesus had is reflected in the fact that it took almost a generation before Jesus stories were to be written down. And, might I say, far longer than before the Bible, as we know it, emerged as the recognised authoritative witness to Jesus’ life and its meaning.

I wonder if there was a sense of irony as Luke wrote the story down around 30 years later. As he penned those words ‘the last days.’  Did he still wonder whether they were in fact in the last days given the number of years that had passed?

And here we are almost 2000 years on from that point grappling with that same question.  Were Peter’s words correct are we still living in the last days – has every generation since been living in the last days and what might this mean.

Peter indicates that there will be signs in the last days, portents, to help us become aware that we are indeed coming close to the end of all things, signs which include the pouring out of the Spirit of God on all things.

Yet, whilst this might be seen as a positive sign I have lived through an era in my life time when the signs of the time, the warnings seems to surround us.

I was born in 1968 under the sign of the Vietnam War and grew with the shadow of the cold war looming over me.  By the time I was old enough to be aware of the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust I was also aware enough to believe I would live past my teenage years.  The pall and threat of war was great.

If the sign of impending war was not enough in the same year I was born Paul Ehrlich published his seminal work “The Population Bomb”.  Whilst it has been criticised as being too alarmist and some of his predictions have been off target Ehrlich continues to stand by his basic premise that the population of the planet will outgrow the capacity of the planet to support humanity.  According to thesis the consequence of the overpopulation will include famine and starvation, mass movements of people, political instability.  Consequences potentially exacerbated by a Western culture obsessed with the notions of growth and consumption.  Concerns echoes in the writings of people like Clive Hamilton, Zygmaunt Bauman, Paul Gilding and the list goes on.

Signs of the times, war and conflict, overpopulation, uneven distribution of wealth and a changing political landscape.

Despite the end of the Cold War and Francis Fukuyama’s somewhat hopeful if yet ambiguous assessment of liberal democracy as “The End of History and of the Last Man” the turmoil of the last two and a half decades have seen the rise and rise of the conservative state and the continuation of political instability for humanity.

With all of the signs around us environmental crisis has come upon us in succession as more species die out, as pollution destroys the beauty of so much God’s good earth and then to top it all off climate change.  As if the other signs of the time were not enough, this week on the internet I picked up this graph tracing the increase in average global temperatures since 1850.

This week I read an article about the rising of the oceans in the Pacific and how a number of reef Islands have already disappeared and that in some low lying communities people are already being forced to move.  I met a pastor from Kiribati around 6 years ago who was wondering whether the Australian government will be prepared to accept the population of just over 100 000 people when the Island becomes uninhabitable.

The signs of the time are with us and I can’t but help think of these stories and problems we face as humanity when I read these words.  It is not be surprising to see people living with a pathological lack of hope in the face of the issues that have weighed us down just during my lifetime.  Or, maybe to see another approach, typified by hedonism, ignorance, and the seeking after the good life with disregard to the common good and the problems of the world.  It’s easy to just not contemplate all of these depressing things.

But Peter’s quote from Joel is not just about a meaningless end of the world, his words contain hope for us and for all that God has made.  They contain an invitation to look beyond the signs of the times, of the last days, and to God. 

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh!’

Jesus himself warned against watching for the signs of times and about predicting when things were going to come to a head – only God knows, and even when the end comes, even the end of life, our faith revolves around a hope that defeats death. The Christian notion that the last days are not an end but a new beginning.

Peter describes to the witnesses what is occurring on the day of Pentecost declaring God’s promise that those who call on Jesus name will be saved and that the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.
This idea that the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh needs to be emphasised – though only the believers received the outward signs, tongues of fire and rushing wind, the Spirit is being poured out on all flesh.

The Spirit of God which Jesus had describe as a helper is being poured out, it is with them and those who receive the outward signs of the Spirit gives us a glimpse of something special.

In the miracle on the day people were speaking different languages but were understanding one another, people from different lands could hear what was being spoken in their own languages.  In this manifestation of the gift of speaking in tongues what occurs is more like a gift of hearing.

The promise of God’s Spirit is a vision in which one of key barriers to human reconciliation and unity is transcended.  God enables people to understand each other without losing their distinct identity represented in their language.

Paul will later speak of Christ’s presence in the world being about the reconciliation of all things in Christ.  If anything the last days are not the last days of the creation.  The Bible’s vision of the end times is a new beginning in which we as human being transcend our differences.

It is important to contemplate too that in the scene whilst not everyone appears to receive the gift of tongues they become witnesses to it.  In some more obscure way they are being drawn into God’s future.

The last days have come and the church is being born as a place in which human beings will grow in their ability to understand one another.

The great theologian Karl Barth described the church with two words that I think relate well to this particular moment.  The church is anticipatory and provisional.

Let me briefly explore each of these words.

The church is anticipatory because in the church we encounter the vision of the last days, the time of reconciliation and understanding established through the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.  A new creation is unfolding.  Of course I am not naïve and I am aware that as a sign of the promised future the church has often failed in its task because of our divisions and our sins.  Nonetheless, our life anticipates what is to come and enfolds itself in a transcendent hope which sits in contrast to the hopelessness of the signs of the times.

The church is provisional because we are a sign which anticipates the consequences of what it means that the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.  There is a future in which the church will no longer need to anticipate the coming future because the future will have arrived.  Like children in a car as long as we sing out from within these walls, or within the community of the church, “are we there yet?” – The answer is “no!”

But, in the midst of this provisional and anticipatory life we also take confidence that the Spirit is upon us, the when 2 or 3 gather in Jesus name he is present, and that our task in not for our own benefit and edification but in order that the world might see the promise of God’s last days, the end times which is the new beginning.  When we live anticipating those last days times, when we live as if the kingdom has already come, when we know that power of the Holy Spirit is on us we can say with confidence in the face of the signs around us the end is nigh, God is with us, our hope is bigger than this life and this world.  Our hope is in God.

The end is nigh!

Is the end nigh?

If it is so then bring it on for in those last days the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh and those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

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