The Holy Spirit For All
There are many things that I appreciate about Canadian society but one of them is definitely democracy. I wouldn’t want to live in a country where only one person or only a small group of people had all of the say. While we may sometimes complain when election time comes and we have to watch all the party politics, the fact that we have the freedom to be annoyed in that way is pretty amazing.
Democracy means rule by the people. But we have to remember that even in democracies, “people” have been defined in different ways. Even here in Canada, it has only been a hundred years since women had the right to vote. First Nations people were not allowed to vote until 1960! Unfortunately, this is part of the democratic tradition. Democracy was first attempted in ancient Athens. But not every Athenian had the right to participate. You had to be a free male, who was from Athens and who owned land. This excluded a lot of people.
What does this have to do with the church? Democracy is meant to be the model for the church, although not so much for rule, but for participation. But who are the people who are allowed to fully participate? In Israel, there was a hierarchy of who was allowed to do what. Of the twelve tribes, one tribe, Levi, had access to temple service. Of the tribe of Levi, one family, the descendants of Aaron, had the opportunity to be priests and offer sacrifices. Outside of this, there were a select few who received the Holy Spirit, which would empower them as prophets or other special roles. Even worshipping in the temple was controlled. Non-Jews could only go so far, Jewish women a bit farther and then the Jewish men There was a special elite and many were excluded from full participation.
That is not the way that it is supposed to be in the church. Not that we are better than Israel but we live in a different time. So what is the determination of who participates? It is pretty simple. It is the Holy Spirit that desires. That is exactly what we are going to look at today.
Joel is a part of the minor prophets. Minor doesn’t mean that he is unimportant but he is part of a collection of twelve shorter prophetic books that are much smaller than Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Like the other prophets, he spoke to a troubled situation, called upon the people to live in obedience and pointed toward a future hope.
What Joel actually prophesies is quite radical. He speaks about a coming of the Holy Spirit. Before this, the Holy Spirit came upon only a select few for specific roles. Joel and his prophetic colleagues would have been a part of this small group. But Joel looks to a time when the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon a wider audience. But Joel gets more specific.
It would be radical enough to say that more people would receive the Holy Spirit, but Joel says that all the traditional categories will be broken down. According to Joel, the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon all, regardless of gender, age or economic station. I’m sure some of the original audience would have wondered if that might be too generous of a gift. Do we really want all those people to have the Spirit? Wouldn’t we really rather a more exclusive club? Not according to God.
This prophecy both looks back and looks forward. It looks back to Numbers 11 and the time of Moses. Moses was the great prophet and Joshua was extremely loyal to him. Two men named Eldad and Medad were prophesying by the power of the Holy Spirit. Joshua wanted Moses to stop their prophetic activity. “But Moses replied, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’” (Numbers 11:29) It is the hope of Moses that is prophesied by Joel.
Joel also looks forward to Acts 2 and what we know as Pentecost. On that day, the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus following Jews and Peter identified this as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. What’s more, Acts records similar events happening to the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Both of those groups were disliked by some Jews and they would wish them to be excluded. However, the Holy Spirit had other plans. The result is that we live an era where all who follow Jesus receive the Holy Spirit and live in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.
What the Church Looks Like
But practically, what does this look like? Should we be constantly having dreams and visions and prophetic utterances? I do believe that God still speaks today, although the measure has always to be the revealed Word of God. However, even for the biblical prophets, most of what they did was a lot less flashy than we would expect. Most of what they did was to point people back to God and call people to radical obedience.
The emphasis in Joel’s prophecy is not so much what they are doing as who is doing it. Joel points to a time of radical inclusiveness. Not a time when people would be tolerated but a time when people of all backgrounds would participate equally. Gender, age and economics continue to be battlegrounds, even though the Holy Spirit made his decision thousands of years ago. I have asked before what we would choose if God asked us to write down what kind of people we would like him to send us. The truth is that we would have certain preferences, there would be people that are more attractive than others. And yet the church was designed for radical inclusiveness. We should have millionaires and street people worshiping together. We should have professors and people with developmental disabilities serving together. The Holy Spirit is offered to all, regardless of background or category.
What attracts me to this church is our diversity. I love the generations, ethnic groups, economic backgrounds, abilities and so on that are represented here. We are united by the Holy Spirit, living out Joel’s prophecy. We are not perfect but I see glimpses of the way church is supposed to be. I often hear about Spirit-filled churches. I’m all for that, but I would ask what kind of people are being filled with the Spirit? Does everyone look and act alike? Joel looks to something more inclusive.
Jesus made this statement about marriage, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” How might that apply to the church? Joel looked to a time when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all kinds of people, breaking the traditional barriers. There are two ways to respond. We could reject that and try to rebuild the barriers and insist that there was a certain proper type of people. Or we can embrace God’s plan and celebrate our diversity. The truth is that both the New Testament and church history documents Christians fighting this tooth and nail. It is not comfortable and it is not easy. But it is truly beautiful. The unity of the church is not based on merit or achievements but common participation in the Spirit. Let’s not just submit to that, let’s rejoice in it.