The Israel Folau Controversy

Israel Folau is an Australian of Tongan descent. Until recently he was best known as a talented rugby player. He has won 73 caps playing for Australia, has been the Wallabies’ Player of the Year for a record three times and he is the fourth-highest try-scoring Australian international player ever.

However, Folau is also a Christian, and his social media posts have got him into trouble in the past. This month posted a message saying “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.” This prompted Rugby Australia to terminate his contract, and the Australian Rugby League banned Folau from any NRL team in the future.

These events have been widely reported, both nationally and internationally. His comments are usually reported as being “anti-gay” or “homophobic”, something that Folau himself denies.

A Personal Reaction

My personal reaction is that Folau’s comments are simplistic and negative.

The Bible says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, my emphasis). It emphasises that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). One of the most famous of all Bible verses states “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, again my emphasis).

In my view, the problem with Folau’s judgement is that it sounds like he wants sinners to be punished. This is the exact opposite of the Christian message. From the first disciples to this day, Christians have sought to spread the ‘Good News’ (Gospel) of forgiveness.

Other Reactions

Some will post or tweet “hate speech shouldn’t be allowed”. I’ve seen this simplistic and negative reaction on social media. Others will point out that social media is full of simplistic and negative statements, so why is this any different? Folau is just another troll: ignore him.

Many Australian rugby and football players have been in the news for the wrong reasons. Posting lewd videos of themselves on social media doesn’t get reported much anymore. Players have been in the news accused of drink driving, rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. Folau’s lifetime ban for making a controversial statement looks harsh compared to the sanctions that others have suffered.

The Core Issue

Now Folau’s comments are, IMHO, misguided, but are they ‘hate speech’, ‘anti-gay’ and ‘homophobic’?

The first thing to note is that Folau isn’t just stating a personal opinion. He is reporting what is in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t spend much time talking about gay sex, but when it does it forbids God’s people from practising it. Jesus himself said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mathew 5:17).  It’s worth noting that when Jesus found people being punished for their sins he never said that they weren’t in the wrong. Instead, he forgave them.

It’s also worth remembering that other world religions and cultures take a similar view to Folau’s. Western, liberal views are not commonly found elsewhere. Even in Australia, when we had the vote for same-sex marriage, 38% voted ‘NO’.

Same-Sex Marriage in Australian Politics

For the benefit of readers outside Australia, it’s worth briefly explaining why this issue is not just controversial, but a party-political football (no pun intended).

Back in 2004, the government of Prime Minister John Howard changed the law so that “Marriage means the union of a man and a woman” and “A union solemnised in a foreign country between: a man and another man; or a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.” Understandably, this move enraged the LGBT community.

Now, the Australian left hates John Howard, and his legacy, with a vengeance. He has a similar stature to Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. All three leaders took their countries to the right of politics, and all three were very successful, repeatedly humiliating their left-wing opponents in popular votes.

Same-Sex Marriage Vote

I didn’t know any of this when I came to Australia in 2012.

I was puzzled. The Liberal Party (‘Liberal’ means right-wing in Australia) had promised this vote in their manifesto, they won the election, and then they tried to hold the vote. The Australian left did everything they could to prevent it.

‘Why?’ I wondered – the left are bound to win! (Maybe they weren’t so sure.)

Eventually, the Liberal Prime Minister found a way to hold the vote, despite opposition from the right wing of his own Party. In the run-up to the vote, there was a positive campaign for LGBT rights. However, there was also simplistic and negative campaigning on both sides.

Some LGBT pressure groups sought to suppress or eliminate any kind of debate, and they were very effective. Anyone who disagreed with them, however politely or respectfully, risked being labelled a bigot, being reported to the police or having their business boycotted.

Even when we voted decisively for same-sex marriage, this vengeful spirit persisted. As the Prime Minister celebrated (he would probably have lost his job if he had lost the vote), some on the left sought to deny him any credit. This was ironic, even hypocritical, seeing as they had tried to prevent it in the first place!

A Different Standard

So when Folau fired his Instagram broadside against “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators” he was kicking a hornets’ nest.

Interestingly, he hasn’t been taken to task for lambasting the other groups – that barely gets a mention. Don’t their feelings count?

I also note that Christians are frequently insulted and derided by atheists and secularists. (Some in Australia are calling for all churches to have their charitable status revoked, even though they raise their funds through voluntary donations and do valuable work in the community, just like…a charity.) Nobody is suggesting that these critics should not be allowed their say, or that they should be fired from their day jobs.

Whether we agree with him or not, Folau might think that he is being judged by a different standard to many others in Australian society. He is.

Forgiveness

As I write this it is Easter weekend, when Christians commemorate Jesus’s death on the cross to win our forgiveness: forgiveness we don’t deserve. Jesus said, “do not judge, or you will too be judged” (Matthew 7:1) Perhaps this is good advice for Folau, the rugby authorities, the PC bullies, and for many of us on social media.

The Game Changer

A message about Jesus, the game changer: Matthew 11:2-11 reminds God’s people which side of history we are on (Advent 3A).

Introduction

Matthew, the most Jewish of Gospel writers, has a lesson for impatient followers of Jesus.  John the Baptist asks about Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” [v3]

Then: is Jesus the Game Changer?

John the Baptist was so confident that he knew who Jesus was when he could see him face to face, when he baptised him.  Now he is in prison he is not so sure. 

  • Why is he there, waiting to die? 
  • Why isn’t Herod, that Roman puppet, in prison instead of me? 
  • Why aren’t his foreign masters gone? 
  • Why aren’t us Jews, God’s own people, free; why are we not well on the way to ruling the world?  

Jesus replies, reminding John that he is doing EXACTLY what was prophesied. 

Jesus reminds the crowd that John is more than a prophet: “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’ ”  [Mal 3:1]

Malachi was telling the Jews that God was fed up with their moaning, expecting to be saved, not because they were faithful, but just because they were Jews – born of women (not of God the Father).

Now: a Different Perspective

John the Baptist could not imagine that we could be followers of Jesus, could be God’s people, because we are not Jews.  We live twenty centuries after him in a country he never knew existed.  The Roman rulers of the world are a distant memory!

We do not see Jesus face to face and yet we know him, we believe and trust him.  We who are saved by his sacrifice and live with the Holy Spirit in us are born again – born from above; we may be the ‘least in the kingdom of heaven’ but we are greater than John, the prophet who baptised Jesus.

We have a different perspective!  So, in Advent, we wait.

Godless Foreigners!

A message about seeing with a fresh, Godly perspective (just like those Godless Foreigners), based on Matthew 17:1-9 (Epiphany, Year A).

Today we have a well-known passage that describes the wise men coming to see Jesus – now a toddler.  But there’s is more to it than that! This is satire, a set of jokes at the expense of the rich, powerful, religious and nationalistic.

Wise Men (Godless Foreigners) Arrive

  • The Messiah (God’s chosen one) born in poverty, not even at home;
  • Godless Foreigners (GFs) funny-looking people, who can’t even speak the lingo properly, tell God’s people that their new king is born;
  • The GFs come to worship the Jewish King!
  • Herod, a king who is not chosen by God but by the Pagan Romans (GFs);
  • Herod is so insecure, his moods are dangerous to his own people;
  • The clueless religious experts caught on the hop, answering the fake king and the GFs;
  • Sneaky Herod asks the GFs (not scripture or the religious) for information – for his own devious ends;
  • Only the GFs both see and understand the sign from heaven (a star), and only they get the joy;
  • They see a young mother and baby in a house and worship Him, giving him top presents (with dreadful meanings); and
  • Then God warns the GFs in a dream (like Joesph/prophets!) about Herod and they sneak off back home, job done!  

Some points to note:

  • It’s like it is all a big joke, but it’s the (second?) biggest event in history and deadly serious;
  • It is chilling to think that the Jews, God’s people had become racists – judging people on their ethnicity (they had their reasons, but…);
  • How should we avoid making the same mistakes, how we can avoid our status and security as God’s people from making us smug, blind?
  • How should we treat strange visitors (GFs or not)?  What message are they carrying from God? 
  • What is going on under our noses that God is alerting us to?

Application 

As we start a new year, let’s ask God to give us an epiphany: fresh insights, an open mind, eyes to really see, ears to really hear and renewed hearts to love.  Amen

Following Christ’s Example

A message exploring the true aim of life, no less, following Christ’s example in Philippians 2:5-11 (Palm Sunday, Years A, B or C).

Introduction

Today is Palm/Passion Sunday.  We have had five Sundays in Lent and now we turn to Christ’s final week before Easter.  Philippians 2:5-11 is not from that time/place, but it captures the essence of it.

Christ’s Example Then…

Paul is writing to a church that is doing good things, partners “in the gospel from the first day until now”.  Yet they are in enemy territory – a strongly Greek/Roman city (pagan).  Paul:

  • Urges the church to be of one mind, united in humility, working to complete their salvation as pure children of Christ “shining like stars in the universe” (v15), to ‘run the race’ if you will, so that his own efforts might not be for nothing.
  • Says “…Christ Jesus…did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing”
  • Describes how Jesus is humbled (vv6-8) then exalted (vv9-11).

… And it’s Opposite Today

The context for us today is just the same.  You are good people, better than the Philippians, even!  You’ve run the race of life, stuck with God and the gospel, you still shine like stars in the universe!

We, too, live in enemy territory, where things that are not god are worshipped:  

  • Individualism – it’s all about me and MY needs, MY feelings;
  • Consumerism – I am valued because I have $$; and
  • Materialism – ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’.

These three things work in an endless, aimless cycle, until we die.

Conclusion

We don’t have to reject the things of the world, just not worship them.

We have them AND the true, living God, who is alive in us.  Our aim is to be humble like Jesus, because we have a job to do alongside Him, and then we will be exalted with Christ.

Amen.