Saturday, April 12, 2008

Proclamation and Reconciliation - through the Jordan, back to Capernaum, down the mountain, on to the sea and on to the sea shore

Our first port of call was the point at which the Jordan River ran out of the Sea of Galilee.

This had been designated by the Israeli Government as the spot for Christians to mark the baptism of Jesus. Brother John noticed how brackish the waters were, not the flowing waters they should have been. Fr Ian recalled the old Sunday school story of the living Sea of Galilee with waters that flow in and flow out, and the Dead Sea where there is no life, because the waters only flow in and have nowhere to flow out to. Br John pointed out the Kingfishers. They were beautiful.

There were so many. At first it seemed tacky. But then it was moving. As Philip later pointed out, side by side was the joy of an Orthodox celebration accompanied by sprinkling water all over the crowd and an African, exuberant baptism celebration.

The Jordan: Living Water: Teshuva and Metanoia

Henry led us in reflections. Taking as his theme Tushuva and Metanoia, he suggested that the symbol of baptism in the river Jordan was highly significant. It was not only the notion of cleansing, or even especially the notion of cleansing, it was rather the notion of passing through from one side to the other. And then a turning to pass through again. A re-living of Exodus, of arrival in the Promised Land.

He suggested that John the Baptist would not have been alone in doing such baptism. People would have been led out of Jersualem and re-enacted passing through the Jordan, going away, turning and coming back again - as if they were re-enacting a taking possession once more of the land. This was one in the eye for the Romans. What kind of a 'turning' was it that John was preaching.

One thing was certain, it was in the tradition of Elijah and the prophets!

Our reflections over we were invited to go into the Jordan. Rosemary and our Baptist friends spoke movingly of their tradition. They were among the first to go into the river Jordan. I thought I wouldn't. But something prompted me to take my sandals off (yes, I have been wearing sandals without socks for the whole time!) and enter the Jordan by one entry, and come out not quite on the other side but by the other point of entry to the water.

It was strangely moving.

On the way to the bus Br John pointed out a post card with a St Peter fish on it - it was just like the dead fish we had found on the quay side the previous evening!! We had caught a real, genuine, Sea of Galilee fish!

Driving back through the resort area that led from the Jordan round the Western side of the lake to Tiberias, it really felt as if it was Israeli Jerusalem by the sea. You couldn't help but feel that those living on the West Bank and in Bethlehem could not make it to the sea. A troubling thought.

We drove through Tiberias around the shore and joined the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, and made for Capernaum.

This was for me one of the most moving sites we visited.

Capernaum and the Ancient Synagogue

The city of Capernaum had only been discovered by archaeologists in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Their excavations disclosed a remarkable town. When Jesus had to leave his home town of Nazareth because he was hounded out of the Synagogue, and had made controversial teachings there about the good news for the poor reaching out to the non Jews as well as the Jews he had made, quite naturally as the geography demonstrated, for Capernaum which became his home and the base for his teaching ministry, for the ministry of proclamation of the Gospel and for his healing ministry.

Far from being the backwater up in the quiet Galilean hills of my imagination. It was a busy place, not far from a border, on the main thoroughfare from the coastal plain through to Caesarea Philippi and Syria.

This was a highly strategic place to base his ministry.

More than that, on the northern shore of the lake, you looked due south across the lake in the sure knowledge that you were looking due south to Jerusalem, only about 60 miles away as the crow flies.

It made such eminent sense. The tradition in John of Jesus going down to Jerusalem was quite plain. Usually it would have been straight down beside the river. In his final journey he made a detour into the mountains of Samaria and went through Samaria.

You could see what a deliberate and controversial decision that must have been. How the geography provided a wonderful commentary for the text.

Reflection: Black Fire and White Fire: Torah and Midrash

Entering the archaeological site, Henry stood us by a set of lintels that had been rescued from a fourth centry synagogue we were later to sit in. He pointed out the decorative door and demonstrated the shape of the roof. Over tle lintel was a vine branch, symbol of Israel.

And then a picture to the side of it that in Henry's view was the finest photo in the ancient world.
It illustrated the significance here, in such a different place, of the Synagogue over against the Temple.

And it was over against the Temple.

He suggested the carving was a picture of the Synagogue. You could see the door, you could see its columns. But it was on wheels. Why. Henry asked for ideas about what it looked like. It wasn't long before someone suggested the Ark of the Covenant - transported as it would have been on a cart.

This, suggested Henry, was a massive claim. Not just in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in the Synagogue, the presence of God was to be felt. He began to get very excited about the different views there were among different schools of Pharisees and about what goes on in the Synagogue.
Later we sat in the fourth century Synagogue built of limestone imported specially from teh mountains, built on the basalt foundatioins of an earlier first century Synagogue. This was where Jesus visited. This is where he gathered in the Bet Knesset, the HOuse of Assembly, sitting around the benches that went round three sides of the Synagogue. This was where he discussed the words of the Scriptures as a 'teacher' and with other teachers, openiing up the Scriptures in the Bet Midrashim, the house of opening up the Scriptures.

In all that Henry had to share I became more and more excited.

Congregational Churches find their roots in the Synagogue

Early on, I shared with the group, why for me this was as moving as it had been to sit on the steps up to the Temple. I spoke of what is most dear to me as the one Congregationalist in the group. I suggested that just as the Orthodox and the Catholics find their roots in the worship of the Temple, and our charismatic friends find their roots in the worship of the cosmopolitan Corinthian church, so we in our Congregational churches and indeed in other free churches that have a focus on preaching, praying and singing, find our roots in the Synagogue tradition of the New Testament. I recalled the thrill of visiting Pastor Robinson's church in Leiden and of their custom to follow their morning worship with an afternoon time together when Pastor Robinson, the Cambridge educated Pastor would preside over a time of sharing in which all were invited to share their responses to the word of God. Here I felt my roots. And here we were as much in the presence of Christ as we had been on those steps to the Temple. I suggested this was the very 'hybridity' Miroslav Volf had spoken of in Exclusion and Embrace both in the world of Jesus' day and in the world of the church today. It was a hybridity or a diversity we should rejoice in. I recalled how much I had valued Fr Ian's explanation of the significance of the Orthodox church with clear echoes of the Temple, and shared my equal excitement at the account of the Synagogue.

Rightly or wrongly, I referred to one of our favourite texts. "Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." I noticed that the word 'gather together' is the Greek word synago. An ordinary every day word meaning 'gather together' it has the same root as the word 'synagogue'. It was as if Jesus was saying that were two or three, not ten men, synagogue together, there he is in the midst of them, there the presence is.

How wonderful that here at Capernaum Henry should prompt me to reaffirm my roots!

Opening the word together in the Synagogue

Sitting in the Synagogue it was wonderful to spend the best part of an hour exploring with Henry the Scriptures and all they have to say.

He spoke of the way their weren't so much 'professional' rabbis, but rather rabbinical schools of thoughts. Just as the Saducees were based around the aristocracy in Jerusalem and among the priestly families, the pharisees would have been to the fore in the Synagogue opening of the word.

But they followed different schools of thought. In particular there were two rabbinic schools, the school of Shammei, quite fierce in its views of Sabbath observance and the like, and the school of Hillel, very much more touched with compassion and understanding of people. Henry suggestted that many of Jesus' teachings were in line with the teaching of Hillel.

The discussions are so often interpreted as hostile debates ... but Henry suggested this kind of question and answer was exactly the rabbinic approach to the Scripture shared in the Synagogue. The teaching of Jesus is very much in line with one of those schools of thought. Hillel was an older contemporary of Jesus.

Fascinating to see how our picture of Jesus was growing ... a picture of Jesus that I have been familiar with. All the more exciting to encounter it here in Capernaum.

I couldn't resist the temptation to get Lisa to take a picture of Fr Ian, myself and Matthew (in that order!) representing the Orthodox rooted in the Temple, the Congregationalist rooted in the Synagogue, and the House Church rooted in Corinth!

Over the road to Peter's house

Just outside the Synagogue are the foundations of rows of houses, built out of the local basalt. And about fifty metres away one house in particular. When it was excavated, a series of churches were discovered. An octagonal crusader church, a rectangular byzantine church of the fourth century each built over an ordinary house. But there was something remarkable about the 'ordinary' house. There was painting of early Christian symbols on its walls dating back to the first century.

Why should such church buildings have been located there? One answer leaped out at you standing in that site. It's the answer that prompted the Franciscans to build a modern church over the excavated remains in such a way that you can still see the original house and from teh church church look through a glass floor at it.

This was in all likelihood the house that Jesus made his base in Capernaum, Simon Peter's house, the place Jesus went to after healing the paralysed man on the sabbath. That was something entirely in line with rabbinic teaching in the school of Hillel. Fascinating that the crowds respected the teaching of the sabbath and waited until sundown to approach Jesus.

From Capernaum, the bus took us on short detour off back along the Via Maris and up one of those low hills to a church marking the mount of Beatitudes.

The Mount of Beatitudes

We got off to purchase light refreshments at a stall run by a Palestinian much in need of our custom. Our bus driver squeezed oranges for us and the orange juice was delicious. I bought a banana, one of the loveliest I had tasted, fresh from the many banana plantations that had sprung up on the fertile soil.

We were then invited to make our way down the hill on a rough track, through recently harvested corn fields.

After all the words we had shared we walked in silence.

The views were magnificent, the cornfields golden, the silence wonderful.

After half an hour we sat in the shade of some olive trees and Sister Mary Beatrice read the Beatitudes. I couldn't help but remember the challenge of Elias Chacour who invited us to think of them, not just as a comfort, but also as a programme for action in the task of justice and peacemaking.

The silence was broken by masses of teenagers following the same route. They had their ghetto blasters. At first it seemed an intrusion. But they became part of the walk for all of us as well. They were precisely the ones for whom such peacemaking was so vital.

We broke off from the track and made for a remarkable memorial stone to someone who had loved that spot and given a life time of Chrsitain service to the people of that locality.

It was at a spot overlooking the lake and facing due south to Jersualem. But at the same time looking towards the pass that led the Via Maris through to the Jezreel valley and on to the heart of the Roman Empire.

On the stone was a cross. Around the top 11 marks, representing the 11 disciples who had met the risen Christ back in Galilee. And underneath five letter 'c's represernting the five hundred anonymous people mentioned by Paul who had seen the risen Chrsit in Galilee too.

Henry suggested that it was wonderful to recall not only the named of the past who had seen the risen Chrsit and borne testimony, but the un-named too.

I couldn't help but feel the power of the commision from the risen Christ to his disciples to go into all the world!

There was a thrill in the location itself.


We made our way down to the main road, and on to a lovely cafe where lunch was waiting for us. Another wonderful salad lunch.

Then through a kibbutz, part of an early socialist movement to live in communes, that had been a means of Jewish people returning to the land.

Here it was that a remarkable discovery had been made in the mud of the sea in a particularly dry year when the water level had dropped, as recently as 1985.

Nof Ginosar Museum - the Ancient Boat

A Boat had been found dating back to the time of Christ. At the time it was remarkable to see the display, and to marvel at the size of the boat and to sense it was in just such a boat as this that the disciples had set out on to the sea.

Returning home I got hold of John Dominic Crossan's latest book, Jesus and Rome Then and Now! In it he devotes a few pages to the boat. He notices how well worn it was. Patched by numerous different kinds of wood. He suggests it indicates fish farming on an almost industrial scale to satisfy the greed of the Herods. The patching of the boats, he suggests, indicates the difficult circumstances the fishing families would have faced. Lining himself up with those fishermen, Jesus was lining himself up with the poor.

Those thoughts were for later!

On the Sea of Galilee

Meantime, we were to board a similar, albeit slightly larger boat, and set off on to the Sea of Galilee.

Everyone had told me how moving it would be. I hadn't really believed them. How wrong I was. It was immensely moving.

In the middle of the lake the engines were switched off. Matthew 14 was read. For me the reference to the first part of the chapter and the beheading of John took me back to the violence of Jesus' day and the violence we had witnessed in Rome. I could understand Jesus reaction. I shared it. Hearing the news he wanted to withdraw to a quiet place. I could understand the crowds too. I shared their reaction. They wanted to hear more of his teaching, to hear more of his proclamation of the kingdom to receive more of his healing. And so they followed him. And all five thousand and more of them needed feeding. And they were fed.

Going off on his own, the disciples set off on the boat themselves, only to be confronted by a storm.

As Jesus walked through the storm to join them, his words hit home at me. It is I; don't be afraid.

Simply the presence. That was what the Christian Peacemaker team was bringing to Hebron. That was the life's work of Elias Chacour taking seriously those beatitudes, that was what we too needed. And here on the lake we sensed it.

The reading over we sat for twenty minutes in silence.

It was the sound of sheer silence ... save for the battering of the occasional wave.

The silence over, one of the crew took out a drum and sang the most wonderful Hebrew folk song, a prayer for peace, Shalom, Salaam.

Once again I found tears coming to my eyes.

Tears for this man and so many others for whom peace was such a longing, and such a prayer.

Tabgha: Reflection: Do you Love Me? John 21

And so to the end of our journey of reconciliation and a wonderful communion in an open air chapel by the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

When we reached the Gospel reading in silence we walked down to the shore itself and read the acccount of Jesus appearing to the apostles in John 21, the catch of fish and the repeated question, do you love me? It was immensely moving!

Just at the end the organiser within got the better of me ... but any difference was resolved very congregationally and we shared the peace as Michael suggested.

Back to Tiberias for a final reflection

We returned all too quickly to the bus, to the hotel, to pack, to shower, and to enjoy one more meal together.

After the meal we shared our thoughts in response to the stay in Galilee.

We couldn't express our appreciation enough to Michael Roberts for leading us on our journey of reconciliation. Matthew startted it and we all joined in with a standing ovation.

One thing he asked, that we publicise Tantur and its offer of three week courses for all, and of three month study periods for those who want to avail themselves of its wonderful facilities.

To the front for an elementary Hebrew lesson

We made our way down to the front for one last evening out. I photographed some of the signs, not least Macdonalds, in the company of Father Ian, in the hope of getting a Hebrew course off the ground. The sight of Macdonalds in Hebrew lettering really is something else.

Not too late to bed. And then we were up at 3-00 ready for a 4-00 departure for the air port.

Up to Sea Level and on to the Plane!

I sat with Father Ian and enjoyed one last good conversation together. As we drew out of Tiberias he shoed me the sign I had missed before. Rising high out of the town at 600 feet we reached sea level. I had always known the Dead Sea was below sea level, in fact the lowest point on earth, I don't think I had realise how much beneath sea level the Sea of Galilee was too.

It seemed strange.

On the bus to the airport, Henry bade us farewell, and came down the bus with his card. He had one last thing to share with us. A new initiative he is getting under way. Kidz 4 peace. Its purpose is to bring Israelis and Palestininan children who otherwise would not meet, together to get to know each other. Already a USA chapter has been founded. Henry will later this year be in the UK to set up a British chapter too.

That set my mind thinking ... but more of that later!

On the flight home, there was to be one more fascinating conversation.

One last significant conversation

I changed my seat and was delighted to have a window seat for the return journey. Next to me was a couple both of whom were lawyers living in London. Secular Jews they expressed their longing for a settlement of the land that would enable both Israeli and Palestinian to share the land, and their frustration at the religious extremists who seemed determined to destroy any such hope.

What a fascinating discussion.

Hopes and Expectations

I ended up by making the last entry in my journal. I returned to the six hopes and expectations I had begun my journal with and reflected on the way in which our journey of reconciliation.

All I can say for now is that it had far exceeded them.

What next remains to be seen!

All too soon, we made our way out of the town of Capernuam and off for a lovely lunch. Yet another wonderful salad.

Back on the bus we then went

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