Editors note: Apologies, this post was initially wrongly attributed to Jess Coles. This post is actually by Richard Collins, about his recent trip to Israel.
So much beauty. So much history. So much religion.
These were my thoughts as I returned recently from a Mediterranean cruise—a gift from my wife’s parents.
Here are some reflections.
EPHESUS AND PATMOS
Wonderful guides. Knowledgeable and very patient. Ancient Ephesus, you may remember, was a strategic port city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). No longer. Hundreds of years of silt movement has now moved it inland—a half hour drive from the coast. Nevertheless, it is remarkably well preserved. Its long marble avenue from two thousand years ago is still there. The impressive façade on the library stands out. My wife, Bettina, turned to me and said, “Just think, all those years ago, someone in one of those houses opened a letter from Paul . . . and we’re still reading it.” A humbling thought.
Patmos. Name of the driver: John. Name of the man at the church: John. As our guide said, “Guess the name of our host at the restaurant. Yup. John.” Every other man and his dog, it seemed, was named John. The Apostle’s legacy towers over the island. We visited the cave where he is believed to have received the Revelation. There is an indent in the rock face where he placed his hand. Was he there? How can we know? As our guide said, “One thing is certain, he was somewhere on this island, because he wrote, ‘I . . . was on the island of Patmos.’”
Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples, they must have been fit. This place is hilly! Up and down we went, followed by my in-laws who are in their 80s. It was a challenge.
Garden of Gethsemane. A sad sight. It is now the size of a postage stamp. The trees are very old—around eight hundred years—but there are hardly more than ten left. The reason? They’ve built churches and religious buildings all over the place. The Basilica of the Agony is a huge structure right next to the garden. And then there’s the Tomb of the Virgin on the other side. Much has changed in the past two thousand years. I had imagined a large, tree-filled space in which we could wander. Instead, in the church, you can kneel next to the rock where Jesus is believed to have wept his tears of agony. I’m sure you can donate to the church also.
SO MUCH RELIGION
This is a good moment, then, to stop and reflect on what has happened during the past two thousand years. The urge to identify a site associated with an event in the Bible has drawn out our deepest religious impulses. The cynic will say it’s all about money. And maybe that’s part of the answer. But religion isn’t just to do with money. It’s also to do with our attempt to meet with God and satisfy him. And it’s about control and ownership. The Orthodox and Catholic groups have jostled for position for centuries. In some places, one building lies right on top of another of a different denomination.
As a leader, there is a message here. Religion is lurking even in our most ardent evangelical churches. It raises its head when a community requires certain cultural behaviours from its members in order to be accepted. It raises its head when law reigns and grace is shunted aside. Religion values church attendance and outward signs of religiosity. It is the antithesis of grace, failing to reach out and embrace our weaker members, who face daily challenges just to survive.
Beware of religion. It will gradually corrode your community. It will harden your hearts. It will destroy a community of love and grace. In Israel, it is everywhere. So as I walked and marvelled at what I saw, my primary thought was, “He is not here. He is risen!” Christ is not in the chanting or religious books or churches or the art.
He is risen, alive and living in those who believe and seek to share his love with the world.
He is in the church, his beloved.
SO MUCH BEAUTY
In Nazareth, we visited the Church of the Annunciation, believed by Roman Catholics to be the place where Mary grew up. It has multiple churches from previous centuries on the site, but the new one, built in the 1950s, is a wonder to behold. The art in the courtyard is truly stunning. The art inside the building is equally impressive. The ceilings and designs from across the centuries which decorate so many of these churches is of the highest quality. It is, at times, breath-taking.
That’s what good art does—it takes the breath away. Whatever you may think of icons in the Greek Orthodox church or the beautiful murals in Roman Catholic churches, it happens to be true that the appreciation of beauty often leads to worship. We just need to be careful that we don’t worship the art, but instead are reminded of the beauty of our creator. I marvelled at every beautiful piece of art . . . and I worshiped our loving creator.
For God has made us beautiful, and he has made us creative.
For we are made in his image.
BAPTISM . . . AGAIN
We visited the Jordan River. Some Christians were getting baptised . . . again. I was unsure how to respond to this. Baptism is wonderful; it’s a powerful symbol. As such, I’m not sure it should be done so we can stick up a picture saying, “Look, I did it again in the Jordan!” The site was a spot where they said Jesus was baptised. How can we know? And, of course, why does it matter?
THE WESTERN WALL
Reading, chanting, keening, kneeling, reaching, bowing, praying, crying—it was all on display at the Western Wall, a remaining section of the Second temple built by Herod the Great. This is the most sacred location in Jerusalem for the Jews. It is considered the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray, as close as you can get to the holy of holies. The Temple Mount itself has severe entry restrictions; it is now home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Two world religions sitting right on top of each other. No wonder it’s considered a powder keg.
A couple of thoughts. First, it’s hard not to take sides in a place like this. To see the Jews restricted from visiting their most holy site by another religion is hard to watch. In truth, however, neither side emerges without blemish. The daily suffering of Arab Israelis in the West Bank cannot be ignored. So I turned to the people, our two taxi drivers. The first was Jewish, and he was not happy. Mostly he was upset about inflation, but he was also frustrated by all the road closures related to the recent killing of two Jewish soldiers. The second was called Ramsi, an Arab Israeli who drove us back to Ashdod, an hour’s journey away. He had nine children, talked a lot and told us that he was “wishing for the return of Jesus.” I must say, this was a surprise. I hadn’t realised that muslims were also waiting for Jesus’ return. He asked my wife to pray for his family, which she did.
What did I learn? That while we and our taxi drivers hold different beliefs, we face many of the same challenges. We seek to raise our children, love our spouses, and make a living. In short, we are all struggling sinners. And we met in the very location where salvation was purchased for us. We were right there near the hill where blood was spilled for all of us.
May God have mercy on all our souls.
Before we embarked from Athens, we spent a couple of days there. We visited the Acropolis, and various archaeological sites in the city. We visited Mars Hill. At its base is a rather dirty inscription written in Greek. It’s from Acts 17.
There is no church, no monastery, no shrine. It’s just a small hill, towered over by the Parthenon. Tourists walk about on it, but there is nothing on the actual hill to remind us of what took place there.
Perhaps that is how it should be.
For on that hill St. Paul delivered one of the great sermons of history. He preached the gospel, and it included these truly wonderful words.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.
- Acts 17.24-28a
He is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.
How gracious is our God, that he would draw near through his Son. How merciful he is that, in Jesus, he would live with us, and then suffer and die for us. Mars Hill needs no church, no plaque, no monument. For its importance lies only in the message that was preached there. This word, this gospel, has gone out through all the world. It has been received by all who have ears to hear.
“He is not here. He is risen!”