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Breaking barriers in Joppa: Lessons in Inclusion

One of the wondrous things of landing at Tel Aviv’s shiny, modern airport is being transported to an ancient Biblical site within thirty minutes of clearing customs.

Joppa at sunset over Mediterranean with St. Peter’s Church on right.

On a recent trip we did just that – left Ben Gurion airport for ancient Joppa, the southern part of a 1st century C.E. (Common Era) port city, now Tel Aviv.  Walking up to the city’s Acropolis provided a spectacular sunset view that verified why the site was named Jaffa or Joppa (today called Yaffo), meaning lovely or pretty.  Looking out to the Mediterranean, we had our first look at the Franciscan “St. Peter’s Church”, built over a medieval citadel from the 13th century, dedicated to when the disciple visited Simon the Tanner.

Acts 10 tells us the story, first opening with the appearing of an angel to Cornelius, the Italian centurion who will become a sign of the ever-widening ministry of the early Church beyond the Jews.  As “a devout man” (Acts 10:2) who both generously gave to the people and prayed constantly to God, he was an example of the spiritual hunger among Gentiles drawn to the monotheism of Judaism.  Such seekers were called “God-fearers”.   Little did Cornelius know his faith would play a key role in the unfolding development of Christianity, teaching the disciple upon whom Jesus said his church would be built, a life-changing lesson in Christian inclusion.

No one — not Jew nor Gentile — is excluded from God’s all-encompassing love.  All are welcome to experience this great love, explained by Jesus as the Kingdom of Heaven already come.  As he directed his disciples when he sent them out:  “Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously” (Matt. 10:6,7).

Back to Acts, the angel directs Cornelius to send men to Joppa to retrieve Peter, who is ‘lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside’ (Acts 10:6).   Acts is full of the Holy Spirit bringing disparate parties together, and this story in Acts 10 is the second account of holy pairing to further God’s purpose.  (The first appears in Acts 8, about Philip meeting and baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch.)

The author of Acts, (thought to be the Luke, the writer of the Gospel), is a compelling storyteller and the scene shifts to Simon’s home.  We’re told Peter has gone up on the roof to pray.  Why?  While the text doesn’t say, archaeologists discovered that ancient tanners used urine in their work for the curing of leather.  One would have known exactly where Simon lived by the smell!  Under such circumstances, going on the roof to pray while getting some fresh seaside air makes sense.

It is this prayer in which Peter is told three times to let go of the kosher dietary laws he has practiced throughout his life (Acts 11).   They won’t have a place as the Gentile world learns the message of grace and love embodied in Christ Jesus’ teachings and will increasingly embrace.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 9:34).

The Hebrew Scriptures names this port city as well:  when Jonah decides to flee from God’s directive to save the people of Nineveh. It is Joppa where he catches the boat to Tarshish, in today’s Spain, and one of the remotest parts of the Roman Empire.  That this only Old Testament parable cited Tarshish for Jonah’s new destination would have been an obvious object lesson to early listeners – knowing that it was the most opposite direction of Nineveh one could find!

The book of Acts also tells us the faithful disciple, Tabitha,  lived in Joppa.  Always taking care to balance experiences of both male and female disciples, Luke tells Tabitha’s encounter with Peter just prior to his stay at the house of Simon.  Dorcas (Tabitha’s name in Greek) had died, Acts 9 explains.  Having heard that Peter was in the nearby town of Lydda, two men were sent to bring him to Tabitha’s bed side.

Pause and consider what this group of new converts to Christ Jesus’ teachings believed:  that just as Jesus’ had raised Lazarus from the dead and himself had been resurrected, they must have reasoned that death could not have been this woman’s final chapter.  They were learning to challenge the most common and aggressive view of humanity’s end – death – and say, no.   Life is here, right where this body appears.  When Peter came to Tabitha, he proved them right, raising her from the dead and ‘calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive”  (Acts 9:41).

It’s no wonder that he stayed in Joppa ‘for some time’ at Simon’s home, probably preaching and continuing to share and heal with the powerful message of Christ Jesus’ teachings that the Kingdom of heaven has indeed arrived and is among us.

Modern day pilgrims on Joppa’s ancient Acropolis.

Sometimes searching a Biblical location and seeing all that happened there is a marvelous way to ground ourselves in the stories.  Joppa gives us three powerful examples of the spiritual lessons the Scriptures reveal (Cornelius, Tabitha and Jonah).  No doubt we will never see it again as only an ancient site–as this group of Pilgrims can attest.

 

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Why Resurrection Cover-ups Failed

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ , Rembrandt (1651) Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany

Cover-ups have a bad historical track record for one reason:  people talk!  While that might be disastrous to a conspiracy being hatched, it was ideal for Christianity.  Isn’t that one of many reasons 2.2 billion Christians continue to celebrate an event that rocked the world 21 centuries ago?  And there are more.

Check out Paul’s account in I Corinthians 15.  The letter was written sometime in the mid-50’s, about 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection but before a Gospel account recorded it.

…That he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died (I Cor. 15:4-6, NRSV).

Those 1st century Jews who believed in resurrection, having poured over Daniel 12, knew it wasn’t some amorphous event but “the literal reanimation of a dead corpse”, as the New Living Translation explains.  But huge effort was made to disguise its actuality when it happened to Jesus.  The arguments ranged from: ‘he never really died but was just unconscious’, to ‘the disciples only dreamed it’.

But my favorite ‘it never really happened’ explanation was the one Matthew’s Gospel records in chapter 28.  Matthew gives us the back story of the Jewish religious leaders asking Pilate to order soldiers to guard the tomb so Jesus’ followers wouldn’t steal the body.   When the guards found it empty on the third day, they told the priests who called an emergency meeting then bribed the guards with this response:

  You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed (Matt. 28:13,14). 

So with all the efforts of an attempted cover-up that makes Watergate pale by comparison, how did the truth emerge?  Here are six reasons and would love to hear others you think made a difference.

  1. The simplest:  the tomb was empty. Something happened to the body that had been placed there.
  2. Women were witnesses. Why would anyone conceive such a bizarre account and then use women to confirm it when it was culturally assumed they would be less reliable?!
  3. The consistency of the several accounts of those who saw him: the disciples in the upper room; then when Thomas joined them and Jesus appeared again in the same place; the witness of Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus; the morning meal prepared for the disciples by the risen Jesus Christ;
  4. The significant shift in the disciples – from fearful followers to bold apostles.
  5. Jesus’ followers’ ability to prevail over the disgrace and dishonor embedded in Deut.21:23 (anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse). Similar to having women as eyewitnesses, why would you conceive of a Jewish leader with such a resume?!
  6. The healing ability of his followers, accounts which fill the book of Acts, indicating what he did was not confined to him personally but could be replicated by those who followed his teachings.

It leaves us with the question for today:  how do people know by my life that ‘He is risen’?  Only you can answer that one!  Happy post-Easter everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about “The Week that Changed the World”, listen to a free video talk given by me on Good Friday (3/30/18) for Third Church of Christ, Scientist, New York  (thirdchurchnyc.org) and download the free handout.

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Gethsemane: Holy Place of Prayer

Gethsemane– a word almost universally recognized and filled with meaning like few others—is the subject of the February video and blog.

Although mentioned only once each in Mark (14:32) and Matthew (26:36), Christians know it well as the place of Jesus’ difficult prayer prior to Judas’ betrayal and the Master’s arrest.

        They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray (Mark 14:32).

Its 1st century use as an olive orchard located on the Mount of Olives gave the garden its name and meaning, gath shemane being Hebrew for ‘oil press’.  While Luke’s Gospel certainly recounts this momentous night of prayer, he refers to the larger area, the Mount of Olives.

Luke also gives us a hint of how often Jesus must have gone to this peaceful garden, so close to Jerusalem yet with the Kidron Valley between to provide some distance from the urban clamor.

        He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him (Luke 22:39).

In fact, the frequency of Jesus’ retreats there to pray are why scholars believe Judas knew where to tell the Jewish authorities to find him later that night.

One can’t help but wonder if Jesus, on this night or previous ones of prayer, thought also of David’s experience on the Mount of Olives.  Knowing the Hebrew Scriptures and identified as the prophesied Messiah and ‘Son of David’, Jesus must have been familiar with the story of David fleeing to this sacred place as he was forced to escape Jerusalem. Absalom was out to kill David and take the throne, so with family and loyal friends around him, the Bible relates David also paused here at a critical moment:

            David walked up the road to the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. His head was covered and his feet were bare as a sign of mourning. And the people who were with him covered their heads and wept as they climbed the hill (II Sam 15:30).

The Gospels reveal Gethsemane as the lowest point of Jesus’ earthly career, evidenced by what Matthew relates he told his disciples:

            My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matt 26:38).

Yet Gethsemane also represents that consummate moment of self-surrender that shines as a model for all who want to yield to God’s will for their lives:

            My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away–unless I drink it, your will be done (Matt 26:42-43).

More than any place in Israel I’ve traveled, Gethsemane is ‘holy ground’.  A wall surrounding these ancient olive trees, still bearing fruit,  helps Christian pilgrims pray quietly where the Master prayed, look across the Valley to Jerusalem, and hope that their lives provide even a fraction of the healing oil of his.

 

 

 

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Debate over Jesus’ burial and resurrection site: The Holy Sepulchre or The Garden Tomb?

Visiting Jerusalem as a Christian pilgrim and searching for the site where Jesus was buried and arose can be a conundrum.  Why?  Because tour guides take you to two sites, not one!

First is The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the second is known simply as ‘The Garden Tomb’.  Both are beautiful and moving in their own way yet Christians for centuries have tried to determine which is authentic.

To solve the mystery, it’s helpful to get grounded in the Gospel story and the facts it relays:

  • That Golgotha, Hebrew for ‘the place of the skull’ (Luke 23:33) was the site of the crucifixion and near the city (John 19:20). This means it was not IN the city walls.
  • Three of the gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was the site of Jesus’ burial and that the tomb was carved from rock. See Matt. 27:57, Luke 23:50-51; and John 19:38.
  • John’s gospel explains the tomb was new and describes its location in relation to the crucifixion: “The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before” (John 19:41).
  • All four gospels concur that a large round stone was rolled to block the entrance to the tomb and seal it. See Matt. 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 24:2, and John 20:1.
  • A verse in the book of Hebrews reiterates that Golgotha was outside the city walls:  Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood ( 13:12, NRSV, emphasis added).
    During Constantine’s reign (306-337), the Emperor’s mother, Helena, traveled to ancient Palestine to locate sacred sites of Christendom.  After all, her son was the newly proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor.  The 4th century tradition claims that she located the site of Jesus’ tomb with the help of locals whose families had always lived in that area.  The result?  The first building of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The problem scholars began to identify in the 19th century, however, was that the Biblical accounts told the story in such a way that both Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb had to be located outside the walls of 1st century Jerusalem. The problem was that The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been found to be inside city walls archaeologists found in the 19th century.  Was one of the most holy sites of all of Christendom a topographical and historical error?

The May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has shed new light on the controversy, and very convincing light to many.  Two scholars* report that the wall discovered in 1893, believed to be the ancient city wall of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time, was is in fact too small for a city wall and also not built until the 4th century A.D.  This meant that The Church of the Holy Sepulchre could indeed have been located outside the city walls, since both Roman and Jewish custom conducted crucifixion and burial outside such walls.

In addition, archaeological work in the 1970’s revealed that underneath The Holy Sepulchre Church was a rock quarry that had been in use since before the 1st century BC.   This fit the Biblical description of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb carved from rock.  Such a quarry would have been located outside the city walls.

Also discovered were traces of gardens dating to the first century A.D., supporting Mark 15:21, Luke23:26 and John 19:41 that indicate the place of Jesus’ crucifixion was surrounded by gardens and fields.

There are other hints, but suffice it to say that all this work has done much to convince rigorous investigators that today’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher appears to be the location of Golgotha and the Master’s tomb.

Why tourists appreciate seeing both The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and The Garden Tomb is their vast difference.  For all the ritual, tradition and ceremony of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Garden Tomb is quiet, modest and seems unchanged in two thousand years.  One can go inside to see the rock-ribbed walls surrounding a single slab of stone where a body would have been laid.  It feels sacred and holy yet as their website explains, ‘where Jesus died is of little importance compared with why”.

As archaeology continues to find reason to believe The Church of the Holy Sepulchre might indeed be the authentic site of Jesus’ tomb and therefore the crucifixion and resurrection, organizations like The National Geographic are taking notice.

The National Geographic Society has recently opened an exhibit on the tomb that you can explore here for a virtual tour.  Fascinating!

Video from National Geographic of virtual exhibit of Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Jerusalem: City of David – part 1

Jerusalem–the holy city for the world’s three monotheistic religions.  It evokes life-changing events for millions and history unparalleled for centuries with political,  religious and archaeological claims to every holy square inch.  To see it for the first time, perhaps standing on Mt. Scopus at sunset, is to have a moment forever etched in memory.

 

Byzantine mosaic map in St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan.

The city’s importance through the Byzantine period, in the 6th century CE, is tangibly seen in Madaba, Jordan.  Here a mosaic map, created to show not just locations of sites, but their importance by size, reveals Jerusalem as the center of the world.  As the photograph reveals, “The Holy City of Jerusalem” contained six gates and twenty one towers surrounded by city walls, all displayed in stunning mosaic that covers 15′ square feet of floor in the St. George Byzantine church.

Today, 3000 years later, the City of Jerusalem, working capital of the country of Israel since its founding, continues in daily news headlines as a center of political and religious controversy. Whether it is the potential relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, or the response of Palestinians to sharing their beloved city with others, Jerusalem seems anything but the city of peace.

Bible Roads will be sharing four brief videos from a recent trip to Jerusalem, each one explaining a different facet of the city.  This current vlog (video blog) highlights the Dome of the Rock, that iconic gold dome in virtually every city skyline photograph of this ancient capital city.  It serves as a sacred destination for Jews since it is thought to be the rock on which Abraham started to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  It also is thought to be the site where the holiest of holies was located for both the Temple Solomon built in the 9th century BCE, and the second Temple built after return from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

For Muslims, this site is a shrine — not a mosque–for those pilgrims who want to commemorate where Muhammad was supposed to have ascended, and was built in the 7th century CE.

The Dome of the Rock sits on what is known as The Temple Mount, which rises above the Kidron Valley and sits directly across from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Following his night in the garden praying, Jesus was taken to the Temple Mount where the palace of Annas, the High Priest, was located.  After his questioning, Jesus was transferred to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, nearby.   As mentioned, every square inch:   holy ground.

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