I expected to meet Jesus on our study tour to Israel-Palestine this past January. Not like the Samaritan woman at the well. Not like Paul on the road to Damascus. Certainly not like Lazarus emerging from his tomb. But, I expected that in the land where Jesus was born, travelled, taught, healed, died, rose, and ascended, He would be present in very real ways. I would hear His voice. I would sense His Spirit compelling, convicting, inspiring me.
And I did meet Him. But, my experience of Christ was tied less to the places I visited than to the people we met along the way and to the people with whom I travelled.
To be clear, I learned a lot by seeing Jesus’ homeland. Seeing the shepherds’ caves near where the angels first announced Jesus’ birth. The Temple Mount where Simeon prophesied over Mary’s infant bundle. Synagogues where Jesus taught. Caesarea Philippi where Peter first confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. The lush slopes upon which Jesus gave the Beatitudes. The lake in Galilee that He traversed frequently by boat (and occasionally on foot!). Gethsemane with its gnarled olive trees, where Jesus cried tears like blood. The rock upon which our Lord is said to have been crucified. My reading of Scripture will now be richer, enhanced by photos, impressions, moods, and a clearer mental map of the ancient land of Palestine.
At these places, though, I often found myself distracted. Sometimes by tiredness. Sometimes by my desire to photograph the land’s beauty. Sometimes because I was too eager for conversation rather than reflection. And sometimes because the sites were so ornamented that the ancient reality of the place seemed irretrievable.
So I came away from the Holy Land relieved that my experience of Christ is not tied to a place. Wherever we find ourselves, we are free—indeed, called—to worship our Savior. But I can say that after spending 11 nights and 10 days in Israel-Palestine, I worship this Savior conscious of His presence in new ways.
I met Jesus among the Arabic-speaking congregation at Nazareth Baptist Church, who welcomed our group with wide smiles, baklava treats, English greetings, and translator headphones. When it became clear that the size of our group exceeded the number of headphones, the pastor’s wife stood up to translate her husband’s entire sermon, without preparation. In the hospitality and community we experienced through song, Word, and the Lord’s Supper, I saw the unifying work of Christ, a welcome change from the conflict evident at some holy sites; conflict between Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations and between Jews and Muslims.
I also met Jesus among the students and faculty at Bethlehem Bible College. After seeing the ways that Palestinians are inconvenienced, confined, and oppressed by the Israeli government’s policies and practices, we all were moved by the determination and hope of this academic community, driven—in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ footsteps—to develop theology that made sense in this difficult context. Through the academic dean, also an Evangelical Lutheran pastor, I heard Jesus speaking: “If our theology trumps the biblical ethical teachings of Jesus, of love, equality and justice, then we must rethink our theology!”
Jesus was present too among the Nassar family, whom we met at their farm outside Bethlehem. Despite owning this land for 100 years, the Nassars have had to fight Israeli attempts to confiscate their land since 1991. But rather than running away, cowering like victims, or responding in anger, the Nassars have adopted a philosophy of peaceful resistance. They invest their frustrations constructively by working the land and planting trees, by creating cisterns for water storage, and by installing solar panels to make up for the lack of electricity. And in their ministry called Tent of Nations, they build bridges of understanding among people and between people and the land. The stones at the farm entrance broadcast in multiple languages, “We refuse to be enemies.” Again, I heard Jesus speaking, “Blessed are the peacemakers!”
I also saw Jesus among my fellow pilgrims. We met at Chicago O’Hare, a diverse group of 34 drawn together only by our desire to be shaped for Christian ministry. But it wasn’t long before we felt like family; became like Christ to one another. We provided medication and advice for illnesses and pains. Floated together in the super-buoyant Dead Sea. Danced on a boat in the Sea of Galilee. Sang in a cathedral with world-class acoustics. Prayed for one another. Taught each other. Searched for two lost sheep. Bore patiently with yet another bathroom stop. Listened to one another’s questions. Wrestled with our callings. Shared our yearnings. Walked, climbed, shopped, ate, slept, complained, rejoiced together. Christ’s Body. Christ embodied. In his little book, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, N.T. Wright comments, “As followers of the risen Christ, we are invited both to contemplate the place where he was and to recognize that there is more to following him than geography. ‘Come, see the place’ is important, but must be balanced with ‘He is not here; he is risen.’” I am thankful not only that I could see the places where Jesus once walked but, more importantly, that I could experience the risen Lord through His people. Thanks be to God!