Did the Good News get to Gamla?

I am alone at ruins of the ancient city of Gamla, which once stood on this mountain peak high above the Sea of Galilee. Bird sounds break spooky silence at this isolated place where thousands of Jews took their last stand against Rome in AD 67. Blood ran down steep streets of Gamla after Roman battering rams breached its walls during the great Jewish Revolt of AD 66-73. That insurrection failed and ended in destruction of Jerusalem.

Gamla compressedCR

On this mountain spur the city of Gamla once stood. Halfway up the left slope is the synagogue.

General Vespasian and son Titus commanded troops who slaughtered 4,000 Jews here. As Roman legions closed in, another 5000 Jews hurled themselves to death into ravines far below. Suicide at Gamla has an eerie echo today, with news reports of suicide bombers in various countries. The human cost of warfare–by sword, bullet, bomb, disease, famine or suicide–is staggering.

Gamla synagogue compressedCR

The synagogue at Gamla.

I make my way to ruins of the first-century synagogue. Did Jesus preach here? It’s likely, since Gamla and Capernaum are close enough to be visible to each other on a clear day. The Gospels say Jesus “went about all the cities and villages” in Galilee “teaching in their synagogues.” He proclaimed good news of the kingdom: healing the sick, forgiving sin, caring for the poor, loving enemies. Did his message “take” at Gamla?

Our Lord changes hearts and reconciles sinners with their Creator, making us citizens in a kingdom “not from this world.” This community is heaven-sent, but it takes form here and now in every generation among believers. “The kingdom of God is among you,” our Lord told disciples.

Jewish rebels were ready to die fighting Rome, and Roman soldiers were ready to perish putting down revolt. Followers of Jesus are ready to give our lives for the kingdom of God. We engage spiritual and political battle with weapons of forgiveness and divine authority to heal.

“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting,” Jesus told Pilate (John 18:36). What a contrast to the deaths of first-century Jewish rebels and Roman soldiers, or the endless spilling of blood today in Syria just over the mountain from Gamla! In the face of such evil, nonviolence and love of enemies seem impractical. But the slaughter of 9000 Jews at Gamla is hardly a practical outcome. Death or displacement of millions in Syria today is not a practical way to solve conflict.

Jesus offers no easy solutions to corrupt government, abusive empire, social injustice or civil war. He nonviolently confronted evil, refused the sword, and faced state execution on a Roman cross. Countless followers have suffered martyrdom rather than compromise their allegiance to the Lamb.

You and I will not save the world or end all suffering by our noble, peaceful deeds. But by giving our lives daily to Jesus in living sacrifice, by showing compassion for the poor and charity toward enemies, we become a tangible expression of the kingdom of heaven. God is breaking the cycle of sin and hatred, empowering us to bring resurrection hope to the world.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************JNK2018sm
Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where so much biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Pekau and me for a “Journey of Hope” tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019 (https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/ ). In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation as we travel and worship together.

Respect for both Jews and Palestinians

Canaanite gate CR

“At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” With that casual aside, the biblical account of Abraham and Sarah arriving in Canaan states that the territory already was populated. “To your offspring I will give this land,” God told Abraham (Gen. 12).

Today near the northern border of modern Israel there’s a Canaanite city gate built about 1750 BCE—approximately when Abraham and Sarah arrived. Did they go through this gate? Did they know that their descendants someday would dispossess Canaanites of life and land?

Made of mud bricks, the ancient gate today stands under a hangar-like canopy for protection. A small model nearby shows how the gate effectively was a fortified building with a central passageway.

Descendants of Abraham and Sarah, after a 400-year detour into Egypt, returned to conquer Canaan with swords and claims of divine mandate. Entire Canaanite cities perished. It must have been brutal for indigenous people.

Today conflict still simmers, this time between Jews and Palestinians, who both trace lineage to Abraham. Most Palestinian descendants of Abraham are Muslim, and many likely also have Canaanite DNA.

Palestinian population includes the largest group of Christians in Israel and the West Bank. These followers of Jesus, not fully accepted by Jewish or Muslim majorities, need support (as do all Palestinians committed to peace). Since my Christian faith springs from Judeo-Christian wells, I also am deeply drawn to Judaism and want Israel safe.

While Jewish Israelis have suffered substantial casualties since becoming a nation in 1948, Palestinian loss is far greater. A 2016 book by Daniel Gordis, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, helps me understand why Jewish nationalists have been aggressive and assertive. Jews suffered staggering losses through centuries of mistreatment culminating in the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, and certain Middle Eastern nations still vow to destroy Israel.

So some Jewish Israelis continue to settle in the West Bank on land belonging to Palestinians. That violation makes Israel less secure, creating a focal point for the wrath of opponents. Speaking up about that injustice, however, gives me pause: I own Indiana land stolen from Pottawatomie people just as surely as Jewish settlers have taken land from Palestinians. Am I ready to give it back?

It has become popular among religious and political progressives to glibly condemn Israel. It is equally common for Christian conservatives to blithely support everything Israel does. Neither extreme is acceptable. Especially for outsiders, humility is in order.

I want to promote safety for both Jews and Palestinians, especially those committed to peace. I do not support strategies that shame or isolate; a wounded psyche is likely to respond with more hostility and violence. Instead, I want to stand in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah and Jesus, who called for justice but also loved Jerusalem and wanted its gates open to become a “house of prayer for all the nations” (Isa. 56; Mark 11).

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************JNK2018sm
Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where so much biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Pekau and me for a “Journey of Hope” tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019 (https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/ ). In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters for his people to cross, and Machaerus fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation as we travel and worship together.

Jesus calls women to the center

Magdala painting--JNKcrNancy Kauffmann of Goshen, Indiana has long been a pioneer as a woman in congregational and denominational leadership. So it’s not surprising that a painting by Chilean artist Daniel Cariola in a chapel next to the Sea of Galilee caught her attention.

She and fellow pilgrims already had seen the first-century synagogue recently discovered nearby among ruins of ancient Magdala, which probably was the hometown of Mary Magdalene. But the painting entitled “Encounter,” which shows the hand of an “unclean” woman reaching to touch Jesus (Mark 5), stopped Nancy in her tracks. When Jesus felt power go out from him, he said, “Who touched my clothes?” In front of the painting of that scene, Nancy Kauffmann spontaneously began to teach:

“Why did Jesus call out the woman who touched him? Why embarrass her in front of the crowd? Jesus could have let her quietly slip away. She had risked being humiliated, since Rabbinic law considered her untouchable due her blood issue. For twelve years she had suffered, spent all her money on doctors, and had to be desperate. Yet she believed that by touching Jesus she would be healed.

“By Jesus calling her out, he legitimized her. He brought her from the margins to the center of the community. He affirmed her boldness to ignore the law and risk touching him. Jesus called her daughter, signifying her place in the family of God. Instead of ignoring or rejecting her, Jesus invited the woman to talk, and blessed her.

 “Jesus constantly engaged women in theological discussion: the woman at Jacob’s well (John 4), or the Canaanite woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter and countering his hesitation to heal outside of Israel by saying, ‘Even the dogs get crumbs under the table’ (Matthew 15). Compared to how society treated women, Jesus engaged and affirmed them for their thoughts and their faith. He stood up for them in public—including the woman ‘caught in adultery’ (John 8; heaven knows where the partner was), or the woman who put perfume on his feet (Luke 7).

“Women could not give witness in court, and often their word was/is dismissed. Yet the risen Christ showed himself to women first. They then go back to the men to announce that Jesus is risen. Jesus himself told Mary Magdalene to proclaim the news! She had to be brave to go to the tomb in the first place in spite of what religious and civil authorities had done to him.

“Mary has courage to stay at the tomb, receive the angel, and then see Jesus. Guards play dead and then run, chief priests try to control the story by paying off the guards. But Mary Magdalene moves forward to announce the resurrection to the other disciples.” For centuries the Christian church has called her the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

 “Jesus calls women into the center of the faith community as full-fledged participants,” Nancy Kauffmann says, “and invites us to engage our minds and hearts. We too are created in the image of God.”

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************JNK2018sm
Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where so much biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Pekau and me for a “Journey of Hope” tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019 (https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/ ). In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters for his people to cross, and Machaerus fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect on themes of mission and reconciliation as we travel and worship together.

Let God do the sorting

casting net on Sea of Galilee

From a boat on the Sea of Galilee, a fisherman demonstrates the ancient art of casting a circular net. Weights along the outer edge sink rapidly, pulling the web around any living thing below. Waters next to Jesus’ ministry base at Capernaum teemed with tilapia, carp, and sardines when his first disciples plied their trade.

Fishing was a significant part of the regional economy in the first century, evidenced by names of nearby towns: Bethsaida (“house of fishing”) was hometown to Peter, Andrew, and Philip; Tariacheae (“pickled fish town,” called Magdala in Hebrew) probably was home to Mary Magdalene. Disciples of Jesus appear in the Gospels variously mending nets, fishing all night, counting fish, extracting a coin from the mouth of a fish, and eating seafood breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind,” Jesus told his followers. “When it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:47-50).

At a time when some Christian denominations excommunicate or divide over sexuality and other contested matters, Jesus’ fishing parable is instructive. Galilean fishermen typically used nets, not hooks, to harvest their catch. Evangelism and church discipline, according to this imagery, are broad and inclusive. Nobody gets hooked individually by ruse or violence. Rather, the wide embrace of a net draws in a motley and diverse catch. At the end of the age these get sorted–not by you and me, but by angels.

How tempted I am to start sorting  now! Chuck out fish whose politics irritate me. Discard those not to my taste. Get rid of any whose views on sexuality don’t seem biblical according to how I interpret the Bible.

But instead of putting you and me into the sorting business, Jesus implies that we are to cast a wide net. “Follow me, and I will make you [net] fish for people,” he said (Matt. 4:19). Other biblical images likewise suggest that Jesus advocated an inclusive people-gathering. The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer’s field with both wheat and weeds, he taught. These grow side by side until harvest, then reapers (angels?) sort them and destroy the worthless plants (Matt. 13:24-30). In John’s Apocalypse, it is Christ who can remove lampstands (congregations), not the churches themselves (Rev. 2:5).

Our Lord did not suggest that belief and behavior are irrelevant to salvation. There are consequences for those who do not measure up. When God brings harvest at the end of the age, weeds will go up in smoke and bad fish end up in the furnace, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We do well to learn, practice, and teach what God requires for holy living. But thank God, we can focus on net-casting and let God do the sorting.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************JNK mugshot 5.18 small (3)
Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where so much biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Pekau and me for a “Journey of Hope” tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019 (https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/). In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and view Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site along the Jordan River where God parted the waters for his people to cross, and Machaerus fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect on themes of mission and reconciliation as we travel and worship together.

In trouble for speaking the truth

Nazareth Village synagogue JNKcr

At Nazareth Village museum, pilgrims approach a replica of the first-century synagogue. Across the city at top center is a long dark hill from which, by tradition, locals wanted to hurl Jesus.

Don’t expect to be popular if you advocate Sermon on the Mount values at a time when even prominent Christian leaders schmooze politicians who trumpet greed, nationalism, racism, and adultery.

Alone in the Judean desert after his baptism, Jesus endured a test that showed he was not trying to improve his ratings (Luke 4). Jesus refused crowd-pleasing strategies such as turning stone to bread, would not worship the devil even if that would give him rule over kingdoms, and dismissed publicity stunts such as leaping off tall buildings. Instead, Jesus resolved to honor God alone. He headed to Galilee to teach, heal, forgive, cross boundaries, and proclaim justice of the kingdom of God.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . release to the captives . . . sight to the blind . . . and freedom for the oppressed.” With those words Jesus read to his home-town folk at Nazareth synagogue when someone handed him a scroll of the book of Isaiah. Then he took the congregation through spiritual whiplash with a short sermon.

Friends and family at first swelled with pride when the young rabbi, already well-received in other Galilee synagogues, graced the home pulpit. Local-boy-made-good announced that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled in their presence. “How well the man speaks!” they said. People of Nazareth knew that Jesus had performed healing in other villages, and now expected a good demonstration at home.

But Jesus was no showman, and his sermon flipped to confront racism and elitism. Remember Hebrew prophets Elijah and Elisha? he demanded. Elijah would not help widows within Israel, where people had a sense of entitlement, but helped a widow across the border at pagan Sidon! Elisha would not heal lepers in Israel, but instead restored a foreign military officer!

In one bold move, Jesus showed that his Spirit-breathed movement would involve caring for those in poverty, freeing prisoners, fighting oppression, and showing compassion even for foreigners. He would give sight to the blind, and now people of Nazareth abruptly had eyes opened to see their own prejudice and elitism. They drove Jesus out of town with intent to kill.

Today at Nazareth Village museum there is a replica of that first-century synagogue, a few blocks from the probable ancient location. Pilgrims emerging from the replica can look across the city to a steep hill from which, by tradition, Jesus nearly got hurled. What price would we be willing to pay to speak and act like Jesus regarding poverty, inequality for captives in our prison system, rejection of immigrants, racism, and the sense of entitlement that plagues comfortable churches and societies?

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in the Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Contact TourMagination immediately if you wish to join. See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

For a conventional Holy Land tour in 2019 that includes biblical sites in Palestine, Israel, and Jordan, and is less physically demanding, see https://www.tourmagination.com/destination/the-middle-east/

In you all nations will be blessed

Bethel CRs

This hill with its medieval domed structure 20 kilometers north of Jerusalem probably is Bethel, traditional site of Jacob’s dream. When Israel split into two nations after Solomon’s death, King Jeroboam of the North built a golden calf temple here so Northerners would not go to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh.

Renewed controversy in recent months over the location of Israel’s capital (Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?) takes my imagination to biblical Bethel in the West Bank. At this “thin place” between heaven and earth, Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending, and received promises about the land (Genesis 28).

For my own spiritual prospects, I take comfort from the fact that divine revelation reached even a scoundrel like Jacob. He had cheated his brother Esau, and now was fleeing for his life to distant Padan Aram. Northbound on the ridge route later called Way of the Patriarchs, Jacob stopped for the night at Luz (which he renamed Bethel or “house of God”).

With stone for a pillow, the fugitive heard these gracious words: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.”

Similar promises came to his forebears Abraham and Isaac, and in all three cases there also was a moral caveat: “In you all nations will be blessed.” All nations, even today’s Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. Isaiah echoed the same universal theme in describing God’s intent for the eschatological future of Jerusalem: “All nations shall stream to it. . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2).

How could anyone argue historically or biblically that Jerusalem is not the capital of the Jewish people? But how could anyone miss the caveat, the call for justice that pervades the Torah and Prophets? Israel is to conduct itself honorably among the nations, but sometimes treats Palestinians with contempt and coercion today. They too are children of Abraham, and legitimately claim Jerusalem as their capital.

An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon, 2015) shows how my own European forebears did not behave honorably with similar competing claims to territorial sovereignty. Anyone who thinks that scalping was something that nasty indigenous people did to European settlers should know that such brutality often was the reverse. The United States government paid a bounty for scalps to encourage the massacre of Indians.

That history gives me, a U.S. American, pause if I critique Israel’s conduct in the West Bank or critique Israel’s apparent attempt at exclusive control of Jerusalem. But I reject the biblical rationalization and Manifest Destiny arguments that some of my forebears used to run American Indians off their land. I protest today if Israel does the same in the West Bank, and if Palestinians or other nations want to destroy Israel.

I have been blessed by the Jewish people, and gladly travel with groups to Israel. In the words of Paul, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah” (Romans 9). My spiritual journey as a Gentile Christian is inextricably linked to theirs, and I am grateful. I support Israel. I also support Palestinians–Christian, Muslim, or secular–whose claims to Jerusalem and stewardship of the land run deep.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in the Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join.   See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

Let me sleep when I die

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Frieze on a sarcophagus from the Christian catacombs, dated AD 325-350. The woman who died stands at far left, scroll in hand. Next to her two farm animals hover over the infant Christ, then John baptizes Jesus, and Jesus (looking very Roman without a beard!) raises Lazarus.

When my earthly sojourn ends, please say that I died, not that I “passed.” The latter happens to footballs and, well . . . to gas. Aversion to death makes our culture prefer euphemism, but followers of Jesus acknowledge death and resurrection at the center of our faith. We name them, and do not fear the end of our physical lives.

Twenty years ago, I was frustrated to find the Pio Cristiano gallery of Early Christian art at Vatican Museums in Rome repeatedly closed. Finally, I appealed up the museum hierarchy until I got to the office of the general manager, who confirmed that the section again was closed. Politely I declared that I would not leave his office without permission to see that collection. Eventually he picked up the phone, spoke something impatient in Italian, and in came a guard–who took me to the collection!

What I found was marvelous art from early Christian catacombs, from the miles of underground tunnels where believers buried loved ones in shelf-like niches in the walls. After Christians laid a body to rest, they covered the niche with tile or marble plates, which they could decorate with words or sculpture. Wealthy families sometimes buried their deceased in a sarcophagus, or sculpted stone coffin.

Pagan people in Rome normally buried their dead in a necropolis (“city of the dead”), much like usual above-ground burial plots in the West today. But Christians named their burial tunnels cemeteries, Greek for “dormitories”! Burial simply provided a place to sleep until the return of Christ and resurrection.

What a window into Early Christian theology of life and death! Images on Christian tombs mostly illustrate bible stories of salvation, such as Noah in the ark receiving an olive leaf, three Hebrew lads worshiping God in the midst of flames, or Jonah being rescued by and from a big fish. New Testament scenes largely were from the Gospels: Jesus healing the sick, multiplying loaves, restoring sight to the blind, and–most prominently–raising Lazarus from the dead.

Christians lost fear of death, making them bold to care even for pagan neighbors when their own family members put them out on the street to die because they had the plague. Early church leader Dionysius says Christians in AD 260 showed such courage during a devastating plague in Egypt, even if it meant they could become ill from the exposure:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy. . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”

Sociologist Rodney Stark believes such acts of compassion, extended both to Christians and pagans, were a significant factor in the growth of the Early Church. Having no fear in the face of death means we, too, can take big risks to share the love of Jesus.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

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Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join.   See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/