Sunday, 29 January 2012

Bonus Culture

I am just back from the United Reformed Church's Youth Assembly.  It took place over the weekend close to Lichfield.  It was hugely enjoyable but very full on.  I was asked to comment on a news story of relevance to young people and its Christian implications.  As economics, austerity and recession are very much around these days it seemed appropriate to comment on a story that hit the headlines about the massive bonus (almost £1m) being paid to the boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  I noted one comment reported by The Guardian - 'even my parents think I'm overpaid'.

I also offered a reminder of Jesus's comment that 'the love of money is the root of all evil' and that, after the Kingdom of God, money was the topic on which he spoke most often.  On the one hand, it seems obvious that such bonuses should not be paid.  The money is surely better with Christian Aid or something like that.  On the hand, this amount is significantly less than the amount that he could have been given and represents the deal was done with him - and we do need good and competent people looking after our money.

I suggested that the key thing is not this particular payment, but how we tackle the issues that need to be addressed to get society's structures on the right track.

The comments led to a number of questions about how we use money, where we invest, how the church uses its resources - and we need to keep asking these questions.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Thin Places

In a sense places do not matter.  God can engage with us wherever we are and whatever we are doing.  Yet some places are special in all sorts of ways and for all sorts or reasons.  Some become special because they are the location of particular experiences, while others are just special anyway.  Some of these we sometimes call ‘thin’ places because we find ourselves especially aware of God’s presence. 

It is worth reflecting as to whether there are places we should go in order to encourage and sustain our spiritual development.  I believe that there is a sense in which Jesus needed to go to the wilderness.  On the other hand he also needed to be on the Mount of Transfiguration.

The Mount of Transfiguration is clearly a 'thin' place. Is the wilderness?  The place of temptation is a place of struggle, a place where you can feel lonely and apart from God.  Yet it is a place of focus and it is a place that needs to be visited. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012


The theme for the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which finished yesterday, is change – and what a good theme.  We serve a transforming God.  On Sunday evening I preached at a service for Churches Together in Felixstowe which took the title ‘we will all be changed’.  I hope we will, for we surely need to be.  But this is not an impossible aspiration.  Our God can deliver the change.  As the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians – So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Saint Paul

Today is the feast of St. Paul, the day when we remember the conversion of Saul - and the big change that led to his becoming Paul.  I was at St. Paul's Cathedral in London this morning for the consecration of the Bishops of Bradwell and Winchester, Bradwell being in the Diocese of Chelmsford, most of which is part of my patch.  It was an impressive occasion and a good opportunity to remember the transformation that came to Paul and how he was able to see things in an entirely different way.

How do we cope when we need to view things differently?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Garden Tomb

The Garden Tomb - otherwise known as Gordon's Calvary (because the site was identified by General Gordon) - wasn't on our itinerary, as it is clearly not the site of either Calvary or the garden where the tomb was.  However, I took the chance to go there on my own and found it a helpfully meditative place - and, of course, lots of pilgrims do go there.  It all started when General Gordon noticed some indentations in a hill that gave the appearance of being the sockets for two eyes and a nose.  He suggested that this was Golgotha - Skull Hill - the place where Jesus was crucified - and it is still outside the city wall.  What is more is that there is an attractive garden nearby and that garden contains a tomb.  Indeed, the garden gives a good view of the hill, which is beside a bus terminal, and so the sense of noise and bustle fits with the crowds passing by the site of crucifixions.  Though it is not the authentic site, the Garden Tomb does offer a realistic picture somewhere around what it must have been like and, with that, the opportunity to reflect in the open air on the events of Good Friday and the discovery of the empty tomb on the first Easter Day!  Indeed, the message, now as then, is: He is not here - He is risen!

Monday, 23 January 2012


We went to Emmaus by coach.  That's the twenty-first century way.  And we were not entirely sure that we were at Emmaus - because, at least, four places claim to be the original Emmaus.  We went to Abu-Ghosh.  To go from walking the Via Dolorosa in the morning to taking a trip to "Emmaus" to celebrate the resurrection in the afternoon was quite a change of emotion - but, then, that is exactly how it was.  The seesaw of experience must have been far greater for the first disciples.  Unlike them, we could not help but know what was coming. 

We went to the Benedictine Monastery and were able to celebrate the Eucharist in their chapel - I had the priviledge of concelebrating with our guide and teacher.  It was a moving service, both because of where we were and because it was virtually the end of the course.  As we heard the familiar words .... take .. eat .. drink ... in an unfamiliar, to us, language - they were spoken on this occasion, as the first time they were used, in Aramaic - it was good to think back across the years and, as they knew him in the breaking of the bread, so did we. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of our first visits to anywhere in Jerusalem was to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, otherwise known as the Church of the Resurrection. This covers the site of Calvary and also the site of the Garden Tomb. It’s a complex place, the site of probably the earliest church in Jerusalem and yet now a place where different parts of the Christian Church vie to have control and different parts of the whole building are controlled by different factions within the Church.  We were told how the key is held by a Muslim who opens the church each day.   Indeed the same family has provided this service for several generations.  There was an interesting sense of spirituality there too and yet challenged by the noise, the flash of cameras, even the ringing of mobile phones.

However it was moving to go to the place where the tomb was, although now decorated in such an ornate way that it would contrast strongly with any picture that might arise from the Gospels.  It is also important to be reminded, as we were, that a church has existed on this site for so long and that is a telling reminder of the power of God down through the ages and that He will keep His church even when it is not doing what it should.

We visited the church again towards the end of our visit.  After walking the Via Dolorosa early in the morning we ended up outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a little before 7.30am, and so were able to go in and be there when there were relatively few people.

A particularly powerful possibility rising from this was to climb the stairs to the location within the church that marks the site of Calvary.  It is fascinating that Calvary and the site of the tomb are just so close.  As we reached the top of those stairs, we could see that the Eucharist was being celebrated and I was able to sit quietly and just reflect on the huge significance of this particular place.

This is a massive place of pilgrimage and it was an enormous priviledge to be there when there were so few folk - to reflect on the love demonstrated in Jesus going to the Cross, on all the things that happened in that last week which contributed to his being there and then on the power and glory of the resurrection.  God is great in so many ways.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Via Dolorosa

Walking the Via Dolorosa was one of the most moving experiences of my time in the Holy Land. We left the college at 6am, before breakfast, appropriately on our last day in the Holy Land. There were six of us, course members, and four course staff. We were carrying a small cross about four feet high, perhaps a little less, but as a very visible symbol of what we were doing. We walked down the main streets to the Damascus Gate and entered the old city through that gate about 6.15.

There were not too many people around, one of the reasons for going at that time, but the city was beginning to come to life as shops were being opened, delivery buggies taking things where they needed to be, and the cobbled streets being swept and washed. Most people just let us get on with it, but apparently there is always some animosity from folk of other faiths to such an explicit expression of ours.

We took it in turns to carry the Cross. Sometimes, I was told, the person carrying the cross can be jostled or pushed, but that didn’t happen on our walking this special way. Indeed, I didn’t notice anything particularly untoward, but I was told, just after we finished, that there had been one or two who had spat as we passed and one young lad, in particular had sworn very badly (in Arabic.) There were also one or two who crossed themselves.

It was certainly something special to take a turn at carrying the Cross – and just try and think how it would have felt for Jesus and his first disciples. We stopped at each of the fourteen stations of the Cross (or as near as possible, where it was not permissible to go right to the location.) In each place we, in turn, read the Scripture that marked what was commemorated there and shared a brief, relevant prayer. We were using the prayers from John Peterson’s “A Walk in Jerusalem” (Morehouse, 1998) and, as he says, “The Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem today lead right through the busy marketplace; pilgrims are as uncloistered and unprotected as Jesus was on the first Good Friday.”

It is absolutely right that it should be so and, in one way, we felt quite exposed, doing something somewhat strange, though, of course, groups of Christian pilgrims walking the via dolorosa are a very familiar sight. On the other hand, it wasn’t too difficult to feel very absorbed in what we were doing and somehow separate from all that was happening around. We were, I think, very focussed on the significance of where we were and the footsteps in which we were following.

It was all finished by 7.15. We ended up, of course, outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As I thought of the pain and anguish that Jesus must have felt as he walked this way and heard about the minimal acts of swearing and spitting that had accompanied our walking, it seemed as though we had got off too lightly – and yet it also seemed as though it was so sad that we cannot live in sufficient harmony to allow each other to do those things that are important to us and to our faith without even minor molesting. In many places, while in the Holy Land, we read and heard the words ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. How that is needed.

John Peterson tells us that in most places we are walking about sixteen feet above the original path and he comments: “Let us think about those sixteen feet. Every single millimetre, every single inch of dirt on which we walk includes the dust from the shoes and the tears from the eyes of pilgrims. They – we – weep for the prisoner condemned as The King of the Jews, “despised and rejected,” carrying so much more than a heavy, bruising, rough beam of wood. He is “enduring the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne.”

As we consider that, let us consider the legacy we are creating.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Church of St. Peter Galicantu

The Church of St. Peter Galicantu is on Mount Zion close to the Church of the Dormition and David's Tomb.  There are good views across to the Mount of Olives.  This church commemorates the traditional site of Peter's denial.  It is an attractive modern-looking church, though was built in 1931.  There is some lovely painting inside and some mosaics from a much earlier period have also been discovered.  Like many of the church it is not just on one level and, in this case, went down to excavations that would seem to be of a former prison.  There was a cell into which we were able to go by way of a staircase but, when it was in use, prisoners would have simply been lowered through a hole.  There was also what would seem to be a former torture chamber with sockets for chains and containers that would have taken the likes of boiling oil.  It was a stark place which spoke of violence and isolation.  In the church I found myself reflect on the agonies that took Peter to denial, thinking of why he did it and how he must have felt afterwards.

What are the ways in which we deny today?  How does that leave us feeling?  What do we do about what we have done?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

City Walls

One of the things it is possible to do at the old city in Jerusalem is to walk round part of the city walls and so, with some free time available, I decided to do just that.  Lots of it was not particularly exciting with not a great deal more than views of rooftops.  However, there were some good views across various parts and it was good to have the high vantage point.  The views of the Jaffa and Damascus Gates were particular good as was looking across the city with the Dome of the Rock as a main feature.  I got on to the walls by the Jaffa Gate and walked round to the Lions' (or St. Stephen's) Gate which is a fair chunk of going round the city.  It was fascinating to see something of the buildings and effects of the three Abrahamic faiths and to reflect on the history of these and, in particular, in this city.  It was interesting to reflect on the timelessness, and yet the changing times and, as modern playground sits alongside ancient building, to consider what the great and constant tenets of the faith say to today's culture - surely a crucial question in every context.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Church of the Dormition

As a group we didn't manage to visit the Church of the Dormition, though we passed beside it.  However, three of us took the chance to go there on one of those occasions when we could choose what to do.  The Church of the Dormition dominates the top of Mount Zion.  It is a large white stone church and stands on the site where, it is believed, Mary fell into an 'eternal sleep'.  The church was built in 1910 by German Benedictine Catholics and there are some wonderful mosaics inside.

While we there we heard some terific singing start up and, following the sound, went to a lower part where a male voice were rehearsing.  What a tremndous sound - and another chance to remember the role of Mary and, indeed, of other women in the Biblical story, and to be inspired by the comtribution that each made.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Mary's Tomb

From the Garden of Gethsemane we went to Mary's Tomb, which is adjacent to it.  There is an impressive flight of steps into a chapel and the grotto, which is believed to be at the place where Mary was laid to rest, is in the chapel.  It was an opportunity to remember Mary's contribution - and also to reflect on our contributions.  We all have a role in God's great plan - but how strong is our response?

By Mary's Tomb is the Cave of Gethsemane or the Cave of Betrayal which is believed to be the place where Judas betrayed Jesus.  Do we betray - sometimes?  And what do we do about it?

Monday, 16 January 2012


As we came down to the foot of the Mount of Olives we entered the Garden of Gethsemane and went through the garden to the Church of All Nations.  This is believed to be the site where Jesus prayed just before he was arrested, though nobody can be sure of the exact location.  One of the fascinating things about this church for me is the deer scultplted on the roof by the cross.  As a deer longs for a stream of cool water .... 

This is a place that speaks of prayer, of suffering, of betrayal, of being overcome by sleep.  This is the place of that tremendous phrase - 'not my will, but yours be done'.  It is a very moving place - and the garden contains ancient olive trees.

Part of the story is of the young man who ran away naked.  That account is Mark, leading to speculation that the said young man was Mark himself.  We may also wonder whether Mark was the one who got things ready for the last supper.  Was he the man who, unusually, carried a water jar?  Tradition has it that Mark looked after Mary at her end.  If Mark did all this, he was certainly ready to do all that God asked of him.  Again, we may ask: are we?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Dominus Flevit Chapel

On the way down the Mount of Olives we came to the Dominus Flevit Chapel.  'Dominus Flevit' literally means 'the master wept' and this church stands on the site of a rock which medieval pilgrims identified as the place where Jesus stood when he wept over the city of Jerusalem and its failure to see what God was saying to it.  Designed in the shape of a teardrop by Antonio Barluzzi this chapel was built in 1955 on the site of an earlier seventh century chapel.  It is a good place for looking down, over and at the city of Jerusalem.

If we consider again the Palm Sunday story and that particular journey that took Jesus and his disciples this way, we can imagine them being on a high state of alert.  If things looked like getting out of hand, the Roman soldiers would surely intervene.  The crowds are cheering Jesus as he descends the hill and the worried Pharisees tell Jesus to instruct his followers to be quiet - only to be told that, if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will shout.  As Jesus rides on the donkey through the Beautiful (Golden) Gate, the disciples still think he will overthrow the Romans.  However, as he rides through the gate, instead of turning right to the fortress, and the place where he might find and challenge the Romans, he turns left to the temple precincts - and overturns the tables of the money-changers!

Sometimes we think we know what needs doing, what needs changing, only to discover that God has other ideas. 

Saturday, 14 January 2012

On the Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives is a very significant place in the story of the Holy Land.  As we walked down the side of the hill from Bethphage to Gethsemane, we stopped a couple of times.  When we first stopped, we had good views across the valley to the old city.  In particular, we could see the Golden (or Beautiful) Gate, long since out of use.  We slso realised that much of the hillside is given over to graveyards.  Indeed, there was a Jewish funeral taling place not far from where we were standing.  It is a great Jewish wish to be buried on the Mount of Olives.  We were reminded of Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones.  God's living presence is everywhere, even in those places where we mark death.

Another of the main landmarks as we looked to the city was the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock.  It was also interesting to notice some of the graffiti.  As we walked down the hill, we could remember, in particular, that Palm Sunday walk, but also other occasions when Jesus and the disciples would have followed this way as they made their way to the city.

Friday, 13 January 2012


Bethphage, on the Mount of Olives, allowed us to look across to Jerusalem, but also to look down and see the wall and the checkpoint and look on towards Bethlehem.  This is an important spot because of the place where Jesus' Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem began.

The crowd expected Jesus to set Israel free from the Roman occupation - and so they cried 'Hosanna!', whicch literally means, 'Save us!'  We now sing that as a song of praise but, in the first instance, it was a political statement.  What they had in mind and what Jesus had in mind were very different.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Church of the Multiplication

After our trip on Galilee we went to the Church of Multiplication which commemorates the story of the feeding of the five thousand and were able to reflect on that story before going into the church which has a very famous mosaic of the fish and bread.

The story of the feeding of the five thousand helps us to explore the fundamentals of Jesus’ mission. On this occasion Jesus addresses their physical need for food, but he does not do so in order to attract those who will follow someone with unusual powers. His kingship is something very different from the kind that would normally respond to the demands of a crowd. The challenge is to respond to the actual physical needs, and so demonstrate appropriate care, without projecting a cult of the spectacular.

While we were in Galilee we stayed at Pilgerhaus Tabgha, close to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. On our second evening there we shared a service of Holy Communion at which I had the opportunity to preach and used John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand as the text.

As we were in Advent I reflected on the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary and their readiness to respond to God’s call, asking the question as to what we, in our turn are doing with God’s call.  As Christina Rossetti's carol asks:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him – give my heart.

The boy whose story is told in John 6 gave his lunch. We might wonder what God is asking us to give, but can be sure that he does not ask us to give something that we have not got, nor does he ask us to do something that we cannot do. Some folk worry that they are unable to do what God asks of them, but that will not be so. It is also interesting to reflect on what happens if we give what God asks. In the case of the boy and his lunch, there were twelve baskets of leftovers collected. It is, of course, no coincidence that there were twelve disciples, each of whom were given a collecting task. God did not waste any of that opportunity. If we respond to God’s call, then God will bless our response. We ought also to note that, though God sometimes asks big things of us, the small things are also immensely valuable.

To return to the story of the two pregnant women, Elizabeth greeted Mary by saying, “Blessed are you!” For one possibility, can we, like Elizabeth, offer a word to those who carry a heavy burden?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


How fascinating to visit the three key sites in Jerusalem for the three major world faiths in a single day as we did.  We went first to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It was interesting to walk through the old City to get there, entering via the Damascus Gate.

The site is a very important site for Muslims and both the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Asqa Mosque are within the same area. When we got to the area in which the two magnificent buildings are set, we had to pass through a Police check-point and were given a guide who took us and showed us round the area. It was interesting to look across to the Mount of Olives and think of all that means in Christian terms and the times when Jesus must have been there, not least in the Garden of Gethsemone at the foot of the Mount of Olives. We could see the Dominus Flevit Church, the place where Jesus wept marked by this building now. That was a clear reminder of the central importance of Jerusalem.  The Dome of the Rock is not used as a Mosque any longer but still is a place of prayer and it was very moving to see the magnificent architecture, the tremendous symbolism and to feel the presence of the prayer that has been there for so many years. It’s a special place for another faith but still has a strong spirituality and could speak of the power of God.

We walked across to look at the Al-Asqa Mosque and were again reminded of the power of God down through the ages.

Our next key visit was to the Wailing Wall, a very special place for Jews.  Because of the destruction of the Temple, the wall is all that is left but it is a powerful place of prayer. It was interesting to see people praying, wanting to touch the wall but also to see the large number of little notes, prayer notes, that had been stuck into the wall. I was pleased to be able to go into that area and to go and touch the Wall and have a moment of prayer. God is indeed a God of us all and also to go into the Synagogue that is within the male area of the Wall.

The third visit was to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, otherwise known as the Church of the Resurrection. This covers the site of Calvary and also the site of the Garden Tomb. It’s a complex place, the site of probably the earliest church in Jerusalem and yet now a place where different parts of the Christian Church vie to have control and different parts of the whole building are controlled by different factions within the Church.  Interestingly, the key is held by a Muslim who is responsible for opening the church each day. There was an interesting sense of spirituality there too - challenged by the noise, the flash of cameras, even the ringing of mobile phones.  It was interesting that such things felt more out of place in the Muslim and Jewish holy places that we had visited.  However it was moving to go to the place where the tomb was, although now decorated in such an ornate way that it would contrast strongly with any picture that might arise from the Gospels.  Still it is important to be reminded, as we were, that a church has existed on this site for so long and that was a telling reminder of the power of God down through the ages and that He will keep His church even when it is not doing what it should.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Massada, Qumran & the Dead Sea

The aim of visiting the Holy Land was to go where Jesus went but we did spend one day going to places where he didn't go. 

We started by visiting Massada, the mountain-top fortress which played such a significant role in defence for so long.  Herod (who ruled 37-4BCE) recognised the strategic nature of this location and used as a defence.  During his time it operated as a luxurious palace and it is amazing to think of how they would have got all the necessary supplies up the mountain in those days.  This was a very different experience, and yet a reminder of the possibilities of human achievement and a marker of the skills and abilities that God gives us.

From Massada we went to Qumran and learned something of the Essene community that was based there from the 2nd century BCE.  This is, of course, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so has gained a significant place in Christian history.

From Qumran we went to the Dead Sea, which we had driven beside and looked down on from Massada.  Floating in the Dead Sea was an amazing experience - and we gave ourselves a skin treatment by rubbing mud into our bodies.  This was very relaxing and refreshing - and here is a reminder of the need for relaxation and refreshment.

We live in a world where we tend to spend lots of time rushing round.  It is good to remember that we need those times when we give ourselves space and are able to relax and so be refreshed.  That is, as much as anything, a spiritual lesson to learn.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Yad Vashem

One of the most moving experiences of the trip to the Holy Land was a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum  The large site of the museum contains many stories from the holocaust and is, in so many ways, simply horrifying.  Written accounts, video stories and exhibition cases offers accounts of the dreadful experiences that happened to so many.  Frequently these are telling of relatives and friends who did not survive.  At one point there is a pile of shoes.  Elsewhere there is a model of a concentration camp crematorium, indicating how it all worked.  The horror was almost overwhelming - yet must not be denied. 

One story I remember was of some children being told to hide in a wardrobe when the soldiers were seen coming.  The parents were being taken away and their mother asked if she could just get her coat.  Given permission to do that, she went to the wardrobe to get a coat and whispered instructions to the children as to who they should go to for help.  That was the last time they saw their parents.

The stories of death were many and traumatic, the stories of survival sometimes quite remarkable - and the big question how to make any kind of sense of it, and I don't think you can.

Are there things we can't make sense of?  If so, what do we do with them?

Sunday, 8 January 2012


Whilst at Bethany we were reminded of the interesting fact that, after Jesus' visit to Jerusalem as a boy on that occasion when he 'got lost' in the temple, there is no record of his staying overnght in Jerusalem again until he was arrested.  However, he did, from time to time, when he was visiting that area, stay nearby and one of the homes in which he was welcomed was that belonging to two sisters and a brother, Martha, Mary and Lazarus.  They were clearly great friends of his and pleased to welcome him to their home.

When we visited Bethany, we especially focussed on that traumatic incident when Jesus was asked by the family to go to Bethany because Lazarus was very ill and, indeed, he died.  The story is so prominent because of Jesus' raising him from the dead, an incident that must have had a significant impact on that community - and reflecting on it was a reminder of the impact that Jesus can, still today, have on our communities. 

We visited the church on the site of Lazarus' tomb - and contemplated the resurrection message that is central to our lives and our faith.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Mount of Temptation

Most appropriately, the Mount of Temptation looks quite forbidding - at least, it certainly did when we were there.  For us, it was just a momentary pause in the midst of a busy day and plenty of bus travel.  We simply stopped near the foot of the mountain and spent a brief time looking and reflecting - but even that short opportunity to think was a timely reminder of the challenge and contribution of temptation to Jesus' ministry.  Without it, he would not have been human - and that means that being tempted was a genuine challenge for him, as it is for us.  That is not easy, but what we do with that challenge - and, at different times it will be different things - but our response contributes significantly to our Christian commitment and to our discipleship.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Mount Tabor

From Banias/Caesarea Philippi we then went to Mount Tabor which is the Mount of Transfiguration - just as Jesus and his disciples did though, not having the advantage of a 21st century bus, it took them six days.  It was a very different mode of transport, but fascinating to follow the same chronology.

There we were able to visit the chapel there which has depictions of Jesus and also of Elijah and Moses who were with him at that point.  In order to get there we could only take the bus so far and then had to get on a mini-bus which took us up to the top of the mountain - with its tremendous views.

It was indeed a place of transcendence.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Caesarea Philippi

I found our visit to Banias an extremely interesting, and quite challenging, experience.  Close to both the Syrian and the Lebanese border and situated in the Golan Heights, this is the present name for the site that we might rather know as Caesarea Philippi. This was the place where Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was and Peter replied “you are the Christ”. It was a fascinating and moving place with the ruins of a whole range of temples representing what had been around in the time of Jesus and, in some cases, slightly more recently. It is also significant as being the site of the source of the River Jordan and the water was there.

We were led in a meditation, particularly focusing on the question – 'who is Christ for you?' And it was strongly, and helpfully, suggested that we should not dilute our answer to that question with information.  It is very easy for us to focus on information and so miss out on encounter.  We were reminded of the way in which the expectation that the disciples had of the Messiah was different from reality.  This led to misunderstanding and this led, in turn, to betrayal something - that movement of ideas can be followed by reading through the chapters of the Gospels, for example Mark chapters 8, 9 and 10.

We were able to have some time here just to reflect and wander round which was good because there were virtually no other people there for most of the time that we were there.  I found it helpful to focus on all the evidence that was around, in ruins of temples standing for a range of ideas and, with all that background, to focus on that important question that Jesus asked his first disciples in this location.

I was able to follow a path up the hill a bit and reflect in the beauty of that particular location but also thinking of the huge history that was there.  It had been suggested that it was like the Las Vegas of Jesus’s time and how interesting that Jesus had gone there to have this particular conversation with his disciples.  How ready are we to face up to the challenging questions that God asks in our day?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

By Galilee

As we spent time near Lake Galilee we reflected on the time that Jesus spent there, with his disciples, both ‘the twelve’ and others, but also encountering all sorts of people, preaching, teaching and healing. The Gospels include many accounts of people gathering to listen to Jesus. Those must have been exciting times as they listened to him talking about God and God’s Kingdom in new ways and watched him help and heal people in need. I enjoyed reflecting on some of those stories, knowing we were in the location in which these things happened.

One interesting thing was to reflect on the practicalities of preaching to large crowds in days when amplification was not around. It was also interesting to reflect on just where some of these gatherings might have taken place. Near the Church of the Multiplication (commemorating the ‘feeding of the five thousand’) we saw a large cave which is known as ‘Jesus’ Cathedral’, one possible location for some of these events. Just across the road – as it is now – we went down on to the beach and could see – and hear – how such a cove formed a natural amphitheatre in which sound travelled relatively easily. We could see how Jesus could have communicated his message in a first century context and a first century way – and might note the challenge to find the right – and best – twenty-first century ways to tell God’s Good News.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Peter's Primacy

One of my favourite spots in the Holy Land is that little piece of shore beside Lake Galilee known as Peter's Primacy.  It is a little piece of pebbly beach beside the lake, with a small chapel beside it.  This is particularly noted as being the site where Jesus met the disciples after the resurrection and where he shared breakfast with them, the story that is reflected in John 21.  We were reminded that for Jesus everything starts with prayer and that for Jesus everything ends with God.  Jesus was trying to change minds and hearts which is never an easy task but he attempted it with great patience. Jesus went to meet people and to heal some of them, but it is interesting that for the disciples this is not a pure act. Jesus is dealing with the ex-communicated, but for Jesus no one is out. The disciples saw him as doing something against the Bible - you didn’t touch these things, as they were unclean - and so they needed time to digest what is happening.  But Jesus says 'you are not slaves, you are friends'.  He brings everyone together.

Jesus turns things round.  While they were looking for fish - the disciples, particularly Peter, having gone out fishing, - the risen Jesus became the chef and then, of course, after the meal, Jesus said to Simon “Simon, son of John”  Notice that he doesn’t give him any title.  He doesn’t call him 'Peter' which means that he is no longer being referred to as the rock, and Jesus asks him about his love.

There are four degrees of love, love of mother for child, love of husband and wife for each other, friendship (in Greek "phileo")  and the purest kind of love (agape).  This last is the most generous kind of love - and so Jesus says to Peter, “Simon do you "agape" me?” and Simon answer “I "phileo" you”.  Jesus then asked again “Simon do you "agape" me?” and Simon answers the same way “I "phileo" you”.  Then Jesus moves to Simon’s level and asks “Simon do you "phileo" me?” and he then gives Simon the command, "follow me".

At this site we were able to go down right beside the lake and put our hand in the lake.  We were also able to go into the little chapel there which has a rock in it which is reputedly the table that they used for that particular breakfast. There is also a statue commemorating the conversation between Jesus and Simon.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Sea of Galilee

Sailing on Lake Galilee would have been familiar to Jesus.  Four of his disciples were fishermen whose livelihood was found there.  There are a number of occasions where the Gospels make reference to the lake and to Jesus and the disciples sailing across it.  A brief trip on the lake was, for me, one of the highlights of my visit to the Holy Land as it was one of those times when I found it easiest to imagine being where Jesus had been.

Our trip was on a calm and sunny afternoon, a good time to be out on the water, but it was not difficult to imagine the varying conditions in which Jesus and his disciples would have sailed on that same lake.  Indeed, while out in the boat, we read the later verses of Matthew 14 which records the disciples being caught in a storm when they saw someone approaching them on the water - and the famous account of Peter, at Jesus' invitation, stepping out of the boat, but then losing faith - and sinking.  It was an interesting mix of 21st and 1st century that I read the passage from my iphone - as that was the only Bible that any of us had brought.

As we sailed on the lake we were able to reflect back across the centuries and consider what it would have been like for Jesus and his contemporaries, but we were also able to think of what Jesus' presence means for and to us here and now.  Just as Jesus was with the disciples on the occasion recorded in Matthew 14, so he was with us on the same lake.  In many ways that was the big lesson we kept coming back to during the trip.  We were not following the step of a historical Christ.  We were walking alongside a living Christ.  Where we went, Jesus was.

Sunday, 1 January 2012


It was moving to spend even a brief time, as we did, walking in the wilderness and thinking of the times Jesus spent there as well as those times when he must have passed that way.  Obviously we could not know exactly where Jesus spent time but, as we were there, we knew that it must be 'somewhere around here'.
The wilderness - unsurprisingly - is a rather bleak location, with the sand and rocks stretching out in front of where we stood.  There were very few signs of vegetation.  It had that feeling of loneliness, bleakness and even being abandoned.  It is certainly a place to get away from it all.  We walked there, knowing that our bus was only just out of view, and yet able to feel just a little of what it would be like to be in the midst of that place with no 21st century transport. 

The wilderness can be a place to reflect and to pray, but it is also a place where you don't want to spend too long.  It can be worth spending time in the wilderness, but very few want to stay there that long.  The wilderness is a place to leave behind - when the time is right to do so.

It seemed appropriate that we were there as the day was heading towards dusk.  For me that emphasised the sense of space and also of isolation - and yet we could also know, as Jesus surely did, the presence of God even in the bleakness of the desert.