I’ve now lived in Tiberias for nearly four years. Each morning, as I walk down the hill from the manse to the Scots Hotel, I look out across the Sea of Galilee and watch the rising sun cast dancing shimmers on the water.
A ten minute drive north along the lakeside leads to Magdala, the town of Mary Magdalene.
A steep climb above is the church of the Beatitudes, where Jesus is believed to have preached the Sermon on the Mount.
Below rests Tabgha, sites of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ post-resurrection early morning appearance to his disciples on the shore.
A couple of kilometres beyond lies Capernaum, where Matthew’s gospel tells us Jesus settled, called his first disciples, and taught in the synagogue.
I often take visitors to these sites so central to the Christian faith. I love hearing them reflect on how the historical and geographical context helps them to reimagine the great stories of the gospels.
But as I look out at the landscape of the Galilee, I don’t see the so-called holy sites as a spiritual destination. For me, they function as signs, pointing beyond to the One who came that all may have life and have it abundantly.
Christ ministered in this land 2000 years ago, and these sites are right on my doorstep, but they are not the places I find him today.
Glennon Doyle, in an interview with Jen Hatmaker on her For the Love podcast reminds the listeners that throughout his ministry, Jesus asked two questions: Who was religion oppressing? Who was power forgetting? Those were the very people he sought out, healed, restored, fed and freed.
When I see the sites of the Galilee, I now ask myself the same questions for today’s context. Who is religion oppressing? Who is power forgetting? And where is the work of healing, restoring, feeding and freeing being done now?
I drive to Magdala, and remember Mary Magdalene, healed of seven demons by Jesus according to Mark, first witness to the resurrection, apostle to the apostles. I think of the women of all faiths who work at Sindyanna, bringing liberation and dignity and confidence to women in their communities afflicted by society’s demons of poverty, gender-based violence and discrimination. I pray for all the women of the land who are proclaiming Life, whose voices may be ignored by patriarchy and power, but who refuse to be silenced.
I wander down to the shore at Tabgha and imagine the hungry crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak, the young boy who presented five loaves and two fishes, from whose small offering 5000 were fed. And I remember Jamal from House of Grace telling me of the parcels delivered to the poorest of Haifa, made up of food collected by school children.
As I sit amongst the ancient ruins of Capernaum, I call to mind the disciples asking Jesus, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ and Jesus responding by inviting a little child to sit amongst them, saying, ‘I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ And I think of those 30 Grade 9 students at Notre Dame High School in Me’elya, a Christian town on the Lebanese border. I hear them talk about what they were learning from their Christian leadership programme: cooperation, listening, tolerance, and acceptance of difference. I remember how I knew then what Jesus meant.
I look out from my office over the Sea where Jesus calmed a storm and spoke words of peace to his disciples. And I hear the voices of the women of New Profile who speak peace to power, firm in their belief that war and militarism are not the way to calm the political storms that rage still today in this region.
I look over at the Golan cliffs, to the lands on the other side of the lake where Jesus crossed boundaries to bring healing and restoration to all people, not only his own people. And I remember the Arab and Jewish women of Sadaka-Reut, crossing the boundaries again and again into one another’s communities, to encounter, to listen, that hurts may be healed and divisions reconciled.
I look up at the Mount of Beatitudes and hear Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. I hear him answer those two questions: who is religion oppressing and who is power forgetting, as one by one, he calls them blessed:
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Those who show mercy
The pure in heart
Those who make peace
Those who are insulted and harassed and spoken bad of and falsely accused
Wherever he went, Jesus declared, ‘The kingdom of God is near.’
Pilgrims come to the land of the Holy One in the hope that by visiting the sites the gospels will be brought to life for them, that by walking on ancient ground they will feel the presence of the kingdom here on earth. I hope that their time here will be a time of growth and refreshment and imagination. I hope too that their time here will give them an opportunity to see that the gospel is still alive in this land, that members of Christ’s Body are continuing in that ministry of healing and restoring and feeding and freeing.
But my deepest longing is that in the people they encounter, they will catch glimpses of the kingdom come near, the kingdom which is God’s great gift to us, and that through the ministry they experience here, they will return home, healed and restored and fed and freed to do the work that God is calling them to do.