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Posts Tagged ‘pilgrimage

The Primacy of Peter

From Tabgha, we walked a short way down the road to the chapel of the Primacy of Peter. The small church is set atop a giant rock at the very edge of the Sea of Galilee, which is supposedly connected to the story told in John 21. After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples at the shore, redirecting their empty nets to the other side of the boat for a miraculous catch of fish; frying them up some breakfast; and installing Peter as the leader of his post-resurrection followers by telling him three times to “feed my sheep.” This rock was a likely stopping place for all the fishermen, a place to rest and eat and prepare the catch for market.

The rock inside the chapel.

The rock extends underneath and outside the church, including these stone steps that would have once gone from the boats in the Sea of Galilee directly into the church. (The Sea has since receded about 20 yards from the chapel.)

The term “Primacy of Peter” was new and perplexing to me. The scenes in John 21 are not connected to the place Jesus says of Peter, “upon this rock, I will build my church.” I began thinking, however, about the meaning of “primacy,” and all the ways in which Peter was first. He was the first to drop his nets and follow Jesus on the shore. He was the first to get out of the boat and try to walk on water. He was the first disciple to proclaim Jesus was the Messiah. Peter was first in a lot of things. Sometimes, he acted impulsively and made mistakes, but he also had courage to act when no one else did. He was willing to go first. (There is a sermon here for our United Church of Christ, which often takes pride in being the first to do things like ordaining women and LGBT people.)

My favorite part of the chapel was its proximity to the Sea of Galilee.

Those who know me well know that I had to get my feet in the water immediately. This made my day.

From there, we got on the bus for a two mile trip to the ancient town of Capernaum, the site of so many stories in the Gospels. It was Peter’s town, where he and his mother lived and his fishing business thrived. It was Jesus’ central location in his Galilean ministry, where he healed the paralytic, taught in the synagogue “as one with authority,” called the disciples, and spread his message throughout the region.

The town of Capernaum. The black, volcanic stones are from the first century (Jesus' era), and the white limestone at the back is the 5th century synagogue.

The site itself is an archeological excavation of the majority of the first century town. You can see the foundations of the homes and buildings and alleys that Jesus would have known. There is a synagogue there. Although the current reconstruction is of the Byzantine synagogue, it was built upon the ruins of the first century synagogue that would have been the site of Jesus’ praying and teaching. You can see those foundation stones, and walk around the same floor plan in a synagogue where Jesus would have prayed and taught. I was impressed by its size (bigger than our sanctuary!) and by all that remained of it.

The synagogue at Capernaum. The pillars and stones have been reconstructed from the remains of the 5th century building lost in an earthquake. The floor plan is likely similar to the synagogue on the same site in Jesus' day.

The small back door would have been the women's entrance. These stone benches are reconstructed from the original.

I gained a new appreciation for Peter’s primacy in Capernaum. His house forms the heart of the holy site. This place is a less “supposedly” site. When the Byzantine Christians arrived, there was a Christian  church there, a home that had been converted into a house church. It makes sense that this would have been Peter’s home, converted into a church by the early apostles. When the Byzantines excavated, they found the home itself and built an octagonal church around the remains. That was destroyed by earthquake in the eighth century, and rebuilding was forbidden by the ruling powers until the 20th century. When the Franciscans did reclaim their right to build after the 1948 war, they constructed a modern chapel hovering over the remains of the house, house church and octagonal Byzantine church. The chapel has a glass floor looking down into the remains.

View from the ancient synagogue looking back to the modern church hovering over the ruins of Peter's house.

Inside the modern church, with the glass floor at the center.

Looking through the glass floor into Peter's house.

Our tour guide Claudia gave me new insight into Peter’s life and livelihood. Contrary to what I’ve always thought, there is no reason to believe that Peter was a poor fisherman. He owned a sizable home, separate from his mother. He owned a boat, which was a sure sign of wealth and success in a town like Capernaum, where most people had to do their fishing from the shore. He was also the only one who entered the high priest’s house at Jesus’ trial, which leads one to believe he had connections. He was likely a wealthy and powerful leader in Capernaum in Jesus’ day. Peter must have shared that wealth and power abundantly with Jesus, providing him food and shelter, opening the access to the synagogue, and using his influence to protect Jesus from the kind of threat he faced in Nazareth.

Outside view of octagonal Byzantine church remains, with remains of Peter's house enclosed below and modern church hovering above.

In this description, I recognized Peter immediately, in the solid, go-to leaders in the congregations I have known. Every church has a few individuals who keep the place going. It might be their generous gifts, their hard work, their leadership, or their courage. Occasionally, like Peter, it’s all of the above. I have known several Peter-like figures in my ministry, and they are a great gift. They have wealth and connections and influence, yet it is always used in the service of others and the church, not for their own gain. They are willing to lead and take risks, and others follow because of their faithfulness and humility. I found myself remembering these Peter-figures, in my church and in other churches I know and love. I prayed for these women and men by name, in Peter’s synagogue and beside his home. I prayed that the church would be blessed with more leaders like Peter, with the resources and faithfulness they bring to Jesus’ mission.

This is not the Western Wall, but the rear exterior wall of the Capernaum synagogue. It also had paper prayers stuffed inside. I stood here and prayed for the Peter-like leaders in the churches I know and love.

I also came to appreciate a different aspect of Jesus’ ministry—his attention to strategy. I always attached cunning political theater and community organizing to his Jerusalem pageant, but this took it back to Galilee. Why did Jesus choose Capernaum when he got kicked out of Nazareth? It was one of the largest towns around, and perhaps he had already developed a friendship with Peter. Capernaum is located along the Via Maris, the major Roman highway to Damascus, so news of events in Capernaum would quickly spread throughout the region. There is evidence for that in the crowds that quickly flocked to him there in search of healing. He knew he could find supporters, access to a bigger audience at the synagogue (Nazareth only had a few hundred residents, Capernaum had several thousand), and chances to grow the mission.

Can you imagine daily life in this bustling first century town?

It is tempting in the church to divide our conversations about strategic planning, church growth and giving from the more “sacred stuff,” like worship or Christian education. However, even Jesus paid attention to strategic decisions that would help grow the ministry. The energy and time we devote to ministerial strategy is not about self-aggrandizement, it is about spreading the word of Christ. And he did it too.

When we arrived, the monks were holding a mass in the modern sanctuary, so we could not enter. As I walked around, I heard them singing a song that resembled the praise tune, “Holy Ground.” Tabgha felt like holy ground, like an altar for worship and reverence. Capernaum felt more like the church kitchen and meeting rooms—the place where daily life in the church happens. It felt like where decisions get made and fellowship takes place, where the chores of fishing and working and tending animals exist side-by-side with the sanctuary of prayer and the mystical experience of healing; where children play and people are fed and God is made known in the midst of all of it. This, too, is indeed holy ground. After all, the heart of site is just someone’s house, transformed by their willingness to open their home and their lives to Jesus. May we all be inspired by Peter, to use our resources, our homes, our lives, as places for Jesus’ mission to grow.

One thing that pictures can hardly convey is simply how beautiful the landscape is here in the Galilee. Just beauty everywhere.

Most of our Macedonian Ministries group at the Louisville airport.

We have arrived! We travelled from Louisville to Newark, then from Newark to Tel Aviv. At the airport in Tel Aviv, our tour bus picked us up for a two-hour bus ride to the Sea of Galilee. From home to hotel, my travel time was exactly 25 hours, and we crossed seven time zones. We are staying at the Pilgerhaus, which is on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee, just yards from the shore and north of the city of Tiberias. We arrived after dark, so I have not yet seen the view.

Apartment buildings on hillside. These kind of apartment buildings are everywhere, especially in cities and Jewish territories. They were built to house all the immigrants arriving to Israel from around the world.

Traveling, for me, is both terrible and terrific. Airplane seats are tiny and cramped, the food was awful, and I slept less than an hour on the 11-hour overnight flight. My body is stiff, sore and exhausted. And yet, I watched three movies in a row, read books galore, and had lots of time to simply sit back and think and pray myself into pilgrimage. Hours in transit offer a liminality that helps disconnect me from ordinary life at home and enter into a different mode of being. In airports and airplanes, you are in a time out of time, no longer certain of the date or even whether it is day or night—yet somehow, when you arrive, after a good night’s sleep you are refreshed and ready to begin anew.

Preparing my heart for pilgrimage made me appreciate the sight of a beautiful rainbow as a true gift from God.

Speaking of books, any of you who know me (or have ever surfed this blog) will know that books are very important to me. This is especially true when I travel. Here are the books I am traveling with:

Two books about pilgrimage, to set me right for this special journey:

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau

Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practices of Pilgrimage by Christian George

Two books about the life of Jesus, to put me in touch with the places we’ll visit:

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary by Marcus Borg

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan

Two books for fun on the plane:

Evolving in Monkey Town, by Rachel Held Evans

Rudy, by Ann Hood

I also have my Bible, a notebook, and a travel guide prepared by the Macedonian Ministries Program, unique to this trip and the sites we will explore.

On the plane, I read the first several chapters of both books about pilgrimage. Both spoke to me deeply about the sacred longing that pulls us into a pilgrimage. They also reminded me of the hardships and struggles of earlier generations of pilgrims of all faiths, who traveled on foot for years, faced disease and starvation, and death along the way. Twenty-five hours on a plane is a small price to pay, and physical discomfort is part of the process.

View of the Jezreel Valley, looking south toward Jenin

On the ride from the airport to our hotel, I began to get a sense of the land for the first time. It is the rainy season, so everything is green and lush for a short while. However, the hillsides are thick with stones, craggy boulders that made the land ill-suited for house or farm. One of my colleagues commented, “It sure doesn’t look like the land of milk and honey.”

View of the Jezreel Valley toward the north. This actually does look a bit more like the land of milk and honey, but the surrounding hillsides do not.

It was raining for part of our journey, and I watched the muddy water running off the hills without soaking the soil, channeled instead into gulleys and pathways. I imagined it rushing away to a safe location, where it would wait and return to the land again through the irrigation system that will make food for the people all year. Water makes life in the desert. Living water.

Can you find the guy on horseback in the parking lot?

One of the things that surprised me was the abundance of animals I saw on our short journey. Before we had even made it far from the airport, I looked out the window to see a flock of sheep and goats wandering through a green valley. I didn’t see a shepherd in sight, but it was as if every scripture of sheep in the Galilee, from Psalm 23 to Jesus’ parables, had all come to pass before my eyes. I confess: it was such a stereotype that, rather than a sense of awe, it just made me giggle. Besides the sheep, we saw a man riding a horse through a parking lot, and a field full of camels dancing and prancing around, including a baby one that was all white.

Not a great picture, because it was through the bus window, moving fast. But look, frolicking camels! Even a baby all-white one!

Already, the overlapping of the distant, mythical past and the modern, urban life of Israel are ever-present in my experience. I saw sheep and camels, biblical places like Nazareth, Mt. Carmel and Mt. Tabor, but I also saw the Security Wall closing off the Palestinian territories. I saw Jewish settlements, and kids playing soccer, and families walking to Shabbat services at sunset. We got stuck in traffic due to a six-car pile-up, and watched the ambulances try to get through. We drove along the edge of the West Bank and saw the battling Palestinian and Jewish architecture in local villages. This clash between past and present, the simultaneous presence of mythical places and all-too-real ones will, I expect, continue to shape my understandings and experiences here.

A Palestinian village in the West Bank, with Jewish settlements. Our tour guide Claudia explained that the flat-roofed houses are Palestinian or Arab, because they always plan to expand and add another level for each new generation. The red roofed houses are Jewish, because they build in a more Western style single-family home. You could then see, as we drove along parallel to the West Bank territory, the Palestinian villages with their minarets, and the Jewish homes built right next to them.

The journey has only just begun. The day has been long and arduous, but this is as it should be. Now, to rest.

Tomorrow is the big day—I am leaving for two weeks (16 days, counting travel days) on a Macedonian Ministries Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One suitcase, one carry-on bag. Ready to go.

The preparations for this day have been going on for months. I applied to the program last spring, and planned this sabbatical around it last June. Our group (all mid-career pastors) first met for a retreat in October, where we read and talked and prayed deeply about God’s call in our lives. We have met twice since then, and we have studied the history of the region, the violence and conflict, and the three faiths that share the land. We have meditated on the spiritual practice of pilgrimage.

Personally, I have shopped for new shoes and new clothes. The laundry is done, and the packing is almost complete. Bills are paid, childcare arranged, house ordered. During sabbatical, I have read a few extra books, prayed, contemplated, bought a few more books , and even reread the Gospels. Most of all, I have worked to open my heart to whatever this journey might offer. I have tried to let go of excessive expectations, to set aside diligent plans, to leave behind extra baggage (literally and spiritually), and open my spirit to attend to God more carefully on this journey.

And I think that’s what makes me the most nervous this night before departure. Yes, I have normal travel jitters. This is the first time I will leave my child for such a long time, and so far away. I am asking my spouse to shoulder a lot of weight while I am away, and there is always a risk of violence or catastrophe or emergency. I am accustomed to all these small anxieties. There is no reason to worry, because there is nothing I can do about any of them.

The buildup and the expectations to this trip have been very big. My family, my church, my friends—everyone has their ideas about what I will see and what I will experience while I am away, and they are all expecting it to be profound. I share that quest. Will I really meet God there? Will it be the “Holy Land” really feel holy? What if it doesn’t?  What will it be like to see with my own eyes the places that have been a part of my imagination since I was a child? Will the commercialism, the militarism, the tourism disappoint? I feel a bit of stress to make sure that I make the most of this, and wondering if I will be let down. Or if my experiences will let others down, who have so much interest in hearing all about it.

There is another, deeper edge to my travel anxieties. I am haunted by an excerpt from Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey that one of our leaders read to us at our last gathering. The chapter was entitled, “The Dangers of Pilgrimage.”  The passage talked about how the journey of pilgrimage is a metaphor for our whole life’s thrust toward God. The pilgrimage condenses so much energy into one large block of time that it threatens the familiar and the past. It is almost a certainty, Foster wrote, that nothing will be the same again. (paraphrased from meeting notes)

I am anxious about how this experience will change me. I already feel, over the last several months, that the solid ground beneath my feet is giving way to shifting sands, and God is doing a new thing with me. I don’t know what it is, but it is both exciting and daunting to feel God on the move. As I contemplate the pilgrimage, I realize I’m not really stressed that I won’t feel God’s presence—I’m worried that I will. God’s voice can speak sometimes with comfort, hope and consolation, but I have a feeling this time around that God’s message for me will be of a more unsettling variety. What if God issues a call to repentance, to honesty, to transformation, to trust, to new life, to courage? What if I come home and I am changed? What if God wants me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do?

I feel the risk, the anxiety—but also the excitement. God is (always) about to do a new thing. I pray that I would have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to respond.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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