I wrote the below piece about two years ago. It’s probably about as political as I will ever get, but it is one of my favorites. I wrote it originally as a newsletter for friends and family I kept updated on my travels throughout the Middle East.
This Easter I visited the beautiful ELCJHL (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land) cathedral which sits right next to the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City. The service combined the English-speaking and Arabic-speaking congregations—a little foretaste of the Kingdom—resulting in the most powerful Easter service I think I’ve ever been to. Never have I heard a more sensitive, driven, political (yes, I just said political), Biblical, challenging, and convicting sermon. The Bishop of the ELCJHL delivered this sermon, first in Arabic, then in English. The sermon was based around the question of our response to the resurrection, and the answer found its epicenter in Christ Jesus, its manifestation in the realities of persecution Palestinians face today.
So, what does it mean to be people of the Resurrection? In his sermon Bishop Younan offered this answer: “to see the image of God even in our enemies.” Since we have received grace, it is our job to extend that grace, to be the body of Christ, reaching out, even to our enemies—those who persecute us, those who oppress us, those who “trespass against us.” To extend this grace we must see the basic but beautiful humanity of our enemies—they too were created by God, they too are loved by God.
Sounds nice, right? This is the beauty of the Gospel—that it is offered to all people, regardless of their sins and actions. Paul himself writes that he is “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because [he] persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God” he is fully forgiven and dedicated his life to spreading the message of the resurrection of Christ (from 1 Cor 15).
It’s easy to listen to a sermon on the grace of God, a sermon about the resurrection, and think about how wonderful it is that Jesus died and rose again for us, so that our sins would be forgiven. It’s even sometimes easy to think, “Well of course he died for my enemies!” and mentally extend grace to them. But it’s another thing to actually live the Gospel message, especially when this requires what it does for Palestinians.
Life for the Palestinians is certainly not easy. Without any notice their water is often cut off half way through the week, meaning that they all have water tanks atop their homes saving water for these all-too-often “shortages.” They are trapped in a confusing maze of zones (A, B, and C) dividing up control between the Palestinian government and the Israeli government (basically the IDF, the military made up mostly of 18 year old soldiers). Depending on where they live they are subject to different confusing legislation about building permits, trash collection, and any number of bureaucratic responsibilities and rules. People who live ten minutes outside of Jerusalem are unable to visit simply because Israel has decided that even East Jerusalem is not part of the West Bank. Checkpoints dot the land, making travel beyond difficult over a tiny, tiny space. I will be perfectly honest, I could probably go on for pages about this stuff, injustice after injustice.
Yet the bishop’s words rang through the cathedral: being people of the resurrection means that we see, or at least strive to see, the image of God, the image of our Creator, the just and forgiving Lord, in our enemies, in those who hate us. I not only heard this preached in church, I saw it lived in the lives of the Palestinians I met.
The Tent of Nations is a farm owned by a Palestinian Christian family who has been fighting in Israeli courts for twenty-three years to prove their ownership of land which they have been living on for at least a hundred years. They have been cut off from electricity, water, and even their roads have been bulldozed, but they continue to live on their land, tend to it, and even open up their doors to those who are interested in peace-making. They run summer camps for kids of all colors, shapes, and sizes, teaching them about peace and about the Peacemaker.
Rafat is a Palestinian Christian from the town of Beit Sahour, just next to Bethlehem. He works with Holy Land Trust, giving tours of the Holy Land and advocating for the rights of Palestinians, as well as fighting for peace. While much of his family has left Palestine, and while he has the opportunity to do the same, he chooses to stay. Why? He knows that God is not done with this place yet. Even through the struggles of not being able to live freely, of not being permitted into Jerusalem, of being called a terrorist simply for being Palestinian, he believes that there is hope for this land. He is angry and often discouraged, but he also realizes that change comes slowly. He wants his Jewish brothers to live peacefully with his Christian sisters. He wants to see a Palestine where all people, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Atheist, Buddhist, and everything else, live together with respect and dignity, cherishing the lives they’ve been given.
This is Easter in Jerusalem. Sitting a mere fifty meters from the place where Christ died, a few more meters from the place it is believed he was buried (in the Orthodox traditions), people, myself included, are still in need of the Gospel. People are still, 2,000 years later, learning what it means to become people of the Resurrection. Just today (June 4th) I was catching up on the news in Israel-Palestine. It breaks my heart to see that dishonesty and hate is still being spread between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It’s painful to see that in the two months since I first arrived in Israel-Palestine, it seems that evil still reigns. What about this Easter sermon? What about the hard work of Rafat and the Tent of Nations? Why can’t a solution be found? Or made? I ask, friends and family, please pray for the people of Palestine. Pray for the people of Israel. The peace of Jesus Christ is needed in this place, in the Holy Land, in the Center of the World.