Witnesses

Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 4, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Ps. 68:1-20; Ezek. 39:21-29; Acts 1:1-14; I Pet. 4:12-19; John 17:1-11

Along with a visiting delegation of church leaders from Canada, we spent the week in Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah. We enjoyed the hospitality but also witnessed many difficult realities.

In Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, Palestinians pay the same taxes as Israelis, but receive far fewer and poorer public services – schools, sidewalks, security, sewage and water. Palestinians here are considered residents of Jerusalem, but not citizens of Israel – a designation that would entitle them to greater benefits.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a vast network of Jewish settlements and connecting roads divides Palestinians into ever-smaller isolated pockets and creates a ring around Jerusalem, preventing West Bank Palestinians from access to this holy city. The settlements violate international law, which states that an occupying power cannot move its own citizens onto occupied land.

Frequently, Palestinians cannot get building permits on their own land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. After paying tens of thousands of dollars in permit fees and waiting for years, many Palestinians finally go ahead and build, to accommodate growing families. The Israeli government responds by issuing house demolition orders.

Palestinian home that has been destroyed 4 times by Israeli bulldozers

We visited one home that has been destroyed four times. Hundreds of families in East Jerusalem live with the constant reminder that “this could be the day the bulldozers come and destroy my home.”

We heard Jewish stories of Holocaust trauma and the desire for a safe place to call their own. We heard Palestinian stories of the daily trauma of living under military occupation – checkpoints, home demolitions, targeted assassinations and restricted movement.

This week’s Common Lectionary texts tumbled around in my head as we listened to the pain-filled stories and absorbed the sights, sounds and smells of life in “the Holy Land.”

Psalm 68 promises that God “daily bears us up” (v.19) and that “our God is a God of salvation”(v.20). This psalm describes the many practical ways that God saves – by scattering enemies and kings (vv. 1,11), by protecting widows and orphans (v.5), by sending rain to restore the languishing (v.9) and providing homes for the desolate and needy (vv. 6, 10). I found myself wondering why this God does not act more quickly and decisively to end the suffering in the Holy Land.

The Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel is one that some Jews (and many Christians) use to support the position that all of Palestine belongs to the Jews. Ezekiel speaks these words for God: “I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land” (Ezek. 39:28). But a a more careful reading of this text suggests that God is speaking of the “whole house of Israel” (v.25) – an image that Paul later uses to describe both Jews and Gentiles of faith (Gal. 3:28-29, Eph. 2:19, I Pet. 4:17).

Furthermore, Ezekiel doesn’t say that God will re-create an “Israeli state.” Indeed, this was never God’s wish in the first place (see e.g. I Sam. 8). Rather, Ezekiel says that God will gather a chastened and faithful people through whom God’s glory, judgment and holiness will be displayed to many nations (Ezek. 39:21,27). These very same things were displayed through the life of Jesus (John 17:1-5).

We were on the Mount of Olives on Ascension Day, which gave special meaning to this week’s reading from Acts.

Old City of Jerusalem as seen from the Mt. of Olives

After his resurrection, Jesus bid his disciples farewell on this mountain overlooking Jerusalem. Their parting question to Jesus seems somewhat self-centered: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The disciples want Jesus to act decisively to establish a kingdom that throws off their Roman oppressors and allows them to live securely in the land.

Jesus turns the tables. Rather than seeking their security and well-being as part of a powerful and exclusive earthly kingdom, the disciples – by the power of God’s Spirit – are to be witnesses to all that Jesus had taught and done. Their witness is to begin in Jerusalem and spread to Judea (v.8a). But it must also extend to the Gentiles — to Samaria and to the ends of the earth (v.8b).

Like the disciples, I want God to act with dispatch and power to make my world safe and to fix the world’s injustice and pain. As we anticipate Pentecost next Sunday, perhaps God is calling us – not alone, but together and together with God’s Spirit – to be more faithful witnesses to the way of truth, justice, peace and inclusive love that Jesus demonstrated so clearly in his life.

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