Much like an artist or a writer, as a preacher there are some sermons that I’m very happy with and others much less so. (Fortunately, because the whole preaching process is a spiritual exercise, how pleased I am with the finished product has absolutely nothing to do with how well it connects with the listener. Thanks for that, God.) During the Advent sermon series this past December, I liked most of the messages, but I really, really liked the one on peace. To me it’s such a significant component of who and what the church is supposed to be, while at the same time a component that the church has in large part failed to be for centuries. Religion is too often equated with fighting and warfare, and practitioners of other faiths are too often seen as enemies. In light of the example taught by Christ himself, Christians and Christianity ought to be setting a different precedent.
Considering these thoughts that were already floating through my mind, you can imagine how my trip to Israel would serve to reinforce these notions. It was such a paradox to travel through a land so beautiful, so ancient, and so significant to our faith, yet also a land that has been the center of contention for over three millennia. Jerusalem really is the place where three of the largest world religions come together. Estimates today indicate that somewhere around 4 billion people on earth (out of near 7 billion total) are affiliated with Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. And one can hardly travel anywhere in Israel without coming face to face with all three. Christian tourists/pilgrims are everywhere, and they come from all over the world. We saw other groups traveling from the U.S., but we also saw groups of Christian brothers and sisters from places like Nigeria, Korea, and the Pacific Islands. Everywhere we saw images and heard stories about Jewish culture, religion, and patriotism. From Masada to the Western Wall, the Jewish people are as in touch with their past and willing to work toward their future as any people anywhere. And then, of course, the sight of the Old City of Jerusalem dominated by the Dome of the Rock spoke to the holiness of the land for Muslim residents and travelers worldwide. We even enjoyed a great deal of hospitality in the nation of Jordan, a country with a Muslim population of over 90%.
But even in the midst of religious pride and passion, there were present many cases where religion is the cause of strain and even hatred. We shopped at a store in Bethlehem run by Arabic Christians living under the strain of religious persecution. We visited the Church of the Nativity just a little over a week after it was the site of a major brawl between Christian Orthodox monks. And the contrast couldn’t have been greater between how the Israeli and Jordanian people treated us as Americans (with friendliness and hospitality) and how they feel about one another (animosity of a high order).
In the grand scheme, I’m not exactly sure how we should go about being agents of peace in the world. What I do know for sure, though, is that Christ called us to do so, and that we can never do so if we are instead being agents of strife.
If you have a story about a time when you saw or experienced your Christian faith as a peacemaking tool in a life situation, we’d love to hear about it. Please pass it our way.