Teaching in the theater at Caesarea

Already, on this second day of being back in Israel, I’m realizing that this trip won’t just be a revisiting of a special time from my past. My experience so far has been very much in the present moment. I am a different person than I was 13 years ago. Now I am a pastor leading a study trip, not a junior in college exploring a new part of the world for the first time. The questions I’m asking about these locations, history, Israel, the world, the Bible, theology, and myself are all different.

Our first stop today was at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. This site was interesting to me the first time I visited it, but it wasn’t necessarily a special place. This time around, I found myself really connecting with the story of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:1-11:18) as I taught about it with our group. We should not underestimate what a monumental religious change it was for the early church to reach out to Gentiles and include them as members of God’s kingdom. This fundamentally changed what faithful Jews had believed for centuries. Not everyone originally thought that this was a good idea, but they eventually recognized that God was doing some new in their midst.

For me, this is a timely and critical message for the church and world today. Things are changing rapidly and the church must be open to God’s Spirit changing us as we strive to be instruments of God’s kingdom. Almost three months ago, I wrote about how change is a central dynamic of our faith. Reflecting on Peter and Cornelius in Caesarea today provided an ancient example of this dynamic at work in powerful ways.

After Caesarea, we headed to Tel Megiddo, one of the destinations I was most looking forward to. At Megiddo, I continued this theme of change and talked about how, despite biblical polemics to the contrary, archaeology has helped us understand that there was very little cultural difference between Canaanites and Israelites in the early part of the monarchy. Israelite monotheism was a gradual development, not something that appeared fully formed out of a vacuum. The religious practices of Israel were not all that different from the practices of the Canaanites. The differentiation between these two cultures did not happen overnight. What we might consider the culmination of ancient Israelite theology is the final product of a long process. And, it continued to develop. The Judaism of Jesus’ time was quite different from ancient Israelite religion. Likewise, Christianity today is quite different from the religion of Jesus and the early church.

How do we faithfully embrace this? We must put aside the pious fiction that there has always been a single orthodoxy that never changes. If we look at the sweep of our religious history, we realize that change is the central dynamic of our faith tradition.

Christianity is changing—and must change—to adapt to our changing world. In our Presbyterian tradition, we call this “reformed and always being reformed.” This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us.

Our third destination today confronted us with yet another aspect of change. We visited the Nazareth Academic Institute and talked with several of the administrators, teachers, and students. This is the first Israeli college to be opened in an Arab city and it is a real glimpse of hope for the future of the Middle East. They have a powerful vision of working toward peace and reconciliation through education.

Hearing the Arab students and teachers talk about their experience opened my eyes to an aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict that I had not really thought much about before. While the issue of Palestinians outside of Israel is complicated enough, life for Arabs who are citizens of Israel has its own challenges and difficulties. Minorities do not have equal opportunities in Israel, a reality that reminds me much of the past and present struggle for civil rights in our own country. This experience has given me even more to think about when it comes to understanding the troubled relationships between the peoples of this land.

The Holy Land has seen much change in the past, and change is happening all around us. On this trip, I feel that we are all being changed as well.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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  1. We must also put aside the fiction that the essential tenets of the Christian faith – the set of beliefs that most straightforwardly separate orthodox from non-orthodox schools of thought – have not been settled for a little more than a millennium and a half. I especially like the wording in the eleventh chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession, which enumerates and praises the creeds and canons of the ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, along with the somewhat later creed traditionally attributed to Athanasius (“Whosoever will be saved”), as a means of “retain[ing] the Christian, orthodox, and catholic faith unimpaired; knowing that nothing is contained in the aforesaid symbols which is not agreeable to the Word of God, and does not altogether make for a sincere exposition of the faith” (as rendered in our PCUSA Book of Confessions, 5.078-.079). Honestly, my view is that most disputes within the church since Chalcedon have been matters of authority and technicalities; the big stuff has been clear for a long time, though people have often made little stuff seem big to themselves.

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