Eight Days that Changed the World

Holy Week recounts the saving acts of God, from Jesus Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem, his Good Friday suffering on the cross as our substitute, and his Easter resurrection as proof of God’s full forgiveness and the promise of dwelling with God forever.

What we call “Holy Week” starts on the Sunday before Easter and concludes on Easter Sunday. In ancient times, the week-long commemoration of the saving events of this week were commemorated starting on Easter and continued until the following Friday. Such gathering of pilgrims to “holy sites” began already in the early second century, and so provoked a response by the emperor Hadrian, who in 135 A.D. built a pagan shrine to Adonis over the place of Jesus birth, a statue of Jupiter and an altar of Venus over Jesus’ tomb, and likewise built a structure over St. Peter’s house in Capernaum.

Unwittingly, the locations of these sites were thus preserved for Constantine’s mother Helena to discover when she made a pilgrimage to the holy land in 326 A.D., Constantine gave permission for these structures to be torn down, and apparently authentic locations were discovered beneath. Churches were constructed over these sites – and others – and were thereafter visited by an unnamed pilgrim from Bordeaux in 333 and a nun from Spain named Egeria in 381 who wrote a diary that provided a detailed account of each location visited and worship services held for pilgrims who gathered to walk where Jesus walked.

Palm Sunday recalls people laying palm fronds before Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem, shouting “hosanna!” (save, please!).

Monday recalls Jesus being anointed by Mary of the sister of Lazarus, after Jesus had raised her brother from the dead.

The Tuesday reading from Jonah foreshadows Jesus burial, where just as Jonah was three days in the belly of a great fish, Jesus was to be buried for three days in the heart of the earth.

“Spy” Wednesday recalls Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

Maundy Thursday (from the Latin “mandatum”) recalls Jesus command to love one another as he has loved us, his washing of the disciples feet and the first Lord’s Supper.

On Good Friday (from the Anglo-Saxon word for “God”) Jesus, as our substitute, suffered upon the cross for the sins of all people.

Holy Saturday recalls Jesus’ stay in the tomb. Historically, it was on this night that Christians gathered at dusk for Easter worship that continued until dawn, when people would cry out “He is risen, he is risen indeed!” On Easter Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, assuring us that we are forgiven and that we shall be raised to dwell in God’s presence forever.

Holy Week reminds us that the Bible is more than a book of doctrine. It is God’s own record of his saving acts on behalf of a world in need of rescue.

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Who is my neighbor?

While traveling in Israel, Ralph – our tour guide – told our group about a distinction made between Muslim and non-Muslim land. The first is “Dar al-Islam,” (house of Islam) or “Dar al-Salam” (house of peace) as distinct from “Dar al-Harab” (house of war) or “Dar al-Kufr” (house of the Infidel). The first refers to countries where Muslims are in the majority and are ruled by Muslim Sharia law. In such lands Christians, Jews and others are to be tolerated, meaning that while Muslims enjoy a privileged status, Christians and Jews (“people of the book”) pay the jizya. A “house of war / house of the Infidel” refers to countries where Muslims are not in the majority and where Muslim sharia law is not in force. Such lands are considered unclean and if its people are not “people of the book,” they are to be converted or killed. (“Divisions of the world in Islam,” Wikipedia)

Such distinctions between Muslim and non-Muslim land are not taught in the Quran (Koran) or in the Hadith (sayings and stories of Muhammad) but arose a century later during times of Muslim conquest. Ralph our Israeli tour guide suggested that this distinction is where difficulties arise. If a land such as Israel was ever a Muslim land, it is considered unclean until it can once again be returned to its former status. This makes negotiations challenging as evidenced by tall concrete walls and barbed wire. To read about the often difficult history between Muslims, Jews and Christians, you may be interested in reading one of the following books by Karen Armstrong: Muhammad, Islam or Jerusalem.

As I suggested in my blog post last week, Jesus’ concept of “toleration” is altogether different. In his well-known story of The Good Samaritan (Luke chapter 10), Jesus praises a Samaritan who took pity on a man left for dead by robbers, but bypassed by a Jewish priest and Levite. Jesus praised a Samaritan leper, who after being healed returned to to give thanks (Luke 17 – a Gospel reading on Thanksgiving Day in America). Though Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans and avoided traveling through Samaria, Jesus went into Samaria and spoke with a woman there at a well. Though she’d had five husbands, Jesus revealed to her that he was the Messiah.

The parable of the Good Samaritan was told by Jesus in response to a question: Who is our neighbor? Is it only people like us, or people whose behavior we (and God) approves of? The Good Samaritan had pity on a man he didn’t know, who was not of his country and believed differently. For a stranger, he expended considerable time, effort and money, for no personal gain and after a long history of animosity between their people.

Who is my neighbor, and your neighbor? According to Jesus: everybody. Without regard for nationality, religion, political party, morality or any other distinction, we are to treat everyone as our neighbor and our brother. This doesn’t mean that when people threaten us we can’t defend ourselves. That’s not what Jesus meant by “turning the other cheek.” (Luke 6:29) Instead Jesus spoke here of defusing conflict rather than throwing gasoline on a spark. Even in fearful times, we would do well to listen to Jesus’ reminder: everyone is our neighbor.

Tolerance

On Wednesday I had just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel. With increasing reports of violence between Muslims and Jews I had been a little nervous about going. Even while traveling in Israel I saw daily reports about knifings and shootings. It was such a blessing to see places that the Bible talks about and to walk where Jesus walked but we could also see concrete walls and barbed wire dividing Palestinian and Jewish areas. So after returning, it felt good to be home; good to be safe. Then two days later came reports of more than one hundred people killed in Paris and others injured or held hostage. Details of this most recent terrorist attack are still being reported as they become available. The thought again comes to mind: why can’t we all just get along? Why of all people, is it those of deep religious conviction that are killing one another?

Tolerance may be defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”

Tolerance doesn’t mean wishy-washy. It doesn’t mean that our deeply held convictions don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right or a wrong answer in matters of religion. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is so difficult to understand that we don’t know what it says. It doesn’t mean that the infinite almighty God doesn’t know how to communicate clearly in the Bible. It doesn’t mean that every road leads to heaven or that the differences in belief between religions are trivial. It does mean that religious people – especially religious people – should be able to sit down peacefully and discuss points of agreement and disagreement.

Over the years I’ve had discussions with clergy of various persuasions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, various kinds of Protestants, Muslim Imams, Jewish Rabbis, Mormon Missionaries and others. We have been able to sit down over a cup of tea or coffee (except with Mormons, who are not supposed to consume hot drinks) and talk. These were opportunities to clarify what they believe and correct misconceptions where they or I may have misunderstood. These were opportunities to be reminded that these and others who do not believe exactly what I believe are not my enemy. Some became dear friends.

Jesus taught that people will know we are his followers because we love one another. St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth wrote a detailed description of how love behaves. Among other things, love keeps no records of wrongs done by another. Instead, love keeps hoping for better things. A particularly Christian kind of love is “agape” love. Agape is unconditional love. It is not treating others as they have treated us, but treating others as God has treated us, with unconditional acceptance and mercy. Our sins sent Jesus to the cross but by his suffering and death he has absolved us of our sin. As Jesus taught in the “Golden Rule” (something shared by virtually all religions) we are to treat others as we would have them treat us. True religion, according to the first chapter of the epistle (letter) of James is to help widows and orphans in their distress. This doesn’t mean only helping those who hold our own Christian convictions, but also those we disagree with, whether they may be Muslim or Mormon, Republican or Democrat, non-religious or devout.

Jesus was never wishy-washy in his teaching but neither was he unmerciful or unloving. In the Gospel of John chapter 8, he was able to speak up for a woman caught in adultery – to prevent religious leaders from stoning her to death, to tell her that he didn’t condemn her and yet also to admonisher her to not continue in her life of sin. According to ancient Christian tradition, she became a devoted follower of Christ. Imagine how the world might be different if we adopted Jesus’ kind of tolerance.