Ancient ruins and modern malls. Awe-filled pilgrims and stern-faced soldiers. Christian pilgrims worshiping by guitar on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and Muslim calls to prayer echoing off the stones in Jerusalem’s streets. The party atmosphere in the Jewish quarter Friday afternoon and the sacred quiet of Saturday morning, with Shabbat and its customs in full bloom.
Israel is a place of stark contrast, one of the things that fascinated me when, a few years ago, I had the mind-blowing privilege of visiting Israel as part of a contingent of American Christian journalists. I’ll admit I had always felt a little irritated by claims that a trip to Israel, to “walk where Jesus walked,” was a powerfully life-changing experience. Frankly, these statements just felt sentimental, overblown, and cliche. I did go into the trip figuring it would be awesome to see Israel; I just wasn’t expecting the experience to be spiritually powerful or to change my life. But my expectations were way to low. Those sentimental cliches turned out to be true–at least for me. And I’ve been writing about the experience off and on since I returned.
I learned a lot during my time in Israel, and I noticed many things that stuck with me, continuing to marinate when I returned. Among these observations was this marvelous collection of cultural contrasts that marks everyday life in that remarkable place. Two specific cultural contrasts reminded me how completely Jesus transcends our own limitations.
First, seeing the place where Jesus’ life and ministry took place reminded me just how different the cultural context of Jesus’ ministry was from the cultural context in which I typically worship him. Walking around the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, and the Dead Sea, the hymns of Martin Luther seemed dramatically out of place. So did the worship songs we sing in my contemporary church. That land inspires a different kind of expression, and the people there worship differently as a result.
Does that mean my kind of worship is inadequate or impure? Does the fact that Jesus lived and ministered in the Middle East mean he thinks and behaves like a Middle Easterner and doesn’t understand my mindset? Do I need to change my culture to become more like Jesus? Of course not. Understanding the context of Jesus’ ministry certainly helps us understand his teachings (and I don’t mean to diminish this critical aspect to Bible study), but Jesus is above culture. He lives way outside this and all other cultures. He created cultures and the people in them. The creator is never limited by his creation.
Second, visiting churches and other places sacred to Christians reminded me how varied are the faces of those who follow Christ. I saw pilgrims there from all over the world, speaking many languages, sometimes in unison. At one church, I saw believers from South America, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and North America worshiping God all at the same time, each in their own language and their own way.
While these Christians probably differ widely on some points of theology, all believers saved by Jesus’ sacrificial grace are brothers and sisters. That means we’re part of one huge, confusing, dysfunctional, multi-colored and multi-language family! Does this diminish Christ and his relevance? Does it make him confusing? Not at all. Jesus transcends these cultures as well. These many faces of Christianity merely reinforce Jesus’ relevance to all people at all times.
I love that about him.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.