by Pastor Herbie Miller, Philadelphia Presbyterian Church
For the past nine weeks, Pastor Jason and I have shared our summer pilgrimage to the Holy Land with you. Through pictures, personal reflections, and references to the Bible, history, and current events, we’ve hoped to give you a sense of what we experienced. To wrap up our ten-week series, I’m focusing today’s reflection on two locations that are, what I’ll call, “future-focused”: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Primacy of Peter.
By focusing our attention on Christ’s empty tomb and the place where Peter was established as the leader of the apostles, we can see that the purpose of Christ’s life and ministry was to point away from death and toward the unfolding, life-giving mission of God in the world.
An Empty Tomb
Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was a dizzying experience. The space was packed with pilgrims from all over the world, speaking every imaginable language. It was also surreal spiritually to be at the spot where Jesus Christ was buried (and close by, where he was crucified). This, the holiest of sites for Christians, was simultaneously a crowded mess of humanity and a place of holy veneration.
Initially, I was taken aback that these two realities could coexist in one place. But as I wandered the halls of the church, I began to feel connected to the generations of Christian pilgrims who came here before me to find a spiritual connection to God. While the church in which the tomb is located has gone through many building projects, renovations, and rebuilding projects, the site is, scholars hold, almost certainly the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have flocked here because they believed this site was holy and worth veneration. So, why should I be surprised when, during my visit, I found crowds of people flocking here?
In the resurrection story given in John’s Gospel, we read about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ in the garden. Thinking Jesus was the gardener, she asked where he had taken Jesus’ body, hoping she could anoint the corpse. At that moment, Jesus called her name, “Mary,” and she instantly knew the One with whom she was speaking was no gardener. Jesus continued by commissioning her to take the good news of His resurrection to the disciples. The words he left her with let Mary know that the tomb He once inhabited would forever be empty: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).
Meeting Mary in the garden, Jesus acknowledged that death had been part of His past, but it was not part of His future. Carrying that message, Mary became the “apostle to the apostles,” being the first in a long line of preachers who would share the good news of Christ. Mary announced to the disciples a “future-focused” message of hope that had been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The tomb she visited, the tomb countless pilgrims have visited, was a place in which she anticipated encountering death, but what she found instead was new life. And not just any new life, but a life that pointed to a Christ-centered future. The message Mary internalized would soon be adopted by Peter and the others on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, at the place contemporary pilgrims call the Church of Peter’s Primacy.
An Overflowing Net
Two days after my group’s visit to the empty tomb in Jerusalem, we were a two-and-a-half-hour drive north standing beside a tiny church next to the Sea of Galilee. If it was dizzying to step into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, visiting the Church of the Primacy of Peter was an “earthing” experience.
On the pebbly shore of the blue-green waters of the Sea of Galilee (called the Sea of Tiberius in John’s Gospel), I stood on a beach that was mostly vacant except for our group. According to tradition, this is the spot described in John 21, where Jesus charged Peter to lead the disciples in the early church. After the mind-bending events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem, the disciples made their way north to the sea, maybe hoping to find solace in the routine of fishing. Skilled as they were at fishing, they nonetheless pulled empty nets back into their boats. That was until a man standing on the shore called out to them, saying to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. The result of their obedience was a net so full of fish they couldn’t pull it in. Realizing the mysterious man on the shore was the Risen Christ, Simon Peter jumped from the boat and swam to shore. After all the disciples had arrived, Jesus made them breakfast, giving them bread and fish. At the meal, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. It was through this back-and-forth that Peter demonstrated his loyalty and found his mission to lead the disciples and the early church. In this encounter, Peter learned that Jesus was calling him out of the past and toward the future, to a “future-focused” faith. Symbolizing the multitude of people who would embrace the Christian faith, the overflowing net was evidence for Peter that while he was called to work for God’s kingdom, it was ultimately God who would accomplish the work of salvation and catch His fish.
As I stood on the beach where Jesus fed his disciples and Peter found his courage, I watched in amusement as my friend, Rabbi Josh, went for a swim. Then, I watched as more people in my group got in the water and splashed around.
My time on the shore was one of quiet joy, as I watched the playfulness and delight unfolding before me. I wonder, when the disciples first jumped out of their boat and ran to Jesus on the shore, were they splashing each other in competition to get to their friend and savior? Or, did Jesus playfully splash them as they pulled their boats to shore? I like to think that the joy I felt watching my friends splash around in the Sea of Galilee is something like what the disciples felt when they finally joined Jesus on the shore. Was their joy overflowing like their nets? I think so.
A “Future-Focused” Faith
I loved my time in the Holy Land, and I know Pastor Jason did, too. We savored the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. The Holy Land is a place that is wonderful, beautiful, complicated, spiritually enriching, and countless other adjectives. The Holy Land’s value is not just in what it offers us historically; it’s also valuable because it orients our faith toward the future. The Holy Land repositions our view of the world. The more we learn about the past, the more we come to understand that the prophets of Israel and Jesus wanted us to stretch out our arms toward future, so we can participate with God in creating a world of peace and wholeness.
Thanks for reading along these past ten weeks! We hope your journey with us (Pastor Herbie and Pastor Jason) in these reflections has been enriching for you. We pray your faith will be “future-focused,” leading you further and further into the kingdom of God. Shalom and Amen, our friends. Be well.