We started out early this morning, hitting the Sea of Galilee by 7:30 am. The waters of the lake were kind of choppy—nothing like the storm that Jesus calmed that the disciples thought was going to sink them, but enough to give one a feel for what fisherman regularly experience. It was calm, and peaceful, even worshipful, helped by Susan Service as she led us in the singing of several songs of praise to the Lord. One thing I have to mention was when our bus captain, a United Methodist pastor from Florida named Thom, started his introduction of the Scripture reading that we did in the middle of the lake by saying, “Yesterday we found ourselves in several places where Jesus walked. To which I, naturally, responded, “Just like this one.”
From the dock at Tiberius we headed to the Mount of Beatitudes, which has changed quite a bit since my last trip. In 1998, there was a monastery house for the Franciscans (who staff the church) and the Church of the Beatitudes. In the intervening years they’ve built a guest house that is used for retreats. There is also a great deal more agricultural activity on the mount, with what had been a grassy hill leading down to the lake now covered by a variety of crops. It is still a beautiful site, green and meditative, though it is now a little bit more difficult to picture Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount in the theater-like setting that was clearly visible before the planting.
Our next two stops were a pair of churches associated with two events that happened around the northern shore of the lake, even if not at the exact spots. The Church of the Multiplication commemorates the feeding of the five thousand, and contains one of the best known and most recognizable features of any religious site in the country, a mosaic of the loaves and fishes that dates from the early Byzantine era. Unfortunately, it seems another monastic order—in this case, Benedictines—have built a new church on the site of the former Crusader building that allowed one to get a close look at the mosaic, which is now roped off and must be viewed at a distance.
In contrast, the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy is still as I remember it. A late 19th century Franciscan building, it commemorates the episode in John 21 in which Jesus asks Peter three times if the latter loved Him, with Jesus in response telling Peter to feed His sheep. Folks here didn’t spend much time in the church, however, because it is built quite close to the lake, and so just about everyone went down to the shore and, in some instances, took off their shoes and socks and got in the water. It’s as though it was one thing to sail out on the Sea, but another to actually get your feet wet.
We still had two other places to go before lunch. The first was the Ancient Galilee Center, which is primarily the facility housing the 2000-year-old boat. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s a fascinating thing, one of the most remarkable archaeological finds of recent years. In the early 1990s, a pair of Galilean fishermen who also happened to be amateur archaeologists found something completely unexpected—a fishing boat made of wood (12 different kinds of wood, as it turned out) that was dated to the first century. No one knows, of course, if this boat belonged to one of the fishermen among Jesus’ disciples, but it is virtually certain that they would have owned something very much like it, and used it in the various episodes that take place on the Sea of Galilee recorded in the Gospels.
We then headed to Capernaum, in Jesus’ day a prosperous town of some size on the northern shore of the lake that was both Jesus’ primary base for His Galilean ministry and the home of several of His disciples, including Peter, Andrew, James and John. The highlights of Capernaum are two: the 4th century synagogue that is built over the foundation of the synagogue that Jesus is recorded as having preached and taught in, and the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, which sits less than fifty yards from the synagogue and has been identified with Peter by inscriptions that also indicate that it was a house church. The synagogue is awe-inspiring—while many of the other sites of the Holy Land are traditional (and thus surmises or approximations, even if plausible ones) the fact that Jesus actually and unquestionably preached on the site we stood on this afternoon was a humbling experience for one whose calling is preaching, one that couldn’t help but be a reminder of the centrality of the preaching of the Word both in the life of the church and the life of the minister. That the Petrine house is almost certain to be the site of one of Jesus’ miraculous healing is also remarkable, though the site is somewhat spoiled by the presence of a plug-ugly Franciscan church that was built over the house, and thus makes getting a closer look impossible. One wishes that someone had had the sense and good taste to prevent this, but what’s done is done, and in the meantime it is still with more than a little awe that we gazed upon a home into which Jesus entered on a mission of mercy, and under the roof of which He may well have stayed.
After a lunch of St. Peter fish (which was identified for us as tilapia, though unlike the tilapia I’ve had before it doesn’t come from Thailand or Vietnam, but from the lake beside which we ate), we went to our last stop for the day on the River Jordan. Though the baptism of Jesus by John almost certainly occurred much farther south in the Judean wilderness, this spot has been set aside for use by Christian groups for baptisms in the river in which our Lord was baptized. It is lush and green, the water was cold, and most of our group took the opportunity to reaffirm their baptismal faith by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Pastor Thom explained that we were not re-baptizing anyone, but were using water to bring to mind what we had experienced previously. He handled the three immersions, while I stepped into calf-deep water and poured or sprinkled water on those who wished it, calling each person by name and saying to them, “Remember your baptism, and be renewed by the Spirit of God.” It was a moving time for everyone, and a privilege for me as well to be used by God in such a fashion.
We’re now back at out hotel waiting for the Shabbat dinner to start in the dining hall, and tomorrow we’ll be on to the archaeological site at Beth She’an, Jericho on the West Bank, and then to Jerusalem. More later.
PS—The Internet connection here is very slow. I’ll try again to post pictures tomorrow in Jerusalem.