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In 1977 I made a journey to Israel. Five friends from the church I served then traveled with me. There was Gladys who had been caring for her invalid mother for ten years. Harvey and Margaret, recently retired from a farm supply business. David, a bright young divinity school student. Sarah, a mom who’d never flown. And Esther, the church custodian, a devout black woman.
Arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel, we were informed that our wee Presbyterian tour group was too small to merit our own bus and guide. We would be merged with another group. Turns out the other group was 21 Pentecostals from an inner-city church led by a flamboyant woman pastor. And, oh yes, I forgot to mention a small group of touring Methodists were also thrown in with us. Four of them. Thirty-one Christians in all. Plus a Jewish guide. And an Arab bus driver.
For the next 14 days we crowded on the bus and bumped along the byways of Israel. We ate together, snoozed, hiked, jostled one another for a better view, discussed theology, and generally got on one another’s nerves. At each holy sight I would try to read the appropriate biblical passage describing what happened there, then pump our guide for more insight. The Methodists kept to themselves, preferring shopping to history, whilst the Pentecostals wanted to whoop it up, play their tambourines, and dance ecstatically over every holy sight. All of this was coming at a time when there was a lot of turmoil in my life, some big decisions facing me. I’d come to Israel to hear God’s “still, small voice.” I needed to be ministered to, not minister.
Over the days I floated between each group, sometimes even stayed to myself. The last thing I wanted to do was mediate disparate religious cultures. Arguments broke out on the bus. The complaints were endless. And finally the groups weren’t even speaking to each other. That’s when we rolled into Bethlehem.
Now the traditional place of Jesus’ birth is in a stone cave beneath a huge ancient church building. Our group shuffled into the grotto like a herd of sheep being crowded into a pen. The air was close, breathed over, sour with the smell of too many sweaty bodies. We in the back strained to hear the guide’s remarks, stood on tiptoe to see the resting place of Christ’s cradle. I noticed we’d joined a Japanese group as well an animated group of Italians.
The Pentecostals had brought their tambourines.
About 80 of us in a tight cavern. I could feel the tension in the air. But what happened next I shall never forget. An old priest walked in offering communion to the Italians. “Would any of you care to join us?” he asked in thickly accented English. The Methodist spokesman said they’d like to commune but they didn’t want to be with the Pentecostals. The Japanese had no idea what was being said.
The Pentecostals arrogantly said they’d go upstairs and find their own bread and wine.
My spirit was vexed to hear such divisive talk. I blurted out, “If this is our attitude, then I don’t think we should have communion.”
After all, the Scripture clearly says in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33f that we should not eat and drink the Lord’s Supper without discerning the body. And clearly we were more aware of ourselves than we were of Jesus.
So there we were standing about the cradle of Jesus in Bethlehem—teeth clinched, hearts hard, insisting on our own way. Italians. Japanese. Pentecostals. Methodists. Presbyterians. All outdoing one another in cussedness.
Suddenly the Japanese group started singing softly. I had no notion of their words. But the tune was “Amazing Grace.” A verse into the hymn I joined in English. The Italians joined in their language. Soon the entire grotto echoed with the hymn, every man and woman in his or her own tongue! When the hymn fell silent there was a holy stillness in the cave. Then I heard weeping, prayers of penitence, and before long enemies were hugging one another, asking forgiveness. Then the wine and bread were passed hand to hand until every soul had partaken. Just as at Christ’s birth, believers gathered from disparate cultures—male, female, Jew, gentile, rude shepherds, wise men—lamb, oxen, angels and humans, old and youthful and babe—the quiet, the noisy—so we too had found our own unity. Not in taste, understanding, music, theology, or temperament. But in Jesus.
Ah, He’d been the one person we all had in common. Him we celebrate. Until His redeeming work is complete when in heaven, as Revelation 7:9 explains, “A great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne…and crying out…”Salvation belongs to our God!”
Amen! So be it! Count me in! And rehearsals begin right away!
The Reverend Stephen Crotts is pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Charlotte Court House, VA. He is also the director of the Carolina Study Center, Inc., a campus ministry, located in Chapel Hill, NC. Pastor Crotts may be reached at email@example.com.