So, on the eve of leaving for my first sabbatical trip, my trip to Israel, I have a confession: I am NOT eagerly anticipating seeing the places where Jesus walked/talked/prayed/preached, etc. Oh, I’m looking forward to the experience of being there, of course—what I mean is that I am not eagerly anticipating that my spirituality will be deepened, my heart will be strangely warmed, or my relationship with Jesus will be radically altered. Maybe this sounds a little heretical: I do confess to feeling a little guilty about these feelings [or rather, their lack], like maybe I SHOULD be more excited; but at the same time, I am defiant—and I think that, theologically at least, I am right in my resistance to this kind of “spiritual anticipation.” So let me explain.
First, whence the guilt? I am a firm believer in the idea that the LIFE of Jesus is also salvific, not merely his death and resurrection. This means that I am very critical of all theories of atonement that make Jesus’ life and ministry a mere footnote to his death and resurrection [I’m looking at you, Anselm], acting as though the people he ate with, the people he healed, and his challenges to the Jewish and Roman authorities mean nothing for our salvation. Instead, I look to Jesus’ declaration of his ministry [“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”], his encounter with Zacchaeus [“Today, salvation has come to this house”], and his conversation with the Samaritan woman [“Sir, give me this water (of eternal life)”] as a model for how Jesus meets us and transforms our own lives today, and the difference his saving presence makes for all that we are, and for all that we do. This emphasis on Jesus’ life, then, makes where he lived important to me; and I do want to see where he was born, where he did his miracles, and where those transformative encounters took place. The real flesh-and-blood, physical, human existence of Jesus is of critical importance for our salvation, and so I do feel like it should [will?] mean something to walk in his footsteps, so to speak.
But then second, and more importantly, whence the defiance? I also am a firm believer in the idea that I do not have to “go” anywhere to get closer to Jesus; and that in fact, Jesus meets me in the flesh every Sunday in communion. I was just reading Lutheran Theology, by Steven Paulson, and in his discussion of baptism he writes, “Lutheran theology holds that the sacraments are not ‘signs’ of a partially absent Christ, but the Person of Jesus Christ—standing there at full stature, who uses created things to break into sinners in the here-and-now-life…” I don’t have to go farther than my local congregation to meet Jesus in the flesh and be touched by his real presence in and with me. Not only that, but I believe in the promise that wherever two or three are gathered, Christ is there, and I trust his presence in the community of those gathered for worship and service--and in confession, and in the mutual consolation of brothers and sisters. Not only that, but in my baptism, I have been linked irrevocably to Christ’s own life and death—he now lives in me and I in him. This means that in the same way that I bear the face of Christ to my neighbor, my neighbor bears the face of Christ to me. I don’t need to go to Israel to “feel close” to Jesus Christ—Christ is closer to me than I am to myself at every moment of every day. To minimize all these ways that Christ himself has promised to be with us in favor of an over-emphasis on this city or that town as the place where Christ “really” can be found is theologically untenable to me.
But, having said all that, I am human after all, and I am not immune to the feel of a place and the power of its history. Ultimately, I’m open to all this new experience may bring; and so I realize that I may feel differently after I have been there. Maybe. If so, I promise I’ll fess up.