28th May 2024

The place and its people secure the promise

Sunday 26 May, 2024 Trinity Sunday,

10.30am Eucharist: The place and its people secure the promise

The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury

Romans 8: 12-17

John 3:1-17

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’


Early in my time in Jerusalem my colleagues and I toured an archaeological site which sits on a rocky spur outside the city’s sixteenth-century walls, and which comprises its original Bronze Age core.  At the heart of the site are cut stones which have in two or three places been set, one upon another.  Above them hangs a sign which reads ‘The Remains of King David’s Palace?’  We looked from the stones to the sign, and back to the stones.


The Israeli archaeologist who was our guide reassured us that what we could see were indeed two or three places where cut stones had been set, one upon another.  They might have been part of one structure.  Their individual size indicates that that structure would have been a large one.  But the jump from piles cut stones set one upon another to one large stone structure, and the jump from one large stone structure to the Palace of King David were two jumps he was not prepared to make.


He told us that the proudest achievement of his archaeological career had been to secure the addition of that question mark to the sign.  So why did the National Parks authority make even the qualified claim that these piles of stone were once the palace of ancient Israel’s greatest king?


In the entrance to the site, known as the City of David, there hangs another sign.  It was placed there in 2020 by two American dignitaries: the Ambassador to Israel, and the Chairman of the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.  It reads ‘The spiritual bedrock of our values as a nation comes from Jerusalem.  It was upon these ideals that the American republic was founded, and the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel was formed’.


That probably explains the first sign.  Claiming the cut stones as the palace of King David turns a Bronze Age excavation into a Biblical site; it gives topographical features to the pages of Scripture; it cloaks a place with the authenticity of ancient history.  This is the place where David sang; this is the place where Solomon judged; this is the place where the prophets spoke; this is the place where the psalms were written.  It’s as though the place and its people secure the promise.  The ideals of the American republic are founded upon the bedrock of ancient Jerusalem; the bond between it and the State of Israel is founded upon the stones of the City of David.  The place and its people secure the promise.


Whatever you make of their historical claim, or of their political claim, those responsible for the City of David are onto something.  Without solidity underfoot – without facts on the ground – an assertion remains just an assertion.  If American democracy is rooted in ancient Israelite kingship but there is no archaeological evidence for the latter, then what is the fate of American democracy?


And what applies to historical claims and to political claims applies equally to doctrinal claims.  Today the Church asserts that God is Trinity, that the Second Person of the Godhead becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ, that – as John Betjeman puts it – ‘God was Man in Palestine’.  The place and its people secure the promise: take away the place and its people, and what is left?  A doctrine; or, an assertion.


One of the consequences of Israel’s war on Gaza is that in the three months that I was in Jerusalem the place was largely deserted.  I mean, the place or places traditionally associated with the life of Jesus, meaning that we were able to visit them undisturbed.  Entering the tomb of Lazarus, cut into the rock of Bethany, even the caretaker’s words uncannily echoed Martha’s words to Christ.  On opening the door to the tomb, he told us, there would be a stench – it was so long since visitors had entered.  I sat before the altar of Calvary, which is set over the limestone spur on which Christ suffered and died; I knelt and pressed my forehead against the marble slab of the tomb in which he was laid.  Most remarkably I spent perhaps half an hour in the cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem – and saw not another soul.


The rock grottoes of Bethany and Bethlehem, the limestone spur, the marble slab – these are the places which secure the promise.  Our archaeologist guide might wish to insert a question mark over them, or over at least some of them.  But if these are nothing but dead stones then around them there are living stones: courageous and faithful local Christians living alongside their Muslim neighbours.  And these are the people who secure the promise.


When you come out from the cave of the Nativity there is a remarkable fresco high on the wall.  It depicts the resurrection of Jesus: the apostle Thomas is reaching forward to touch his Lord’s wounds.  He believes that when he touches them, he will know that Christ lives.


No Christian is compelled to visit Israel and Palestine, but every Christian is compelled to care about Israel and Palestine: the place in which Christ was born, over which Christ wept, in which Christ died, and from which Christ was raised.  To touch the wounds of the place and of its people is to know that Christ lives.  It is to know that Trinity is true.


Khaled is the son of a priest and now an ordinand.  Nightly, often alone, he leads Evening Prayer at St George’s Anglican Cathedral.  Sally is a Lutheran pastor and the only ordained Palestinian woman in Jerusalem.  She likens the resilience of her people to the resilience of cacti, flourishing in the harshest of conditions.  Were it not for them and thousands like them then the dead stones might become just a religiose theme park witnessing to the things some people used to believe about some things.  But the living stones persist amidst unimaginable hostility.  The place and its people secure the promise.  In them the doctrine comes alive.  Walking where Christ walked, and breaking bread with those who walk there today it is possible to say: yes – God was man in Palestine.


When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the salvation that the Son of Man will bring, he speaks of a place and of the people associated with it.  Of place: the wilderness, the place of Israel’s wandering, of its testing, and of its formation.  Of people: of Moses, and of the community gathered around him.  ‘So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’.  The place and its people secure the promise that Jesus utters.


That place and those people; this place and these people.  You and I are called to be nothing less than the living stones of this Cathedral – embodying the Gospel it proclaims in our worship, in our welcome, and in our pursuit of justice for Israel, for Palestine, and for every place.  Here you and I secure the promise ‘That God was Man in Palestine, and lives today in bread and wine’.  Amen.