The Kingdom Party

Part III of “From Nazareth to Capernaum: Lessons from the Jesus Trail”

John 2:1-11

A Bar Mitzvah party in the square, Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem

A Bar Mitzvah party in the square, Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem

One of the things that you discover when you travel to Israel is that people in the Middle East like a good party. I’m not talking about the “whoo hoo” kind of par-tee that we tend glorify in films and beer commercials, instead I’m talking about celebrations with a purpose. In a land where there are deep divisions between religions and races, the one thread that is common to all of them is a deep sense of hospitality which is extended to everyone.

I gain about 6 pounds every time I travel there and this trip was no exception. Even after 40 miles of hiking, I’m still trying to trim down. During the tour, we had buffet breakfasts and dinners, but we also experienced the hospitality of people like our bus driver, Ishmael—an Arab with a big belly, a big laugh, a big family, and very big heart. As we got to know him, he opened his life to us. For lunch one day, he and his wife prepared us a massive dish called Maqluba, which is rice, vegetables, and meat cooked together and flipped over right before serving. We ate it as a picnic lunch overlooking Jerusalem—a special treat made with great love and hospitality. We were honored guests.

In Jerusalem, Chris and I sat in the square in the Jewish Quarter on a Thursday and watched as parades of families celebrated bar mitzvahs for teenage boys with dancing and singing, blowing horns and beating drums (the only person not dancing was the teenager who, like every 13 year old, is easily embarrassed). On the trail we experienced the hospitality of a Jewish couple who served us an ice cold pitcher of lemonade after a hot climb out of the Arbel Valley, the kosher buffet at a Kibbutz, and a delicious pita falafel served hot and fresh and with a smile (and extra fries) at an Arab shop near the Sea of Galilee. Everywhere we went, we experienced a party.

An ancient wine press in old Nazareth. Grapes were stomped on the upper basin and the juice dripped down to the lower basin hollowed out of the rock.

An ancient wine press in old Nazareth. Grapes were stomped on the upper basin and the juice dripped down to the lower basin hollowed out of the rock.

The truth is that it’s always been this way in Israel. Indeed, when you read the Gospels it’s hard not to get hungry and thirsty because it seems that there’s always some kind of feast or party going on. One of the things you notice while traveling around is that wine presses were everywhere in the ancient world. Bread was the ordinary food for people, but wine was for celebration, and people celebrated a lot. As the psalmist wrote, “The Lord gives us wine to make our heart glad” (Psalm 104:15).

In the ancient world, as in many places today in the Middle East, dinner parties were important exchanges of social capital. If you ate with someone, you were bonded to them. If a stranger came to your door, you were duty bound to extend hospitality. If you were the host, you were responsible for providing for and protecting those who came under your roof. Meals and parties established group identity, marked boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and served as signs of joy, fellowship, and peace.

Which is why if something went wrong with the gathering it was a major problem.If I run out of food or drink at a party in the U.S., I might just throw up my hands and say, “Oh well” and people would understand. In an honor and shame culture like the Middle East, the failure to provide hospitality and care for your guests is a major party foul that could have repercussions for years.

THE_WEDDING_AT_CANA_DETAIL_2-webThat’s the situation we see here in Cana. The wedding feast is out of wine and since those feasts were supposed to last about seven days (how’d you like to be the parents of the bride for that kind of tradition?) it was a major problem. Jesus’ mother is appalled at the faux pas. “They have no wine!” Jesus isn’t that concerned, however. His response to her seems a little brusque: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” I’m trying to imagine ever calling my mother, “Woman” but you get the point. Jesus is non-plussed. Given all the fuss over marriage in our culture, you’d expect him to be more sympathetic, but as we said last week, he has a much bigger wedding, a much bigger family in mind.

John gives us the detail that this occurred on “the third day,” which John uses repeatedly as a link to Jesus’ death and resurrection. The “hour” for Jesus is the cross.The implication for John? Once Jesus starts doing miracles, he will begin the road to the cross. It’s that journey that will bring about the real party—the marriage of heaven and earth, a marriage that Jesus named the kingdom of God.

jesus eats with sinnersIt’s that kind of party, the kingdom party, that we find all throughout the Gospels. Jesus goes to parties so often that he’s accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard,” though he is neither of those things. He is partying for a purpose, and that purpose is to announce that the kingdom of God was breaking in on the present and wherever that kingdom is, there is a party to whom everyone is invited. In contrast to the parties of his time, this party establishes a group identity that isn’t linked to blood or positive regard, it’s an identity centered on Jesus himself. It’s a party where those who are normally excluded were included—the outsiders become the insiders. It’s a party that points to joy, fellowship, and peace but in a way that is shocking to those whose categories of honor, shame, and guilt get challenged.

Jesus told stories like a father giving a party for a wayward son who has returned home, while the faithful older brother sulks outside the party; parties in which invited guests refuse to come and so the blind, the lame, and the broken are given their places at the table. He told stories about lazy bridesmaids and new wine. And wherever Jesus went, it was these kinds of parties that broke out—celebrations in which he became the de facto host; celebrations in which people began to experience a joy, fellowship, and peace that transformed their lives. They were parties featuring collections of people who normally wouldn’t associate could come together with Jesus at the center and where all would leave transformed.

In John’s Gospel, the wedding at Cana is the first of these parties. Jesus shows up and turns an epic party foul into an epic display of hospitality and grace. The water jars the servants filled were intended to fill the mikvahs, the ritual baths that were required for purification according to Jewish religious law. The water marked the boundary of who was worthy to come in to the party and who was not. And what does Jesus do? He turns it to wine—and the best wine at that. The wedding party is saved, but Jesus’ party is just getting started. He will spend his life bringing people to the table.

In doing so, Jesus fulfills the party promises of the Old Testament. God’s purpose for Israel was to be a sign to the nations, extending the invitation of God’s grace to them. Through them, God would initiate the kingdom party. In God’s time, the creation that had endured the sin of humanity and the sting of death would be restored. “The mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the hills shall flow with it,” says God through the prophet Amos. Israel is often portrayed in the Old Testament as a vineyard that God tends for the purpose of bringing the fruitfulness of his love to the whole world.

This is the mission that Jesus takes on—a mission played out through parties that offer a taste of what life in the kingdom is like. He challenged his opponents and his disciples to erecting boundaries between insiders and outsiders and, instead, offer an invitation. He knew that when people sit at the table together, with Christ as the host, people get changed.

The Cana Wedding Church

The Cana Wedding Church

We spent a night in Cana on the Jesus Trail, dragging ourselves in there after a long day’s hike and after an hour of looking for the little inn we were to stay at, which sat on a backstreet that we walked past a few times before we finally found it (actually, we had a streak of making a wrong turn at least once on the trail). Cana is another Arab town, predominantly Muslim except for the two small Christian churches in town that commemorate Jesus’ miracle at Cana. Couples from all over the world flock to the Catholic wedding church to renew their wedding vows and to take home a bottle or two of “Cana Wedding Wine,” which is available everywhere in town.

Marwa, the proprietor of Marwa's Inn, our stopover in Cana

Marwa, the proprietor of Marwa’s Inn, our stopover in Cana

The place we were staying was Marwa’s Inn—a three month-old hostel established by a 29 year-old Muslim woman named Marwa, a resident of Nazareth and a friend of the Jesus Trail founders. Marwa set up the Inn as a respite for travelers on the Trail, and this little out of the way place offered a cozy atmosphere, a great deck, and gracious hospitality.

We were hungry after nothing more than a couple of peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, but instead of having the evening meal at the Inn, Marwa made us an offer that was intriguing. She invited us to have dinner with her parents and family who live there in Cana. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had dinner in a Muslim home before. I was excited but, admittedly, I was nervous, too. How would they receive us—Christians, Americans? How would we bridge the language barrier? What about the food? (I tend to be a picky eater). These are the kinds of barriers we are quick to erect, especially given our western cultural conditioning about Muslims.

dinner at marwa'sWe arrived at the house around 7:30pm (people tend to eat later in the Middle East) and sat in the living room while Marwa helped her mother and sister finish preparations for the meal. The walls were covered with family pictures, along with paintings of both Jerusalem and Mecca. As I was looking around, the women brought out the food—and it kept coming and coming.

An Arab feast is something to behold. There was literally no empty space at the table. This modest family had obviously invested a great deal of time, expense, and energy all for us—incredible hospitality. We ate until we were stuffed, occasionally asking Marwa to identify some of the dishes. It was one of the greatest meals of my life.

Marwa and Chris "Bill Clinton" Howlett

Marwa and Chris “Bill Clinton” Howlett

After dinner we sat down in the living room where we began to talk and sip from little cups of Arabic coffee, the caffeine content of which will make your hair stand on end. Marwa’s father is a gregarious man who laughs easily. He looked at my friend Chris with a smile and said, “Bill Clinton!” I never noticed the resemblance, but Clinton is very popular among Israeli Arabs because of his peace initiatives there in the 90s. Soon, cousins and children were coming to the house to see the one who looked like Clinton. We talked about life in Cana and they asked about life in the States. We talked about our families, our favorite sports, and a whole host of other things with laughter punctuating our conversation at many points. It was a lot of fun.

At some point the conversation turned to the pictures on the wall. Marwa’s mother explained, with Marwa interpreting, who each person was. An old picture of a teenage boy, however, made her pause. Then she told us the story of her younger brother, the boy in the picture. In 1976, during a protest against Israel’s plan to appropriate land from the Arabs in the Galilee, her brother was shot by an Israeli soldier, one of six protestors killed on that day. The day is known as Land Day among the Arab citizens of Israel—just one of the many similar kinds of days that are commemorated on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The view from the Horns of Hattin. Syria is just over the far horizon

The view from the Horns of Hattin. Syria is just over the far horizon

You can argue the rightness or wrongness of the sides, and there’s plenty enough blame to go around. The political situation in Israel is very complex and when you visit there you realize that things are not as black and white as our media tends to portray it. It’s always been contentious. A day later, we walked over the Horns of Hattin, site of  the last great Crusader battle in 1187 and while we were there we could see Israeli F-16s patrolling the border with Syria.

We skirted a minefield on the trail with big signs warning us not to cross the fence. War and conflict are in the minds of everyone on some level. There are many Arab and Jewish homes in Israel with similar stories filled with grieving family members, many empty places at tables in many homes. You have to wonder how things might be different if they all just sat together at the table…

Bill_Clinton,_Yitzhak_Rabin,_Yasser_Arafat_at_the_White_House_1993-09-13In September of 1993, President Clinton hosted a summit between then Prime Minister of Israel Itzak Rabin and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yassir Arafat. The summit ended with Rabin and Arafat engaging in a famous handshake, which we in the West saw as a sign of progress toward peace. Anyone in Israel, Jew or Arab, will tell you, however, that a handshake means nothing. If they had only eaten together, feasted together, partied together—well, then, that would have been a real sign of peace in the eyes of people on both sides. As I sat at the table in Marwa’s home, I saw it very clearly—the only way forward, the only way to peace, the only way to understanding, the only way to wholeness, is found at the table.

jesus at mealJesus invited everyone to the table. He still does so, which is why the table is at the center of our worship. Wherever he went, there was a party. Many of his followers today, unfortunately, are still more concerned about arguing and washing their hands of one another than enjoying the wine of celebration, peace, and fellowship made possible by Jesus. It’s not about shaking hands and going our separate ways. It’s about sitting down together at the table of the greatest party host there ever was.

I made some new friends that night in Cana, a night that I will never forget. No, we didn’t talk religion, but I felt the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread—that the more of these kinds of parties we have with people, especially with people who aren’t like us, the more opportunities his grace, his wholeness, and his transforming love have to take root. If we want to transform our community, our nation, our world, I think it begins with the table. It begins with opening our tables to our neighbors, to friends, to strangers. It begins when we decide to party with a purpose.

Christine Pohl, who was one of my professors at Asbury Seminary, has written a lot about the power of the table and how we might embrace hospitality as not only a nice thing to do, but as a missional strategy. She writes: “If, when we open the door, we are oriented toward seeking Jesus in the guest, then we welcome that persona with some sense that God is already at work in his or her life. This can fundamentally change our perspective and our sense of the dimensions of the relationship. We are more sensitive to what the guest is bringing us, to what God might be saying through her or him.”

I didn’t exactly experience a miracle in Cana, nor was there any wine at the dinner that night (we had orange Fanta instead, which I became slightly addicted to). I did, however, see what’s possible when we are willing to come to the table and invite others to join us. Everywhere Jesus went, there was a party. Might be it be the same with his people?

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