Living Stones: As we travel about the Holy Land visiting the Holy Places we will frequently encounter local believers. In many circumstances you will have the opportunity for interaction, conversation, and shared worship. These members of the ancient churches of the middle-east, are often called the Living Stones, from the Apostle Peter's teaching: "As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him-- you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:4-5).
The Christians of the Middle East sometimes feel like they have been forgotten by many of the world's Christians. This happens in two ways.
First: Some of the evangelical churches of the west have adopted forms of Christian Zionism that tend to align their churches theology with the Jewish majority in the Holy Land. However, most of the followers of Jesus who live in the Holy Land are Arabs. These local believers don't understand why so many western believers seem to have 'sided' with their oppressors rather than supporting their fellow Christians. This has made Palestinian Christians feel isolated.
Western Christians don't need to choose 'sides' in the Israeli/Palestinian controversy -- but we do need to be fair-minded and to desire solidarity with fellow believers. Positions that hurt Palestinian-Christians need to be questioned. For a quick understanding of the viewpoint of Palestinian Christians here is a link to a podcast by Dr. Gunther Isaac. Dr. Isaac is a Lutheran Pastor and Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College.
Second: Pilgrims from the western nations visiting the Holy Land visit the primary pilgrimage sites, explore about the ancient ruins, read their Bibles and listen to their guides. The local believers who are often present feel like colourful backdrop to their visit -- but usually ignored. A simple word of greeting can lead to amazing conversation. Try saying hello.
The ancestors of the Living Stones built theses Holy Places and often there are worshipping comunities that maintain these buildings.. Without their presence these buildings would be simply museums. But in fact there are worshipping communities of believers who maintain many of these places. They gather to pray and worship weekly - sometimes daily. The Living Stones are a huge blessing to pilgrims.
Living Stones Pilgrimages
I strive to be intentional in planing itineraries to ensure that our pilgrims have opportunity for interaction with the Living Stones. For example we usually visit the Al Shurooq School for the Blind in Beit Sahour and St. Luke's Hospital in Nablus -- where the local church is meeting human need in Christ's name. Sometimes I am able to squeeze a few more similar opportunities into our schedule. On Sundays we always worship with a local congregation: usually at St. George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem and/or Christ Church, Nazareth. In the image above a member of St. George's Congregation is telling me about his life and giving me a small gift.
The Christians of the Holy Land
Virtually every Christian Church denominations has a presence in the Holy Land. Here is overview of the most frequently encountered churches.
The largest church in the Holy Land is the Orthodox Church.
The Roman Catholic Church and its local expressions are called
The "Oriental" Churches are six ancient regional churches that became separated from the rest of the Church due to a theological misunderstanding in the 5th C. It is a blessing to be able to share in their ancient worship.
Armenian Orthodox: The first nation to adopt Christianity as the official religion was Armenia. Jerusalem is home to many members of this ancient church and a visit to St. James' Cathedral is worthwhile.
Syriac Orthodox: This ancient church, centred around Antioch, is one of the world's oldest churches. A visit to St. Mark's Church in Jerusalem is a good visit on a free day. This church uses Syriac in worship
Coptic Orthodox: Coptic was the ancient language of Egypt. The Copts make up the largest middle-eastern church -- and in Jerusalem they are found at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and at St. Anthony's on the Via Dolorosa.
Anglicans & Lutherans
These churches, often called Episcopal or Evangelicals locally, have a presence in the Holy Land since the 19th C. Their congregations today are generally Palestinian Christians. Here is a link to the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem. These churches are small but make a significant contribution with ministries of schools and hospitals.
All of the first Christians were Jewish. Eventually the church became mostly gentile converts, although there have always been some Jewish Christians in the body of Christ. A significant number of messianic believers live and serve in the Holy Land. They are generally conservative evangelicals with a Christian Zionist theology.
Here is a link to a site with more information about the various churches of the Holy Land. Also the Middle East Council of Churches has resources.