Today, I took communion with the community called Axis, my youth group, for the last time. Our pastor gave us a chance to share what communion meant to us and what it meant for us today, December 16, 2007. I was the last of the students to share. For me, communion has always been a reminder of the Global Church, the body of Christ not only all around the world today, but the Church across all the centuries, the men and women of God who have remembered the sacrifice of Jesus at communion for 2000 years. Really, it started with the Exodus, at Passover, a physical action that commemorates God’s faithfulness for all eternity. And though this group is being separated, with some staying here and some called to different churches and new ministries, we are still a part of the Church. It’s not about Hillcrest Church or Axis Student Ministries, but it is about Jesus and His Kingdom. We are a part of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and though I may not physically take from the same cup with this group again, I am in communion with the body of Christ, and that will never change.
The land of Israel is a place like none other on earth. The desire to experience it has captivated empires, conquerors, and pilgrims for centuries. This desire is not easily explained to those who have not been to the Holy Land. Some describe the feeling as similar to the comfort of coming home. For others, it is a chance to live and experience history. To me, Israel offers a deep sense of reality, a confirmation of faith and truth. This is where the battles of the Old Testament were fought. This is where the apostles preached. This is where Jesus grew and lived and walked. This is reality. However, at the Garden Tomb, this mindset is embodied like nowhere else.
It is early June 2001 in the Middle East. My family and I are nearing the end of our two-week trip, having toured the countryside of Judea and Galilee before our final days in Jerusalem. The sun blazes down, reminding us of how we have spent more time walking about today than traveling on the air-conditioned tour bus. I sit on a wooden bench under a pavilion tent with the rest of the group. My mom and brother are behind me; my dad is near the railing of the visitor’s lookout, video camera ever-present and filming. The only other American kid sits with his dad nearby to my right. Native Bible translators and pastors from Africa and Asia fill the area around us. Pastor Syvelle Phillips, who founded Evangel Bible Translators nearly 30 years earlier, has brought all of the pastors of EBT together to tour the land of Israel, knowing that Bible translation is done with more efficiency and accuracy if the translator has studied the land and culture of the Bible. Our family of four is the lone remnant of nearly 100 Americans who once planned to come with EBT to tour Israel before fear of terrorism caused them to reconsider. We have come to serve and learn from these men and women of God.
The scene set before us is one imagined and captured in media many thousands of times in the past 2000 years. It is not how I pictured it. There are no frightening storm clouds; the sky is not black with terror and death. The city sounds of the street behind us – cars roaring past while honking horns, people going about their daily lives, the commotion of the bus stop that sits between us and the hill – conflicts with my mental image of a dark heaviness smothering the scene. Of course, the plastic grocery sacks and other trash on the hill, framed by a chaotic bus station, rotating electric fans, and colorful tourist hats, add to the surreal qualities of modern day Golgotha.
We stand and walk a few yards further, entering the grounds of the Garden Tomb. As if we had entered another world, the noise of the city drops out. The atmosphere is saturated with peace and serenity. The confusing collision of ancient and modern cultures is left behind. We are surrounded by tropical plants, full of vibrant green life and colorful flowers. Paths are clearly marked by ancient pavement or white gravel. The site is mostly empty, save our group and a few people praying on benches set back amongst the foliage.
Before we come to the tomb itself, we approach a large winepress, the most compelling evidence that this is a garden tomb in the Biblical Greek sense of the phrase. My attention wanders, and my brother and I begin to quietly argue about something of great importance. I am sure moments like this made my parents occasionally wonder why they took the effort to bring a ten-year-old and a six-year-old halfway around the world. After a few threatening looks and a fireside chat from Mom, I distance myself from Robert for a few minutes. I study a sign posted along one of the trails, with the resurrection account written in English and Hebrew, and shame fills me. I am at the place where Jesus died for my sins and conquered death once for all, and I cannot find it within me to love Robert and obey my parents? Something is wrong with this picture.
I rejoin my family, no longer desiring to argue. We are near the tomb now, a cave carved out of white rock. Two large ancient crosses are etched in the stone. Off to the side, there is a stone lip and track which probably once held a large stone to seal the entrance. I go inside with Mom and Robert. There is room for a few people to stand inside without being pressed against the wrought iron fence surrounding the actual burial spot. This is the unfinished tomb of a rich man, as Scripture indicates, even if this is not the exact location. For a few minutes we stand, look, and take pictures, soaking in the significance of this place, before turning to exit. Above the door, a plaque contains a single simple sentence. The impact of the words cannot be overestimated, as they have forever changed history. “He is not here; He is risen!”
We sit down on benches near the tomb, designed for tour groups like ours. Pastor Phillips stands before the group, his red shirt hanging loose over his bent, thin frame. His voice and hand shake as he holds high the communion cup and addresses us, more from pure emotion than age or exertion. “We come to a place like this to remember. We take communion because we were commanded by Jesus to remember. It is a good thing to set aside time to stop and remember what God has done. The Romans did a similar thing to what we’re about to do. Roman soldiers, like those who ruled here 2000 years ago, swore allegiance to Caesar. He was their god. They would be dispatched all over the empire in his service, but they were required to come back every seven years to Rome. They would stand before Caesar, participate in a pagan ritual, reiterate their loyalty, and pledge and recommit their lives to him. We do not in any way want to emulate pagans or non-godly practices. We worship one God. But it is good to come to a place like this to remember, to recommit our lives and our focus to God, to pledge ourselves to His service.”
This comes from a man who has devoted his whole life to the Gospel, having been ordained as a teenager. I am surrounded by heroes of the faith, men and women on the front lines who sacrifice everything, even to the point of death. We sit and we think about the significance of this moment, at the place that defined all of history 2000 years ago. We eat the matzah cracker, virtually no different than the bread Jesus offered His disciples when he first offered it as remembrance for His body, soon to be broken. We drink the juice, a sign of the new covenant created by His shed blood. We pray. We remember. And we commit our lives, again, to the Resurrected One, to follow Him even unto death.
Mere hours later, we gather as a body for one last time. It is Sunday morning, and the smoke of the first car bomb of the new intifada hangs thick in the air, just blocks from our hotel. Pastor Phillips again speaks, emotion choking his voice. “When I was a boy, we would sing a hymn called ‘I’ll Meet You At The Eastern Gate,’ referring not to the physical wall surrounding us, but heaven.” He gestures towards the door, where outside smoke fills the sky. “We do not know what life holds. It is unlikely that we will be able to gather all together like this again in this life. But we trust God, and we will all meet again at the Eastern Gate.” We sing and we pray and we weep and we leave that place, knowing that God had spoken to each of us in a life-altering manner that will never be forgotten.
Fast forward six years. It is early July, and I sit in a church in Calcutta, India, at the end of two weeks with many of the same precious people. We prepare to take communion again, and I remember. I remember what Jesus has done for me, and what the daily action of applied remembrance looks like. It is the second time I have been privileged to be in community with heroes and saints of whom the world is not worthy. I remember how they worship in the midst of grieving a martyred co-worker. I remember how everything they do, with all of their being, is done for the glory of God and the sake of His Name. I remember the call Pastor Phillips gave at the Garden Tomb to take time every several years to re-evaluate and recommit. Today’s call to worship, to daily take up my cross and follow Jesus, still rings in my ears. As I participate in the ancient, holy ritual of a physical sign of remembrance, communion, I make a decision in my heart, of which the consequence is yet to be discovered. I will worship God alone. I will pledge my life in service to my God, regardless of where it takes me. I will live my life as if I remember.