Perhaps some of you know the story about the ladder that has been on a ledge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for over 150 years. The church that claims to be on the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection has an equally well known reputation for being one of the most fraught and conflicted buildings in the Christian world. The events of Jesus’ death and resurrection that the Holy Sepulchre church was built to honour are central to the Christian story of reconciliation between humankind and God. It is a sad irony that the various Christian communities that have been stakeholders in the church have had such suspicious, fraught relationships with one another. Their tensions, that have been known to flare into violence, have run for centuries.
We may shake our heads at the vocal and powerful fundamentalist sector of the world Moslem community, but in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the Moslem community has provided the important neutral space that has allowed this fractured worship space to function as a church. Since 1192 the keys of the church have been held by the same Moslem family and another Moslem family have been the doorkeepers. This was the peacekeeping arrangement by a Moslem Sultan, put in place because the Christian factions did not have enough trust between them to allow one of them to hold the keys for all.
An agreement under Ottoman law in the middle of the 1700s acknowledged the legitimate interests of six different Christian communities in the site – Roman Catholic, Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian. The current demarcation of which area belongs and is the responsibility of which community and which are common to all, was drawn up in another Moslem peacekeeping effort in the middle of the 19th century. Times and places of worship in the common areas are strictly regulated. The current agreement is a fragile truce that even in the last 10 years has been broken by violent incidents.
In 2002 a Coptic monk who was guarding an entrance to a small rooftop monastery that Coptics maintain is their territory moved his chair out of the blistering sun into some shade a few feet away. This was read as an hostile action by Ethiopian monks who already disputed the Coptics claim to the little monastery. Fighting broke out and 11 monks had to be taken to hospital.
Ironically this disputed little monastery on the roof with its two chapels and 26 tiny rooms is in such a dire state of repair because the groups can’t agree about maintenance and responsibility that engineers worry that it may fall down through the roof and into the church.
So the two communities in this dispute are, in their fight to hold to and protect what they see as theirs, placing not only what they are tenaciously holding on to on jeopardy but the whole building itself. This in a building intended to honour the one who talked about forgetting ourselves and surrendering rather than jealously guarding our lives in order to save them.
And the ladder? Sometime in the middle of the 1800s a monk from one community put up a wooden ladder above the main entrance to do some maintenance and a priest from one of the other communities accused the man of trespassing. The ladder is still there…. I can’t help thinking they could do with an earthquake.
A couple of things from today’s reading.
There are two groups Paul is addressing his comments to- one whom he calls the weak in faith – from what he says they are stricter about their religious observance- , Paul mentions vegetarianism (presumably because they were worried about how meat might have been butchered- whether it came from a pagan temple or not) and he also mentions the special honouring of a particular day of the week.
The other group, the strong in faith aren’t overly worried about where their meat comes from and they say that all days are the Lord’s day.
Paul wants these groups to respect each other’s expression of their Christian faith even if it is different to their own. He warns the strong not to treat those who haven’t their freedom in faith like rubbish. Don’t mock them. And he says to the weak don’t judge those who do differently to you- don’t think that they are lax and their faith is hopelessly compromised.
To both he says, ‘Sort out what you think is right for you and do that to honour the Lord, not to justify yourself as intellectually, morally or theologically superior to those whose conscience leads them to do otherwise.
I want to close by saying something about the word, welcome. It is there in verse one when Paul tells the strong in faith to genuinely welcome those who are weak and it is also in verse three. ‘The person who eats meat mustn’t rubbish the person who doesn’t, and the vegetarian mustn’t judge the non vegetarian, because God has welcomed that person.’
It is our experience of God’s welcome and hospitality that unites us, however that works its way out in our lives. We are people whom God is pleased to see. You and I and our brothers and sisters in the Tawa Union family, and the folk from across the road at the Gospel Hall, and down the road at St Christopher’s, and the Sallies, and the Baptists and the New Lifers, and whatever else blooms in this Holy City of Tawa. God has said ‘Welcome’ to all of us…. ALL of us.
It is a lifetime’s education learning the enormity of the welcome, and a lifetime’s transformation learning how to offer that same welcome and hospitality to one another and those around us. Amen.