Take the elevated train north from Philadelphia’s Center City, and you soon find yourself in a post-industrial wasteland. Old factory buildings are surrounded by boarded-up row houses, interrupted by empty lots where plastic bags from corner stores roll like tumbleweeds. You might mistake some blocks here for a ghost town, except for the ceaseless noise that arises from the chaotic lives of people who are not so much ghosts as dead men walking—lives abandoned when everyone who could get out of this place did. The souls who were left to scrounge in these ruins eke out their existence from plastic wrappers and brown paper bags. Heroin has left so many of their eyes hollow that they mostly look down—or through you—when you pass them on the street. The train car rattles away overhead, stirring a wind at your back that brings with it the smell of urine mixed with dust. You have come to an abandoned place.
In the midst of this urban desert, on Norris Street, a sign hangs over a simple door, proclaiming “New Jerusalem Now.” Here, the sidewalk is swept clean. If you follow it past the house, you can see a garden in full bloom, flowers surrounding Swiss chard and heirloom variety tomatoes, ripe on the vine. An inner-city oasis, this community is home to a couple of religious sisters and fifty recovering addicts. They begin their day with an hour of group Bible study, followed by household chores and two and half hours of community service. Members of the community feed their neighbors, tend the garden, run a small biodiesel station, and offer Alternatives to Violence seminars. In the living room where they study Scripture together, a sign hangs on the wall: “My recovery will never be complete until I help to heal the society that made me sick.”
For these brothers and sisters, healing begins on Norris Street. The new life they seek is not far away in a land they dream of, but right here in the abandoned neighborhood they call home. Though this street has been overlooked by city government, “red-lined” by lenders, avoided by real estate agents, and preyed on by hucksters, God is present on Norris Street. It’s not just a feeling some people have here; you can see it. “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,” the apostle John writes in his Revelation. If you listen closely to the people who are finding new life at New Jerusalem Now, they echo the declaration that accompanied John’s vision: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people.”
From the very beginning of the story of God’s people, the promise of life with God is tied to a place on earth. God’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation is not only a promise of children, but also of land: “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
Conviction about promised land gives rise to the agony of Israel’s exile: “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?” Relationship with God is so connected to relationship with the land that Israel cannot initially imagine worship in a new and foreign place. But this crisis of dislocation does not sever Israel’s connection to place; it radically redefines it. “Seek the peace of the city to which I have carried you into exile,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah. Place matters, but Israel learns in Babylon that their God can hallow any ground. Indeed, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” When we pay attention to our story, the centrality of our place on earth emerges as an essential element of what it means to be people of God’s promise.
But we are not accustomed to being placed people. For all of the ways our story ties us to the ground from which we’re made and the particular places where our God has met us, we also live in a culture of placelessness. We pride ourselves in being “global citizens” who know more about what’s happening in New York and Tokyo than we know about the contours of the watershed in which we live and move and feed our children. While local culture may seem quaint (especially when we’re on vacation), the ways and means of local places are not our standard models of success. The place we call home in a technological era is increasingly the bedroom community from which we connect by Internet or airplane with the people and issues that matter to us, wherever they happen to be.
Still, we long for home—for community, for roots, for a basic sense of belonging. No one knows this better than our marketing firms. A thousand times a day, we are sold the experience of home. Whether it’s in a car, a bank, or a cup of coffee, we are invited to buy a little bit of the stability that we can’t seem to find in a culture where most of us are always on the go. But when the gift we were made for is reduced to a commodity, it cannot satisfy. A placeless culture threatens to hold us captive in the cyberspace of endless desire.
But God’s desire for us is still more powerful. Scattered though we may be by the desires of our twisted selves, God insists on meeting us in the particularity of our daily lives. The chaos of a blighted neighborhood is interrupted by a New Jerusalem Now. The busy life of a contemporary church goer is confronted by words plainly spoken by a pastor tearing a piece of bread: “This is my body, broken for you.” These signs are not the norm in our world, but neither are they an anomaly in the story of God’s people. Concrete interruptions, they point to the peculiar way God is in the habit of breaking into a broken world.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”: strange as it seems, God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and to Israel that God would make a home with us. God dwells with people in the particularity of our place and culture, not so we can learn to transcend these particularities, but so that we can know that our material lives have been redeemed. To stand with Jesus is to stand on holy ground.
The places where we live matter because we are, each of us, invited to participate in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. The New Testament calls the church the “body of Christ” because it assumes that Jesus’ incarnation on the ground that was hallowed by his presence is extended into all the earth through the flesh and blood of people who have died to themselves and found new life by the Spirit. To live a life “in Christ” is to live in place, growing day by day into the fullness of the One who showed us how to engage our world faithfully. It is to pray not only with our words, but with our whole lives, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Standard recovery wisdom says that if you want to change habits, you have to change people, places, and things. When addicts return to their old environments, they easily slip into old patterns. Programs that effectively relocate people have a lower relapse rate. Recovery is always a long road, but it usually begins by getting folks out of the mess they were in. For those who are shackled by addiction, freedom often looks like leaving.
While this wisdom is certainly part of the program at New Jerusalem Now—everyone begins with a fifty day “black out,” during which they have no contact with outsiders—this community’s presence in North Philadelphia is enough of a contradiction to raise the question: why would people serious about recovery decide to stay here? Why does this place matter?
Gary is a Lazarus. He inhabited the tombs of North Philadelphia for far more than three days, and he bore the stench to prove it. But over a decade ago, he was raised to new life at New Jerusalem Now. He helps to run the program now, a living testimony to people who are just beginning the process that the dead are raised to life in this place. His presence brings to mind the question that the Lord asked Ezekiel when he led him to an abandoned place, littered with dry bones: “Can these bones live?”
Resurrection is the hope that Israel’s prophets point to, anticipating Jesus not as a magic ball claims to know the future, but as a good composer knows where her song is going because everything points her in that direction. While a system of death lays claim to our lives and frustrates God’s good creation, the constant hope of our story is that death does not have the last word. The same Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation can rattle bones together and cover tendons with flesh, restoring life to a glory that even exceeds its original goodness. This is what we see in the resurrection of Jesus, but it is already there in the prophet Ezekiel—already breaking forth in the lives of Lazarus and Gary. Ours is one story, start to finish.
If we pay attention to Ezekiel, however, we gain an appreciation for the way God’s hope for us is tied to the land. In the chapter before the great valley of dry bones passage, the Lord instructs Ezekiel to prophesy concerning the land: “But you, O mountains of Israel, will produce branches and fruit for my people, Israel, for they will soon come home. I am concerned for you and will look on you with favor; you will be plowed and sown.” These tender words of care are spoken as to a dearly beloved child. They are the song of a God who loves people and land alike, remembering that we are but dust that has been kissed by the eternal music.
But God’s words are not directed toward soil in general; they are for the particular land that was promised to Abraham—the mountain from which Israel had been exiled when Ezekiel prophesied. This land is holy in a way that other places are not, because God has promised to dwell among the people in this place. To understand how God saves us all through the one man, Jesus Christ, we have to internalize the peculiar logic of a God who blesses the whole world by calling one place holy.
Something about this rubs most of us the wrong way. We prefer a franchise model. If you want to reach the whole world with an idea or a product, common sense says that you start with something that can be easily replicated everywhere. Don’t get too caught up in the details and local particularities. The franchise model says, “Focus on the big picture—on the things we all have in common.” Cheap food that tastes good appeals to most people. Put a logo on that concept, and with some good marketing, you can serve billions.
Why, then, does the God who “so loved the world” get all wrapped up in the particularities of Israel and their place rather than universalizing the principle of love? The answer, it seems, is tied up in the story that we have been given. “Salvation is of the Jews,” Michael Wyschogrod writes, “because the flesh of Israel is the abode of the divine presence in the world. It is the carnal anchor that God has sunk into the soil of creation.” While we might speculate about other possibilities, the only story we know about our Creator is one in which Israel is the “carnal anchor” sunk deep in Palestine for the salvation of us all.
Incarnation, then, is not just about the second person of the Trinity becoming human. It is about Jesus getting born of a Jewish mother in Bethlehem of Judea. Our God does not offer a general and universal blessing on the world, but blesses the particular people of Israel in their particular place so that they can be a real blessing to all the nations of the earth. The good news that the church proclaims, then, is not a universalized “spiritual” message about our eternal status. It is, always, a particular invitation to become part of a placed people in the world.
We are not a franchise with billions served. We are a body rooted in Israel, called to hallow every place.
The church has struggled to internalize this from our very beginning. Paul, who began preaching the good news about Jesus in the synagogues of the Jewish diaspora, struggled to articulate a gospel for all people that was, nevertheless, “to the Jew first, but also to the Greek.” What was manifestly clear from his experience, and later confirmed by the Jerusalem Council, was that God was moving to gather Jews and Gentiles into a new kind of community. This was the same God who had chosen to dwell among the people of Israel since Sinai. But this God’s particular presence was manifest in a radically new way. The same Spirit that gave life to Jesus’ body was now inhabiting the particular flesh of Jews and Gentiles in Jerusalem and Antioch, Ephesus and Corinth, Philippi and Rome. “Don’t you know,” Paul wrote to the early Christians living at Corinth, “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?”
As living members of Christ’s body in the world, the church existed in the particular places of the first century world as a temple, hosting God’s presence and hallowing ground that had formerly been devoted to other gods (or simply viewed as real estate). When the blood of so many of those early saints was spilled out, they not only became martyrs in the church’s memory; they, like Jesus, transformed the places where they worshiped and died. Their graves became holy ground, every bit as much as the temple mountain in Jerusalem.
Our resistance to God’s way of engaging the world through particular people and places is not new. As the early church began to make sense of God’s movement within the Greco-Roman world, its teachers recognized a tension between the deity philosophers imagined and the God who took on human flesh in Jesus. Many of the early heresies of the church—Gnosticism, Docetism, Arianism—were attempts make Jesus a little more spiritual and a little less bound up in the messiness of matter and the particularity of Israel.
What orthodoxy insisted on again and again, however, was that the Jewish man Jesus was in fact the Creator of the universe—the Word made flesh to dwell among us. Athanasius, who stood against the Arian heresy in the 4th century, wrote that the God who impressed the divine image on humanity in the beginning “secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place” (emphasis mine). The grace that was refused by Adam and Eve in Eden was received by Abraham and Sarah in Israel. Though their faith was but the size of a mustard seed, it took root in such a way that salvation came to all the earth through their family in Jesus. From start to finish, grace is dependent on a place.
Jesus, then, is not just the promised son through whom all the world will be blessed; he is also, in his very Jewish flesh, the Promised Land that transforms every place. Early in John’s gospel, Jesus makes a navigational decision that would have stood out to Jews of his day. Rather than walk around Samaria as good Jews had done since the time when Samaritans intermarried with their Assyrian occupiers, Jesus walks straight through Samaria. When he gets thirsty in the midst of enemy territory, Jesus sits down by a well and asks a Samaritan woman for a drink.
This woman is as surprised by Jesus as John’s reader would have been, but in the course of their conversation, Jesus and the Samaritan woman get around to talking about their peoples’ argument about place. “‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’” Just a normal person on the street, this woman is attentive to her people’s connection to place. She knows place has everything to do with worship. “Which is the true holy ground?” she asks.
Jesus’ answer is to the point: “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” Clearly, this is a new day. Jesus’ presence has radically altered the definition of holy ground. But Jesus has not come to break the promise of holy land; he is here to fulfill it. When Jesus says, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” we are quick to focus on the spirit that floats above real places—on a divine principle that can now be applied in every place.
But the woman who has met Jesus is much closer to the truth of the ground. Remembering God’s promises to Israel, she says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes he will explain everything to us.” Jesus responds that he is Messiah—he is the One who has come to fulfill God’s promises. Yes, God is spirit. But the Spirit that hovered over the Ark of the Covenant is now present in Jesus. God’s Spirit has a carnal anchor in the world.
The argument between the Samaritans and the Jews was about the presence of God’s Spirit in the ark. Both groups had a memory of possessing the ark in their place, yet after their return from exile, neither group could produce it. Neither could prove God’s presence in the here and now. At this point in John’s gospel, the Spirit has descended upon Jesus at his baptism, and Jesus has claimed to be the temple himself, telling the Pharisees in Jerusalem, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The signs of the story tell us what John declares in his prologue: the Word has become flesh and made his dwelling here among us.
Here in Samaria, with a woman at a well, Jesus makes clear how his incarnation redefines place. This woman is invited to worship God where she is—to see that she stands on holy ground—not because “God is everywhere” in an abstract sense, but because Jesus is here in the flesh. Wherever Jesus is standing with us, we can worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Wherever we stand “in Christ,” we are to be about hallowing our place.
This essay is dapted from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Awakening of Hope (Zondervan, 2012), which is available with an accompanying DVD for small group use.