The immovable ladder

The city of Jerusalem is the holiest place in the world for Jews—the Western Wall is all that remains of their ancient temple. It is part of King Herod’s foundation for the platform on which the temple once stood. Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest place—on the former temple mount sit the Al-Aqsa Mosque (A.D. 705) and the Dome of the Rock (A.D. 695), believed by pious Muslims to be the place where Muhammad made his night journey to heaven.

Jerusalem is pretty special to Christians too. Significant events in the life of Christ took place there, including his judgment, crucifixion, and resurrection. The chief pilgrimage site is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built originally in the 4th century and rebuilt in the 11th, believed to be located on the very site of Christ’s tomb. Every Easter Saturday the Orthodox Patriarch enters the chapel to pray and emerges with his candles miraculously lit with “holy fire,” to great shouts of rejoicing by the excited faithful watchers.

Since various Christian denominations had been fighting so long and even violently over control of the building, the Turkish sultan, whose massive empire long contained the historic land of Israel, entrusted two Muslim Arab families with authority to manage the building. One family gets to guard the key, and the other gets to unlock the great doors.

The oddest and most visible sign of that Christian infighting has to be the “immovable ladder.” You approach the church from the large stone terrace. As you look above the twin entrance portals, there are two matching large arched windows above a balcony. And leaning against the wall beneath the window at the right is a small wooden ladder of five rungs. It sits there, year after year. Nobody uses it. It has been leaning there since at least 1757 (I’m not making this up—you can look it up yourself). Nobody remembers who put it there or for what purpose—probably just some routine cleaning or maintenance of the stonework or window. The sultan’s “status quo” agreement means that the six competing groups—the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox—cannot change a thing in the building or its furnishings without unanimous consent. They have never been able to agree on what to do with the ladder, and so there it stays.

There is probably no better example in all of Christendom of tradition for tradition’s sake; of majoring in minors; of the paralysis that comes from the lack of trust, kindness, and respect between Christians of competing denominations. “Like a mighty turtle moves the church of God; brothers, we are treading where we’ve always trod.”

Does your congregation ever get bogged down in arguing over trivia? Do you have your own immovable ladders? How can you personally keep your organization’s focus on what matters—connecting people with Christ, sharing Word and sacrament, discipling children, reaching out to the community, and organizing acts of service and mercy?

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of several books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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