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The Right and Salutary Way to Destroy the House of the Lord

by Sarah Wilson May 09, 2011

I didn’t realize till I was well past seminary and halfway through internship that the adult Jesus took up residence in Capernaum. I suppose it’s because Christmas focuses our attention on Bethlehem and Nazareth, and then Easter and Pentecost put us in Jerusalem. The other cities of the Gospels slide by, familiar but otherwise meaningless names. Capernaum doesn’t have much in the way of emotional or theological resonances like the other cities do, but I’ve ever since been struck by the fact that Jesus did in fact establish himself in another city as his ministerial base of operations. In the past week, this Jesus-of-Capernaum has startled me once again...

I didn’t realize till I was well past seminary and halfway through internship that the adult Jesus took up residence in Capernaum. I suppose it’s because Christmas focuses our attention on Bethlehem and Nazareth, and then Easter and Pentecost put us in Jerusalem. The other cities of the Gospels slide by, familiar but otherwise meaningless names. Capernaum doesn’t have much in the way of emotional or theological resonances like the other cities do, but I’ve ever since been struck by the fact that Jesus did in fact establish himself in another city as his ministerial base of operations.

In the past week, this Jesus-of-Capernaum has startled me once again. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Mark 2 before, but somehow it just never clicked. Again, I suppose it’s the interference of “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” verse and images of our itinerant Lord traveling from one place to another to proclaim the good news. He certainly did that; but he also had a home, in Capernaum. Actually, more to the point and (to me) more startling: he had a house.

As the second chapter of Mark opens, we are told: “And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home [ὅτι ἐν οἴκῳ ἐστίν].” The ἐν οἴκῳ is a bit vague; presumably, it could have been someone else’s house where he was camping out for the time being. But if we skip ahead to v. 15, we get the confirmation: “And as he reclined at table in his house [ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ], many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.” It wasn’t in just any house—it was in his house that this dinner party took place. Jesus was not only a guest, but also a host; not only a visitor, but also a house-dweller!

This might have remained just another curious fact of the Jesus story for me, if it hadn’t been for the context in which the fact of Jesus’ homeownership was brought to light. For the first episode of Mark 2 is the famous story of the paralytic who couldn’t get near Jesus because of the crowd in the house. His four faithful friends were not to be deterred by the crowd or—as it turns out—by the fact that the house was Jesus’ own. “When they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay” (v. 4). The presumption is staggering. I’d always imagined it be some other obedient victim’s house that got opened like a can of sardines. But Jesus did not perceive damage to his nest: what he saw was “their faith,” and the result was forgiveness of sins and healing of the paralysis.

This remarkable discovery causes me to think of the houses of the Lord in which we find ourselves two millennia down the road. There is much wisdom to be mined from this report, but here are the two items that stick out most to me.

First, I am struck by the fact that Jesus was so surrounded by his followers that the one who needed him most couldn’t physically get to him. You can hardly blame the enthusiastic multitudes for crowding into Jesus’ home to hear his words of life—but the fact is that their enthusiastic crowding became a barrier to the needy. Why, after all, did no one at the front door notice the need of the paralytic man? Why did none of them relinquish their place even temporarily to let the man get what he needed? Or, to make the allegorical leap, why do the crowds in the church actually block the access of the needy to the Lord?

Secondly, I think of the idolatry of the church building. I have seen it and heard it countless times. Dying congregations, or insular and stagnant congregations, or the most involved and active of parishioners, will almost without fail attest that it’s the church building that means the most to them. Anything else can change, anything else can go, but not the building. I have often wondered if the church building itself isn’t the greatest snare to faith—the idol in which our human loves are more truly invested than in God Almighty. This comes through with painful clarity in Europe, where gorgeous monuments of dead faith are nearly empty on Sunday mornings, attracting crowds only for concerts on weeknights. But the same affliction is to be found all over North America, too.

My own inclination is to be ruthless and relentless about church building idolatry, but it is checked to an extent by Mark 2. Jesus had a house. It wasn’t beneath him to have a permanent dwelling-place; it allowed him to be a host, to teach and heal and feed. At the same time, though, the house was only a house, an instrument and not an end in itself. If the need to see Jesus was so great that people had to remove the roof above him and make an opening, so be it. A roof, a house, a church building is not more important than the people who are served in it. It might be a useful exercise for congregations to reflect together on what the present-day equivalent of outsiders making a hole in the roof would be—and how the people of God, gathered around Jesus, would respond to it.

Another difficulty with church buildings

Posted by Robert Saler at May 09, 2011 12:40
This was a very thought-provoking article.
Your points resonate particularly strongly with me because for the past year I have been serving a parish in an area where numerous congregations are struggling financially to maintain, heat, and in many cases pay mortgages on buildings that were constructed to serve 200-plus active members.
Now, congregations that are down to some less than 100 members could conceivably be financially viable and even thriving, were it not for the suffocating building costs that eat up the vast majority of their resources for ministry.
Absent an expensive building, small churches can do wonders; however, I believe it is the case that many American Lutheran church buildings constructed in the mid-20th century days of mainline Protestant dominance are now functioning as significant stumbling blocks to creative and effective ministry.

comment

Posted by readselerttoo at May 09, 2011 15:32
In our parish which includes 4 congregations of tiny size, it is interesting to see that some who are so concerned about the building are less personally connected to themselves and in their relationships. Whereas those who are not fixated on preserving a building indeed "get" what the Gospel message is about, that a permanently fixed relationship with the One over whom death no longer has dominion has become Lord of lives in terms of dispensing mercy and forgiveness within relationships of all types. One needn't have a building to support them in this. These folk are grounded in Jesus' relationship with them as they are grounded in their marriages, families, etc.
At least out here in western Kansas, it seems that there is no space for emptiness because there is always a filling within The Relationship.

I think that Jesus, though he had a house in which to live, was more aware that it was people who wanted his company. This can happen in a rental space even!

Much of people's concern about the church building has to do with their own fearful projections that their investment over the years brought with it some sense of false sentiment of permanency. Permanency is to be found in the Gospel alone not in misplaced projections.

Certified

Posted by Evan McClanahan at May 10, 2011 16:25
Our congregation is also struggling with this, especially since the City of Houston stopped by asking where our Certificate of Occupancy was. To which I basically responded, Certificate of What? How many resources has been and will be spent to get our glorious 1927 building up to code that could be spent doing "real ministry"? How much do I bemoan bureaucrats telling us what we need in terms of a facility? Maybe it's better to cash out now, quit focusing on the building, and do the real work of the gospel. But at the same time, we are situated across the street from a 23,000 student community college, who eat, breath and live Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is a heck of a place for doing ministry. And we have wonderful spaces to work, meet, eat, pray, worship and yes, have an occasional concert. Yes, some of us idolize our building. But I'll be dadgummed if we couldn't do lots of ministry without it. We need not choose between a building and ministry. You need them both.

Keeping the balance

Posted by Padre Dave Poedel at May 10, 2011 19:59
I wholly resonate with Dr. Wilson's sentiments and appreciate her pointing out that little detail about Jesus' domicile. I guess I tended towards the "foxes have holes...." and leftcit at that if I thought of it at all.

Like every Pastor of an aging, urban or rural parish, "feeding the building" becomes the unspoken issue.....or sometimes spoken of too much. We are literally, today, putting the finishing touch on the least glamorous remodel: the restrooms! Now, I have no place to complain because my generous donation of several feet of my study to expand the men's room, I got a remodeled study out of the deal. We took on no debt, and our circa 1951 restrooms were in sorry shape.

At the same time, I saw a need for some balance, so I bought a new set of candles for the altar. Why? To maintain the balance of why we are on 7th Avenue in Phoenix which is Word and Sacrament ministry.. ADA compliant restrooms get us kudos ion the community, Word and Sacrament gives eternal life.

I pray I can always project the balance to our people.

"Neue Bundesländer"

Posted by Johannes U. Oesch at May 10, 2011 19:59
A lot of villages in the Eastern parts of Germany come to my mind. There, the majority of the people is of no faith, due to decades of naziism and communism. Contrary to those destroying the house of the Lord, in many villages the small Lutheran congregations are supported by their unchurched neighbours in refurbishing and reconstructing their medieval churches, many of which are run down during the time of communism. But even the secularized folks feel that their village might lose its soul without the church. Only a few people might join the congragation in this way, but many identify with the awesome building. Hopefully they get the good news of which these buildings are all about!

cool

Posted by Geoff Sinibaldo at May 11, 2011 02:25
I've never heard this Capernum residency piece before - and now I feel like the man born blind who sees. Makes me wonder what else I've missed. I'm sure it's a lot. :)
Thanks!

getting to Jesus

Posted by Neil Ellis Orts at May 11, 2011 17:10
This nicely done, thought provoking article ends with:

"It might be a useful exercise for congregations to reflect together on what the present-day equivalent of outsiders making a hole in the roof would be—and how the people of God, gathered around Jesus, would respond to it."

Yes . . .but . . .

I wonder if people are even looking for Jesus these days, and if they are, are they looking in churches? This is possibly highjacking the discussion into another direction, but of all the "seekers" I know (i.e. religiously unaffiliated people), not many, if any, are looking at church buildings as the place to meet God (never mind anything so specific as Jesus). I worry about the maintenance of a building over ministry, but I keep thinking there must be a new, fundamentally different way to reach new people. I don't know many people even considering entering an open door, much less coming in through the roof.

And maybe that's what we're being asked. If a religiously unaffiliated person isn't considering entering a church building, what is today's equivalent of tearing off a roof to finding Jesus? Under what roof is Jesus? Even more: What do people know of Jesus that they would even *want* to seek him?

some fruitful work

Posted by readselerttoo at May 13, 2011 04:06
Yes...yes...yes. I too am convinced that a roof can be opened in a way that seekers could find solid grounding in Jesus. Method right now is unclear. I sense our local Starbucks might offer some help in terms of the fact that it is used for Bible study both by individuals and groups. I have also made good use of Isaiah 53 as a ground for beginning the conversation with seekers. Perhaps Phillip with the Ethiopian eunuch was on to something!

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