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