In J.D. Salinger’s novella “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” traditional ways of thinking are challenged as the main character deals with criticisms of his brother Seymour’s unorthodox attitude toward marriage and usual approach to life. Although the title is not a quotation from Scripture (it is from the poet Sappho), it could well be a motto for church leaders trying to anticipate the church of the future and determine the shape meaningful ministry should take: “Raise high the roof beams, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man.”
How should ministry proceed in a rapidly changing and unorthodox world? One logical way to find out is to re-examine the gospels and discover what pastoral ministry meant to the first Christian communities. If, as the Confession of 1967 puts it, the Bible is “the witness without parallel” (C-9.27), how do the gospels and the teachings of Jesus help us visualize God’s work in the coming church?
One place to begin is with the pastoral emphasis in Mark, the oldest gospel, one that frequently illustrates Jesus’ determination to balance religious tradition with innovation. Although Jesus calls for repentance and preaches the word, he does so in strikingly prophetic ways that raise the roof. The narrative in Mark 2:1-12, for example, is often called “A paralytic healed and forgiven,” but could more readily have the same title as Salinger’s story. Here, Jesus challenges traditional notions about forgiveness, fasting and the significance of the Sabbath while creating a reaction in the community (and among readers?) that is completely unexpected.
An often-overlooked detail in the narrative provides a model for the future of today’s church. The text says that the significant action took place in Jesus’ house in the fishing village of Capernaum when the roof is taken apart to lower a patient before his feet. Although some commentators think that the scene is Peter’s family compound, it is more likely that it is Jesus’ own home. As an adult he made Capernaum his hometown and the house becomes the place of special revelation (see 3:19-20; 5:19,38; 9:28; 11:17), foreshadowing the first house churches (see Acts 2:2,46; 5:42; 10:22, 30; 12:12; 16:15. 34; 18:8; 21:8).
The fact that the roof of this house had to be ripped off because there was standing room only on the ground floor reminds me of a time when I was asked to preach at a special service in a primitive church in Ethiopia. When I complained that the simple building was so dark that I could not read the Scripture or see my notes, an intrepid elder scampered up on the thatched roof and tore off the area over the pulpit to let in the bright sunlight. In Mark’s account when the four friends of the paralytic come up with a new way to make ministry happen, Jesus is not angry about the destruction of property but commends them for their powerful faith.
Without trying to allegorize Mark’s entire story, it is possible that the detail of ripping up the carpenter’s roof points us in a necessary direction. In addition to preaching in traditional ways, we may need to take the risk of raising the roof more often if outsiders are going to hear the gospel and interact with it. Mark’s gospel encourages us to imitate the tall man (Jesus adopted the title Son of Man which may mean “THE Human Being”) and not worry so much if some things are disturbed — or even wrecked — if we truly want to know where God would have us go. When, after all, was the last time the work of our churches elicited such positive gossip in our communities as “we never have seen anything like this before”?
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.