I invite you to take a tour with me. Like most journeys this past year, it will have to be virtual. But I want you to imagine that you are in the place that became known as Jesus’ home. We typically think of Him as being One who had no place to lay His weary head. But in Mark 2:1 we read, “When he returned to Capernaum, after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” Even though Jesus walked hundreds of miles to bring the Good News of a loving God to many small towns and the big city of Jerusalem, He had a place that He called home.
The name of that village is Capernaum and it sits at the far northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. I had the great privilege of walking in Jesus’ footsteps there several years ago and found it impactful because of its authenticity. I’m want to share a few pictures with you from the archaeological excavation of Capernaum.
In the verses that precede this passage, Jesus entered their synagogue on the Sabbath. He went into their sanctuary and the people were astounded at the authority with which He taught.
Our group of 15 people were there in October of 2017. I was able to walk through the stately remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century AD.
I peered out the window and felt the breeze that wafted up the hill from the Sea of Galilee. I sat on a bench that stretches along the west wall of that structure, trying to wrap my heart around the fact that Christ had been healing and teaching in that same spot, even if a few feet lower than where I sat.
Several foundations are stacked on top of each other. You can see the lowest exposed foundation is angled to the ground and is not flat. Subsequent foundations needed to correct the sagging that inevitably happens over the course of decades. You can see how the top foundation provides a flat and stable footing for the synagogue constructed on the ruins of Jesus’ synagogue several hundred years later. Thousands of first century coins were found in the Capernaum synagogue, reminding us that people have historically sacrificed from their livelihoods, no matter how meager, to maintain the costs associated with congregational life.
After astounding the faithful in that synagogue with His authoritative teaching, we read that Jesus headed to the home of Peter and his brother, Andrew. This is not a long walk—only about 100 feet south of the synagogue. We can assume that these brothers were very involved in the life of their congregation.
The scriptures tell us that they had moved their families from Bethsaida, which is on the northeastern side of the lake. The tariffs on processed fish were collected at the customs office that was manned by Levi at Capernaum. Jesus called him to leave his hated position to became one of the twelve disciples. If the two brothers lived in Capernaum, they didn’t have to pay that tariff. So two astute businessmen who fished for a living left Bethsaida and settled five miles west in Capernaum.
As you make the 100-foot walk between the synagogue and Peter’s home you can see the excavation of a neighborhood. Believed to house a population of between 1000 and 1500 residents in Jesus’ time, it is always referred to in the Gospels as a city. It was near a major trade route and the fishing industry was prosperous. We can assume Peter and Andrew made a good living as fishermen.
As was common of any ancient settlement, folks clustered their homes together. This offered protection against the elements and possible intruders. It also meant that neighbors were easily able to recognize need in their community since everyone lived so closely together. These would have been modest homes that consisted of several roofed rooms clustered around an open courtyard. Each home or compound opened out onto the street. Peter and Andrew lived in a double lot, indicating that they raised their families together. Walls were built of drystone black basalt that would not have supported a second story. The areas that were covered had roofs made of crisscrossed tree branches melded together with a natural mud clay. The whole of the village covers a one-mile stretch of land that has been largely excavated.
As you approach Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law suffered in bed, you will only be able to get so far in our walking tour today. Walls surround sacred history and a church building sits atop these precious ruins! Early pilgrims to the faith turned Peter’s house into a chapel. There is evidence that the walls of the home were enlarged at one point. Different unearthed items dating back to the first century reveal that the private home became a place of public gathering for worship purposes. Small pots for cooking and fish hooks for domestic industry were replaced with lamps and large storage jars.
As early as 50 AD, one large room stood out from others. The walls, arched ceiling, and floors were plastered smooth, which was unlike the other modest buildings in the city. Graffiti on those walls sends a message from some of the earliest believers that they were Christians: “Christ have mercy” and “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant.” The numerous crosses indicate that this space was used for worship. The two large courtyards opened onto the main street where crowds gathered outside Peter’s door hoping for healing. In this story these devout Jews waited until the sun set so as to honor the laws of the sabbath. The cross that you see at the far side of the structure identifies the place where early pilgrims believed the crowds stood in hopeful expectation.
You can’t get too close to the interior room believed to have housed Jesus because it is protected. In the 4th century Peter’s house was set apart from the rest of the town with an enclosure wall.
In the 5th century an octagonal church was built over it to serve the multitude of pilgrims who journeyed to the sacred sight. A new church has since been built atop this holy space. The floor serves as a clear window through which you can look into this 1st century chapel. It has become cloudy after years of use by countless pilgrims. But the sense of holiness that I felt as I looked into the space that Jesus called home was overwhelming. It was here that Jesus rebuked the fever that Peter’s mother-in-law was fighting, as if it were a wild creature that had a hold of her. In that space she served Jesus and the other men out of a profound sense of gratitude.
The verb for her service is the same one that describes the work of church deacons. In essence, this recovered woman “deaconed” Jesus and she became the first individual to serve Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Later, while teaching a sold-out crowd in this intimate space, friends of a paralyzed man clawed a hole into the roof above Jesus’ makeshift classroom and lowered the helpless man into the room. Jesus “deaconed” him by restoring health and mobility to him.
Capernaum was home to Jesus. It quickly became a destination for people seeking miraculous healing, like the pilgrims who travel long distances to Guadalupe or Fatima. Capernaum was home for Jesus but it wasn’t restful. He became their local celebrity and their streets clogged with visitors when He was in residence. Verse 33 states that “the whole town gathered at the door.” Word spread quickly and everyone wanted a piece of Jesus. Townies seldom appreciate tourists except for the income they bring into the village. So, after the healing, the two brothers wanted to keep Jesus to themselves. They hoarded His enviable power, wanting to make sure He always had a reserve for them. But, when they awakened the next morning, Jesus was gone. They found Him in a solitary place and bubbled over with enthusiasm: “Everyone is looking for you!”
I wonder what Jesus was praying about early in the morning while it was still dark? His overnight success made it clear that devotional time with God would be hard to find. Maintaining any balance between public and private was going to be a challenge. Did He ask God to give Him direction about where His earthly home would be? Should He stay in Capernaum, the place He called home, and settle for being a big fish in a small pond? Was His ministry to be a one-town wonder? Was His prayer offered in the words of a song from the ‘80’s: Should I stay or should I go?
Like a gentle breeze that scatters the seeds of a dandelion, Jesus knew the answer. The Spirit would be His guide, leading Him from town to town along the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful area where rural life was valued by hard-working people. The Spirit would lead Jesus to Jerusalem where He would ultimately give up His life for the sake of a needy crowd and a band of greedy disciples. Those who flocked to Him for His healing touch would ultimately nail His hands to a cross and reject the wholeness He offered. In the dark of that morning in a solitary place Jesus knew that He wouldn’t be one to settle down. He would disappoint His disciples by pushing on, away from their families and a familiar life they loved on the lakeshore. There were too many people like the beloved woman who languished with a fever in a town named Capernaum. Jesus told the men to pack their bags because time was short and the list of needs was long. As inviting as it seemed, Jesus knew He needed to leave home.
We know from the archaeological data that there were two communities that coexisted peacefully in 1st century Capernaum: Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. The movement Jesus started in the synagogue moved into Peter’s house. The rock upon whom Jesus would build His Church opened his home as the first Christian sanctuary. Merely 100 feet apart, these two worship spaces shaped a peaceful community that Jesus called home. Isn’t it interesting that our Christian faith took root not in sacred buildings but in humble homes of ordinary people? We’ve learned this year that our faith cannot be reliant on a building. This year we had to leave our spiritual homes in order to stay together as congregations. Our ministry has not stopped. I hear stories of soup being dropped off on folks’ doorsteps, flowers being delivered to surprised widows and carols being sung to the person still recovering from surgery. We may have left the buildings but we’re traveling with Jesus each time we pick up the phone or drop a card in the mail to offer words of encouragement to a lonesome friend. We’re on the road with Jesus when we take time to pray for the church member who just received a difficult diagnosis. We practice our faith when we confess our needs and patiently wait for God’s answer. We’ve chosen to get out of our comfort zone when we take a stand for our beliefs by peacefully marching in our communities. The life of faith requires us to leave home knowing that a world awaits our ministry. We stretch our boundaries assured that worship happens anywhere—and everywhere…because Jesus goes with us. Ironically, it is as we follow after Him, searching for wholeness, that He brings us home.