Craig Keener asked rhetorically in his commentary on Matthew, “Is it possible that the very criticisms Jesus laid against the religious establishments of his day now stand institutionalized in most of his church?” (IVP Academic, 2011: 334). The answer, of course, is yes.
It is abundantly clear to me and many other Christians (scholars, clergy, and lay commentators alike) that Jesus never intended to start an institution called church. In fact, if anything, he started a movement that was intentionally anti-institution. There is overwhelming evidence of this even in Scripture, but if you would like a brief overview of this idea, please purchase my book In Search of Jesus the Anarchist.
Today, let’s examine what Jesus’s cross and resurrection mean as seen through the tearing of the temple veil in two: “When Jesus took his last breath, at that very moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split” (Mt 27:51).
At least three radical principles can be drawn from this metaphorical statement (since the veil was not actually torn in two):
First, without a veil to separate the people from God’s presence, access to God was made universal by Jesus’s death and resurrection. The veil represents human’s separation from God, and Jesus corrects this erroneous religious construct by his sacrificial death. Thus, with the tearing of the veil, the resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, there is no longer any need for priests to mediate between people and God (1 Tim 2:5). Any individual can access the actual reality and goodness of God.
Second, the power structure of temple worship, the very institution of religious power, was destroyed by the tearing of the veil. The temple veil represented institutional power– the power of a hierarchical priesthood coopted by imperial Rome to oppressively rule over people. Yet, by Jesus’s death and resurrection this power was rendered impotent. Jesus had earlier proclaimed that the time had come for the end of power based religion (Jn 4:23-24).
Third, the notion that only Jews could access the one true God was also nullified by the tearing of the veil in two. There is not a God of the Jews and lesser gods for the rest of the world. There is only one God for all who loves all. St. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, black nor white, gay nor straight, young or old, abled or disabled…. For all are one in Christ!” (Gal 3:28). All religion that excludes based on identity is bad religion.
So, what application should we take from all of this? If we are to follow Jesus then our call is to tear down the dividing walls between people, to flatten all hierarchies in order that all are empowered to be free, and, yes, we need to destroy all the man-made “temples” (institutional religion, capitalism, militarism, imperialism, patriarchalism, etc.) that create oppression, division, and inequality in our world. And we can accomplish this because “The tombs were broken open and the dead came to life…” (Mt 27:52). We have been resurrected to co-create God’s Commonweal of Love on earth as it is heaven (Mt 6:10).
© Paul Dordal, 2017