And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mark 15:38)
As soon as Jesus drew his last breath, the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom.
It’s a small detail, especially after the harrowing events of our Lord’s Passion. And yet the rending of the temple curtain is central to the meaning of everything that has happened. The tearing of the curtain symbolizes what Jesus has accomplished in his suffering and death.
When we consider the Passion, it is entirely appropriate to feel the emotional impact of Jesus’ suffering. And yet, we give our hearts most fully to our suffering Lord not with our emotional response to the cruelties he endured, but with our assent to the achievement he has accomplished on our behalf.
That achievement is precisely the message of the torn curtain. The temple’s curtain represents the distance that separates us from the Father. On the Cross, Jesus tears that curtain.
|Rembrandt’s “Christ on the Cross”|
In Temple worship, the curtain hung at the entrance of the Holy of Holies, the site of the very presence of God. On behalf of the people a priest entered that place once a year, and only after offering a blood sacrifice to purify him from his own sin.
Then, the priest would offer sacrifice for the sin of the entire people of Israel. He offered a sacrifice of atonement. It closed the distance between God and his people. That sacrifice drew them close to God once again, but another sacrifice would have to be offered the very next year, and all the succeeding years.
On the Cross, Jesus draws his followers close to God once and for all. As we read in Hebrews: “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.” (Hebrews 10:19-20)
The tearing of the curtain symbolizes Christ’s most central work: he overcomes the distance between the Father and us. To understand the curtain as a symbol of Jesus’ work, we need to look first at what sort of distance we have from the Father, then at how Christ’s suffering overcomes that distance, and finally at what accepting that sacrifice for us personally means for our everyday life.
So let’s look first at what it really means to be distant from God.
“Distance” is a metaphor, of course. We don’t really think that the problem in our relationship with God is that he is many miles away. Instead, our distance from God is measured in spiritual and emotional terms similar to what we sometimes experience in our human relationships as well.
When we say that someone seems distant, we mean that he or she won’t let us into his or her interior life. The thoughts and feelings of his or her heart are inaccessible to us.
We don’t say that complete strangers seem distant. Well of course they are. We have no other expectation. We feel the kind distance I’m talking about only when we have known and have become accustomed to an intimate closeness.
Let me put it this way. Australia is always a long way off, but that really never matters to me. If my wife Joy is distant, my world has a crack in it. Even if I were in Sydney and Joy were in Shreveport, she would be closer to me than Australia could ever be.
Now here is the key. God is not distant from us. He is not withholding himself or withdrawing. We have drawn a distance between God and us.
|El Greco’s “Pieta”|
We don’t want God to see us as we are. That’s just what the story of Adam and Eve teaches us. Remember that after they ate of the forbidden fruit, they hid from God, and they even hid from each other by assembling makeshift clothing out of leaves. (Genesis 3:7-10)
They learned to hide. There were things about themselves that they were not proud of. They were sure that anyone who saw what they were really like on the inside would reject them. And so they put up a barrier. A curtain.
We don’t want anyone—especially God—to see us like this. And so we keep our distance.
Now let’s look at how Jesus’ sacrifice overcomes that distance.
Some people seem convinced that if God saw us the way we really are, it would destroy us. If we drew close to God as sinners, we would be consumed by his wrath. It would be like grabbing hold of an electric fence or putting our hands on a hot stove. Being close to God, in other words, would result in a crushing condemnation.
In the Cross we see that God has already drawn close to us. Contrary to everything we might have thought, God has sent his Son so that we can be close. He not only sees us for how we are but has embraced us.
This is really what it means to say that God loves us just the way we are. There is terrible pain and suffering when God embraces us. But it is God’s Son who suffers so that we can be close to our Father.
Jesus’ death erases our sins. When we accept that Jesus died for us, personally, then every shabby, mean, self-centered, indifferent, or destructive thing we have ever done has been forever wiped away from the eternal record book. As the author of Hebrews puts it:
“He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15)
Accepting Jesus’ love means acknowledging his suffering as the cost of that love. We can never earn or repay such a precious gift. And we know deep down that our lives would be empty and pointless without it.
It is remarkable enough to realize that God loves us this much, that he reaches out to us at the cost of his own suffering.
But there is more. You and I are not the same old person we were before accepting Jesus. Jesus embraces us just as we are, but that embrace doesn’t leave us how he found us.
And this takes us to our final point.
Accepting that Jesus suffered for us personally transforms our everyday life. Following the crucified and risen Christ is not just a ticket to a comfortable afterlife. It is an eternal way of living that we begin, albeit very feebly, right here amid the messiness of the world we actually inhabit.
|Anastasis of Monastery in Chora|
His embrace does more than take away our sins. Jesus gives us a heart transplant. As the prophet Ezekiel says, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
Sin issues from the heart, the fallen heart that each and every one of us is born with. As Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” (Mark 7:21-22)
If Jesus only cleans up the debris left over from our past, we are left the same old slobs who made that mess in the first place. We would simply do it again. Nothing fundamental changes.
But in Jesus Christ, as the apostle Paul says, we are a new creation. (2 Cor. 5:17) Jesus gives us a new heart.
You might think that I’m going to say that we have a heart that can love. But that is not the foundation. Jesus gives us a heart that knows that it is loved.
Once we have dropped all our pretenses and given ourselves over to the mercy we can never merit and yet desperately need, we can finally experience the inextinguishable, unrelenting love we have longed for all along.
When we give ourselves to Jesus, we start from being the beloved. We are forever free from proving to ourselves or to anyone else that we are worthy of love. That our existence is justified. That we are somebody.
Shame, fear, condescension, contempt, and loneliness are now archaic entries in our spiritual lexicon.
Instead, we are free to spend our time on mercy and compassion instead of scrambling to make our own lives significant.
It takes time to get used to this new heart. But the more deeply we commit to following Christ, the clearer the truth becomes.
We don’t have to hide anymore. Jesus has already torn the temple curtain.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, Louisiana, on Palm Sunday, 2012.