Honor the Torn Curtain

Mark 15:38

 

March 25, 2018

 

Grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            Today is the beginning of Holy Week – the best time of the year for Christians. That’s because during this week we celebrate our redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And on today, Passion Sunday, we have a summary of that week – with the recounting of the death of Jesus on the cross.

 

At the Death of Jesus

Did you notice when you heard the long Gospel reading that at the death of Jesus, the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom? Not just torn, but torn in two, torn in two from top to bottom. Do you think the Word wants you to pay attention to that? Yes, I would say so. That’s why it stresses it not once, not twice, but three times.

            So what are we to get from this correlation – that at the death of Jesus the curtain in the temple is torn in two from top to bottom? Well, our reading doesn’t say. Are we then left with nothing to say? Not Lutherans! And that’s because Martin Luther (1483–1546), who is the primary witness for Lutherans regarding the heart and soul of Christianity, he knows why they’re put together. In his commentary on this verse he says that during “the Passion of Christ,… the synagogue came to an end” (Luther’s Works 29:203). So that’s the point being made in Mark 15:38.

 

The End of Judaism

But what are we to make of it? The curtain that’s torn is at the most holy place in the Jewish Temple. So tearing it apart puts an end to the holiness of Judaism according to Luther. It signals that Judaism is ended and replaced by a new religion. And so we hear that “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). At the cross this exchange occurs – the new for the old.

            Obsolete. Does Luther dream this up? No, he gets it from passages like Hebrews 8:13 that says the old covenant, or Judaism, is “obsolete.” This has to be said, otherwise a new covenant wouldn’t have been necessary. So Luther is following this verse and giving it weight when sizing up the torn temple curtain in Mark 15:38.

            Surpassed. But there is more. He also is following 2 Corinthians 3:10 which says that the splendor of the first covenant has been completely eclipsed by the splendor of the second one. That means that Judaism has been “surpassed” by Christianity. That exceeding signals the end of Judaism and the dawn of Christianity.

            Dead. At the end of Luther’s commentary on Jonah he writes on the end of Judaism. He says that it is “better and fairer that Judaism should die,” otherwise it would mislead the whole world and bring it to “ruin” (LW 19:104). How so? Well, Judaism says that we are justified, saved or blessed by doing works prescribed in God’s law. But the new revelation clearly states that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

            But is it really that troubling? Aren’t we actually able to make ourselves good through our good deeds? Taking a bag of food to the local food bank isn’t that tough. Well, let’s assume that’s so. Does that settle it? Not according to God. That’s because we have to deliver the bag with the right attitude. We can’t feel proud when doing it. We can’t take credit for it even. We must thank God for our good deeds otherwise they’re nothing but filth (Isaiah 64:6). The hungry wouldn’t care about our hearts – but God does. And it is our hearts that we cannot master (1 John 3:20).

 

Not Abandoned

We are not left, however, with a tattered curtain in our laps as we ponder the death of Judaism. No, Christianity replaces it and fills us with joy. Christianity saves us and gives us purpose. And it is for all (Acts 10:34–35). Even though the Jews have rejected it, it remains there waiting for them. Even though they still trust in the law of God for their salvation, Christ continues to call them away from the law – being the end of the law (Romans 10:4) – and welcome them into his kingdom (Colossians 1:13). He remains kind and faithful – even though they are faithless (2 Timothy 2:13).

 

Christ’s Sacrifice in Detail

Christ’s work for us to save us is finished (John 19:30) and cannot be reversed. It lasts forever. We need to focus on that when we mourn the loss of faith among the Jews – just as Paul did, when wishing he could give to them all his place in heaven, which, however, was not his to give (Romans 9:2–3). We must look to Christ that we may hope the Jews will come to love and follow him.

And Christ is majestic!  He offered himself “without blemish to God” to save us from his wrath (Hebrews 9:14; Romans 5:9). “Christ entered once for all into the Holy Place,… thus securing an eternal redemption” for us (Hebrews 9:12). Luther knew how this came to pass – and he preached on it repeatedly:

 

God’s eternal Son… stepped into our need and misery, Himself became a man, and took such dread, eternal wrath on Himself, and for it He offered His own body, life, and blood as an offering and payment for sin. He… made satisfaction, and paid for us (LW 57:283).

 

These are the key details in Christ's work for our redemption – substitution, satisfaction, and payment. Without those details redemption collapses. That’s because our gracious, loving God is also holy and just and so the “just requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4) has to be fulfilled or there is no redemption – no forgiveness of sins and salvation from the fires of hell (Mark 9:48).

This assurance is what we have in the Lord’s Supper – the new covenant made manifest. In this sacrament we know that God has not left us out but also forgiven us by his grace, through our faith (Ephesians 2:8). So come to the Altar and receive your salvation. This is what Christians do week after week, all their lives.

 

Do Both!

Once we’ve seen our failures and heard the good news of Christ, then we are ready to do good works in thanksgiving for our salvation – but not in order to save ourselves by doing them. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says that we should thank God in all circumstances. One thanksgiving we should surely render on this Passion Sunday is for the Jews. Yes, for God’s chosen people! But if their religion is a failure, why should we be thankful for them? Well, because Romans 9:4–5 says the promises and the law come from them, as does Jesus according to the flesh! So while Judaism can’t save us it can provide for us the conditions which gave rise to Christ Jesus our Lord. The Jews preserved the promise of the Messiah – even if they rejected him in the end. They also preserved for us the law which condemns us (Romans 7:13) and drives us to Christ for deliverance (Romans 7:25) – neither of which save us from sin.

So we need to do two things and not just one. We have to hold Hebrews 8 together with Romans 9. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time. Can we do that? Or will we only settle for one of the two – either condemning Judaism and hating Jews; or loving Jews and letting Judaism pass? No! We need both. We must reject Judaism and love the Jews. That’s because we can’t save ourselves by being good; nor can we hate the Jews. My father made anti-Semitic slurs when I was growing up. That was horrible! It made for a poor home to grow up in. So love God’s chosen ones as well as sound the death knell for Judaism. Do both! Luther could (LW 47:163, 169, 170, 241, 271) – and so you also can.

But call on God to help you with that. And also thank God for Jesus, the redeemer, who has saved us through faith in his sacrifice (instead of by our efforts at being good). And finally pray to God that he would show you the decent way to herald the end of Judaism by recalling and honoring the torn temple curtain. Amen.

 

(printed as preached but with some changes)