The author of the Letter to the Hebrews declares:
He [Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.
What is sometimes really hard to see, sitting inside a religion, Christianity, is the degree to which Jesus Christ abolishes religion! The letter to the Hebrews isn’t really a letter. It is a sermon, which would take around three quarters of an hour to preach. It is sermon which meditates on the life and especially the death of Jesus in relation to the Temple. That is, it is a reflection on what Jesus does, in relation to the religion which the “Hebrews” that is Jewish recipients of the “letter” had, up to then, experienced. The temple and what went on there is what the first readers of the letter, or the first hearers of the sermon knew and understood about religion.
At its most simple and clearest, the temple was the place where the ancient Israelites believed God had his dwelling place on earth. The temple in Jerusalem was where the true and living God lived. The sanctuary at the centre of the temple was God’s palace, and the ark of the covenant which was kept inside was God’s throne. Everything that went on in the temple was about maintaining the nation’s and individuals’ relationship with God. The prayers and especially the sacrifices were a way to deal with the ways in which the people and individuals had broken that relationship. What is especially in view at this point in the Letter/Sermon is the one time each when the chief priest went into the Holy of Holies, God’s throne room, with the blood from the sacrifice made on the Day of Atonement. In a way this is almost the defining moment of the religion, when the leading religious figure performs the principle religious act, that sustains the people’s relationship with God. But to a lesser extent everything else that was done in the temple, the daily sacrifices, and all the prayers, were about the same thing, dealing with the way in which people become separated from God. That is what religion does, it is the human means of staying right with God.
Of course our religion doesn’t look much like that. For one thing no animals were harmed in the making of our religion. Blood sacrifice is no longer part of what we do. Perhaps we have grasped at least that much of what Jesus has done. Though the language of sacrifice remains as a metaphor for what we do in our religion. Actually what we do very much resembles the other way of doing Jewish religion, in Jesus’ day and now, the Synagogue. There came a point in Jewish history, the exile in Babylon, when the people couldn’t get to the temple to perform the rituals to maintain their relationship with God. They had to find another way of being religious. This is how the synagogues emerged. They were and are a place where scripture, especially the Torah, the laws of Moses, are read and interpreted and applied to daily living. Religion now is about demonstrating one’s loyalty, one’s connection with God by doing exactly as God has asked. As the Israelites/Hebrews got scattered across the Roman world beyond the reach of the temple in Jerusalem they took the Synagogue everywhere they went. But the practice of that religion still left open the question of what you could do if you broke the law, if you became separated from God, which is why the temple and the idea of sacrifice remained and remains relevant.
In reality we often our churches and chapels something like temples. We reverence them as the special place where we can come to get especially close to God. It is almost as if God were more present here than elsewhere, like God lives here. And as I said the language of sacrifice remains as a metaphor for what we do. The hour or the 40 minutes we spent in church is in a sense, in our minds a sacrificial offering which we make week be week to restore our relationship with God. Every religious act we perform, each time we say our prayers, each time we read our Bibles somewhere at the back of our minds we can’t help reassure ourselves that doing those things brings us back closer to God, that it is healing the breach with him that we have made. Every time we live and do as Jesus has commanded us, it is very hard to resist the temptation not to set that in the balance against all the times we failed to do that, and hope we come out ahead. Religion, in this sense is a way of bargaining with God. A way of earning back the relationship with God which we have broken. It is no less so for us than it was for the Hebrews who read the letter or heard the sermon. But Jesus abolishes religion!
There is no bargain to be made with God. There is nothing we can do to pay back what we owe to restore the relation we have broken. There is no way to build a ramp, with religion, that starts where we are and leads all the way back up to God. The problem with religion like that is that it doesn’t work! Paul when he wrote his letters knew this. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews when she preached knew this. Religion as the human way to God doesn’t take us where we want and where we need to go. The preacher to the Hebrews knows this when he point out that it if it did work we wouldn’t have to keep doing it again and again. But what Jesus does is that is so much more effective than “religion” that it renders the practice of religion that his listeners knew redundant. What Jesus does effectively abolishes religion.
Hebrews’ focus is on the death of Jesus as the once and for all atoning sacrifice. What Jesus’ death does, is what religion cannot do, it restores the relationship between God and the human race.. The letter/sermon uses the metaphor of the temple to make its point. It says that Jesus didn’t do what he was doing in a building made by humans, who imagined and pretended that it was the place where God lived:
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands a mere copy of the real one but he entered into heaven itself.
What had been in religion a performance in the temple, is a reality with Jesus. And Jesus’ role is:
now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
Our case before God is not being made by a priest who himself has been separated from God by sin, but by the sinless Christ, who is both human like us and divine like the one he addresses. Jesus speaks for us from the unbroken side of the relationship with God. And Jesus death is the once an for all sacrifice that deals permanently with all the ways we have separated ourselves from God. He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. This is something that cannot and need not be ever repeated. What Jesus does and where he has done it it enough, nothing more is needed. Any other temple, or any other religion is superfluous. Jesus abolishes religion!
Which leaves us with the question: What do we think we are doing with all our practice of religion? Why do we keep coming to Church each week? Why do we read our Bibles and say our prayers? Why do we try to live the life which Jesus instructed us to? Perhaps the paradox, the contradiction, of Christianity is that we need the practice of a religion to remind us that Jesus abolishes religion! We need to know that there is no way for us to buy off the ways in which we have broken the relationship we should have with God. We need to know there is no bargain to be made with God. And that there is no way for us to take ourselves from where we are, in our own strength and ability, into the presence of God But we also need to know that this has been dealt with already. God in Jesus Christ does for human beings what we cannot do for ourselves. The human striving for God stops, when God comes to us in person. The Gospel is the recognition that this is true. That God loves us so much that God solves our problem for us. And the recognition of that truth is transformative It liberates us from all the burdens of guilt and alienation that we impose on ourselves It sets us free to be the people God intends us to be. But that recognition is also deeply challenging. What Christ has done doesn’t let us off the hook of all the ways we alienate ourselves from God. It doesn’t give us a built in excuse ahead of time. A wave of the hand at the things that are wrong in our lives, and say to ourselves, “it’s ok Jesus has dealt with it.” Once we have recognised what Jesus has done, we also must recognise that there is nothing more that can be done for the ways in which we separate ourselves from God. John Wesley was so taken with this that in a sermon he declared that Christians do not sin! Because there is no way back for them once they really know what Jesus has already done. So what is left to us is faith. What we have is not religion but a radical trust in Jesus. The only place we have to go is into the recognition of the once and for all thing that Jesus has done and to live out in trust from that point.. Which changes our religion from the grim prospect of slaughtering animals or struggling with ourselves into a glorious celebration of what Jesus has done. Because Jesus abolishes that kind of religion.
Jesus Abolishes Religion by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0