Watching Pier Pasolini’s 1965 film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, I was challenged to read again about the historical Jesus and the power behind the mythology of the crucifixion. Throughout my adult years, I have been achingly fascinated with the death of Jesus of Nazareth, with my own imaginings of the man, the prophet, and the son of God that he is believed to be. It is powerful mythology, not because more than a billion believers embrace it as unquestionable truth, but for the two millennia of ingrained, in some historical periods brutally forced, intergenerational rituals of faith from which the Catholic Church derives its now discredited power as an institution. The 21st Century Christian challenge is to separate the meaning of Jesus from the institutional framework, the church, created in his name and committing atrocities through his putative paternity. All Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, have the same problem of a failing orthodoxy losing ground in a secular world, racing desperately to salvage some kind of institutional legitimacy. The contradictions the Christian church presents are many, but the power of the Jesus mythology will continue to give them smooth sailing in a sea of drowning believers that cannot find Jesus, the Jew, where his origins are, outside the church. Pasolini’s film reminded me to look for Jesus outside the church; following the commandments of the living Christ within, embracing his teachings with my daily acts of charity and kindness, mercy and love, justice and grace, patience, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s not a new idea or novel revelation since many groups of faith around the country have their ‘church without walls.’
Yet, it is perhaps impossible for Catholics and other Christians to accept the premise that the Catholic Church was not the way Jesus of Nazareth wanted to propagate the messianic message of repentance and salvation – salvation of the living world. Indeed, the often-cited references legitimizing The Great Commission (Jesus mandating his disciples to establish the Catholic Church) in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Book of Acts are questioned by scholars, such as Dr. John Dominic Crossan (The Historical Jesus), who argues that Jesus did not commission apostles during his life time, and Eduard Riggenbach (in Der Trinitarische Taufbefehl) with J.H. Odham (in The Missionary Motive) who point out that the very idea of the Great Commission surfaced after 1650, more than a millennia and a half after the life of Jesus. The writings of the disciples and apostles marketing Jesus as the creator of the church and selling believers on the idea that it is the embodiment of Jesus is symbolic language made up to establish an institutional power base using the mythology of Jesus of Nazareth. And power held for over 2,000 years is pretty difficult to challenge. All of the quotes upon which The Great Commission find justification were purportedly spoken by Jesus (after his resurrection) and none makes reference to the establishment of a church, particularly the most familiar found in Matthew 28:16-20:
(16) Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. (17) And when they saw him, they worshiped him: but some doubted. (18) And Jesus came and spoke unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. (19) Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: (20) Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen
The quote makes a good case to start a school, but hardly what became the imperial power of a Roman Catholic Church.
If there is any merit to the Protestant Reformation assault on the Catholic Church, it had to have been challenging the belief that Jesus is beyond our reach from within. Human kind does not need a church to embrace Jesus and The Father. We can live in communion without a church, turning away from those who claim spiritual and doctrinal infallibility, and church leaders who dare not proselytize that salvation is found in living acts of human kindness not a mythical hereafter. In saying these things I do not mean to disparage the Christian church-goers for whom every inch of their place of worship is sacred ground and the body of Christ. They will have to find their own way out of the abyss encased within the walls of a beautiful building enshrined with imputed sacredness. My church is within the agonized walls of conscience that struggles with the demons reigning over inhumanity; growing in and being faithful to my understanding of the commandments, not the men and institutions that tell us what they mean. So I say “Satan get thee behind me” to all those in Sunday worship ready to judge others with betraying words of tolerance and mercy, doing at home what they say they will not do while in prayer, and seeking forgiveness for sins of the body while ignoring transgressions of the soul. Those people have yet, like me, a long way to go before finding the Jesus within.