“Lent Through the Ages: Jesus Christ Superstar”

March 18, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Mar. 18, 2018

“Lent Through the Ages: Jesus Christ Superstar”
John 18: 33-38

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar set the world buzzing when it first appeared on vinyl in 1970 and on Broadway in 1971. The executives at MCA Records were terrified by it. In reaction to the single “Superstar,” one MCA exec said, “A song like that will offend everyone.” Another said, “If we put that record out, every churchperson in the country will stone us.” It made one secretary cry, “It’s sad when a company like Decca [owned by MCA] has to make money by making fun of Jesus!” Later on, the film’s director Norman Jewison would say, “My hope is that audiences will take this for what it is – an opera, not history. These kids are trying to take Jesus off the stained-glass windows and get him down on the street.”

Tim Rice approached the story as political history instead of revealed scripture, and Jesus as radical political activist (mirroring the times) rather than as the son of God. This Jesus does not point the way to God half as much as he points the way toward living a moral, engaged life, and that’s why politics takes center stage here instead of religion. After all, politics is how humans decide collective morality, questions of how to live morally in a community (of whatever size) and of which values will be shared by that community.

This was a show not about Jesus’ teachings, his divinity, his suffering on the cross, or his resurrection; this was a story that asked a simple question: Why did Judas feel he needed to betray Jesus? This show was meant to be a call to political action, a reminder that all the great political and human rights movements in world history all found their roots in the very radical political agenda of Jesus and Judas.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. John 18: 33-38

It’s a simple question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate wanted a direct answer – yes or no. If you watch court TV at all, you know this is an important aspect of any trial. Get the witness to answer simply “yes” or “no”. Judge Judy bangs her gavel repeatedly and cuts a witness off when they start talking instead of giving a direct answer. That’s all Pilate wanted from Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” It is a clear question. All he wanted was a clear cut answer. And then he could possess the truth.

I’m sure most of us have lived long enough that we have experienced a simple answer to our questions. We want the truth.
• Is this cancer diagnosis terminal?
• Did I get the job?
• Is God real?
• Is this the right decision?
Yes or no? We want the answer quick and clear. We want the truth. We like to categorize people, places and things into clear categories. Right or wrong. True or false. Real or fake. Known or unknown.

We do this, I think, because we want to possess the truth and know that within the borders of our truth we have given ourselves some power over our lives, some stability and security, some predictability and control. It’s often our first response to the circumstances of daily life. We trick ourselves into thinking that if we could only know the truth we would be able to handle whatever comes our way.

Of course, the not knowing is extraordinarily frustrating. We can even lose faith. Will my nephew get a donated heart in time? We wait and we pray and we want to know when the heart will come. But what happens if he doesn’t? Is God somehow responsible?

When will my tax refund come? I have bills to pay now. Should I wait until it comes or take what little I have in savings and use it? We check the account each day to see if it arrived. We even call taxact.com to see if they have a projected date. We wait some more.

But what if we somehow had a crystal ball or a 6th sense and we knew the truth? It would make life simpler, we think. According to Fr. Mike Marsh, there is a dark and dangerous side to claiming possession of the truth. When we claim to be the sole custodians of truth we put ourselves in the position of having to defend, guard, and protect that truth. We promote and impose our truth on others. Lines are drawn and walls are built. Conversations are reduced to a monologue of rhetoric, and relationships give way to either isolation or domination. And pretty soon violence arises in the words we speak and the actions we take. Sometimes it is a violence that injures or kills another human being but it always wounds the human soul, theirs and ours.

Maybe that’s why Judas betrayed Jesus – he thought it would force Jesus’ hand and the truth of his power would finally be known. Perhaps that’s why Jesus didn’t give Pilate a direct answer to the very direct question Pilate posed. The answer was so much more complex than Jesus could answer in a “yes” or “no”. Jesus knew the truth is not always absolute from every perspective. Jesus knew that the truth is not exclusive and owned by one individual or group. Jesus knew that truth is more than simple facts. Jesus knew that his life hung in the balance and that the way he lived was more telling than a simple “yes” or “no”.

As Fr. Mike Marsh says, “Jesus came into the world to tell us about that truth, to show us what it looks like in a human life, and teach us how to be a part of and belong to that truth.”

I had an interesting week hosting a delegation of Russian women. They were here as guests of Rotary, to learn and exchange ideas about how to encourage women to go into vocations in math and science. Throughout the conversations of the week, we realized how different we were in small ways… and how similar we are in so many ways. Tatiana, a university professor in St. Petersburg, showed a PowerPoint presentation on Wednesday. Side-by-side, she showed pictures from Russia and pictures from Wichita. “Here is my father in Russia,” she said. Then another picture popped up beside it. “And here is my American host father. Not so different!” she exclaimed.

“Here is a bridge in Russia,” she shared. Another picture came up that looked very similar. “And here is the bridge over your river in Wichita.” They were shaped and colored very similarly.

“Here is my family,” she said. “And here is my host family”. We live across the globe and we speak different languages. But our love of our countries, our families, our hometowns, our jobs, and our lives are very much the same.”

Contrast that to the rhetoric we see and hear on social media and around our diner tables which divides and separates us into categories. There is a plethora of this mentality in our memes and in our comments. We are polarizing one another in our supposed search for truth. And this polarization is not benign. It has tragic consequences.

“When we make ourselves custodians of the truth, when we believe that the truth belongs to us, we listen to our own voice and the voices of those who think and act like us. We listen to the voice of our political party, our country, our religion, our faction. We listen to the voice of our fear and insecurity. We listen to the voice of our prejudice, our individual needs and desires, our experience,” writes Fr. Mike.

I believe it was just this that caused Jesus’ execution.
• The Roman officials had proclaimed that they were the custodians of the truth. Jesus challenged empire and power.
• The Jewish leaders were only interested in their own traditions and customs. Jesus challenged their beliefs.
• The disciples were fearful and insecure. They worried about themselves to the exclusion of what they had learned from Jesus.
• The people of Jerusalem did not stand for truth; they bowed to their prejudices and the power of the state.

And I observe that this is why we continue to be polarized today.
• Our political parties are estranged and do not appear to work together for the common good.
• The subject of gun rights and gun control seems uncompromiseable and we continue to suffer from tragedies and a stream of school shootings.
• The Christian left and Christian evangelicals act as if we don’t belong to the same family of faith.
• It goes on and on. We are separated in our search for truth – yet each group claims to have the best answers.

When Pilate asked Jesus a simple question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Everyone listened in and held their breath waiting for the answer. Jesus answered, “For this I came…. To testify to the truth.” It wasn’t what they were expecting. It isn’t what we want from Jesus either. We ache for a simple “yes” or “no”. But Jesus does not play into our hands.

What if we tried to belong to the truth instead of trying to own it? What if we “testified to the truth” instead of using our rhetoric? What if we asked more questions and offered fewer platitudes? Instead of being polarized by our categories… of Republican and Democrat; of male and female; of liberal and conservative; of Christian and Muslim … what if we worked side-by-side?

And if it takes a 1970’s rock musical to remind us that Jesus taught us how to live a moral, engaged life, then so be it.

Resources Used:

Newlinetheater.com “Inside Jesus Christ Superstar” by Scott Miller.

Interpretingthesilence.com “The Truth Does Not Belong to Us” By Father Michael K. Marsh.