On Palm Sunday we take the first step on the road to Jerusalem, according to the story passed on to us by the first followers of Jesus. It’s a problematic story in many ways: Scholars argue over historical details, the four gospel writers disagree as well; and it contains a very troubling portrayal of Jewish-Gentile relations that has resulted in centuries of ethnic cleansing.
Add to all that some—in my eyes anyway—equally unfortunate theological spin given to the story over the centuries and…well…So why do we keep telling this story, year after year? Why is it important to us?
I’ll get one thing off my chest first, full disclosure here: Jesus of Nazareth, called the Messiah or the Christ, the anointed one, did not die for your sins. God did not demand a blood sacrifice and then, since humanity was too weak to pay the price, make Jesus pay it for us. This would not be mercy: this would be divine child abuse. Despite the grip of this late-medieval theory on our liturgy, despite the popularity of all the old-timey hymns, this theory is morally bankrupt and should, again in my opinion, be seen for the fraud that it is.
Jesus died because his egalitarian vision challenged two of the greatest ethical forces in the classical world— Jewish religion and Roman law— and the authorities of both colluded to get rid of a trouble-maker. End of story.
Having said that, where do I go? Why do I still want to tell this story? Or maybe I should say, why do I want to re-tell this story, and how do I want to do that? It probably helps if you know I graduated from high school in 1969. Just in time to be in my formative years when two block-buster new treatments of the life of Jesus hit the American public. The first was Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970 rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. The show was condemned by some religious groups and I still recall, as a young man home for Thanksgiving, leading a tense listening session held between youth and elders in the basement of our church.
“Jesus Christ Superstar, do you think you're what they say you are?”
It was my first foray into the world of open theological exploration and debate. I believe it had a profound effect on the development of my later thinking, a hunch I had confirmed when I read that Tim Rice has said, "It happens that we don't see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place."
The other block-buster that created a watershed moment for me opened in 1971, although I did not see it until 1973. This was Stephen Schwartz’ Godspell. I was a commune-minded young hippie in those college days, seeking the kind of community and ethical one-ness this lovely film displayed. If the first musical challenged my thinking, this one captured my heart. It spoke to the deepest longings of my soul; still does, every time I see it. And somehow, even then, I understood something many critics did not. Schwartz basically used episodes from the gospel of Matthew as his plot-line, But he seems to have turned to Mark for his ending: there is no resurrection scene. Rather than resurrect, Jesus dies in the finale and the cast is directed to lift his body over their heads and walk off through the audience to end the show before their bows.
This has caused a great deal of confusion over the years, so much so that Schwartz has chosen to add a note to the script, saying, “Over the years, there has been comment from some about the lack of an apparent Resurrection in the show. Some choose to view the curtain call, in which Jesus appears, as symbolic of the resurrection; others point to the moment when the cast raise Jesus above their heads. While either view is valid, both miss the point.
Godspell is about the formation of a community that carries on Jesus’ teachings after he has gone. In other words, it is the effect Jesus has on the others that is the story of the show, not whether or not he himself is resurrected. Therefore, it is very important at the end of the show that it be clear that the others have come through the violence and pain of the crucifixion sequence and leave with a joyful determination to carry on the ideas and feelings they have learned during the course of the show.”
And there you have it. There is much—if not all—of my formation theology in a nutshell. There is why I find it important to keep telling the story, or re-telling it. And if I could, I’d do it much as Weber and Rice and Schwartz do: With open-ended questions on the one hand and purposeful direction on the other. In the end, perhaps for all the fierceness and challenge of Superstar it is Godspell that tells the story best for me overall. It opens with the simple call of John the Baptist— “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” which in Matthew becomes Jesus’ own first sermon and mission statement—and it ends the same way as Jesus is carried out of the theater: a single voice, tentative at first, then joined by others, then a glorious dance of full-throated, full-hearted communal rejoicing and meaning.
To be real, to have depth, to have continued life, the story must be ours. We must be the ones who die to self…and who are reborn.