Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity: Superstar, Salt and Martini

30 09 2012

Has it occurred to you that it is curious that the Church of England is going through the appointment process of a new Archbishop of Canterbury precisely as the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is enjoying a revival?

On Friday the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) should have concluded its business, and sent its little list of two names off on its journey to Buckingham Palace via Downing Street. And on Friday night it was Newcastle’s turn to host the arena tour of Superstar.

If you watched the TV series to choose a Jesus you will know that the successful candidate was a man called Ben from Sunderland.  Since being selected he has had extensive training for the role and has grown his hair so that he looks the part.  I wonder about the Archbishop designate – will he get extensive coaching? Will he be helped to look the part?

In 2001, not long after the church of which I was incumbent was reordered, we staged a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  The church was packed to capacity every night for a week. I spent quite a lot of time with the producer and the cast and was intrigued to get some sense of what they made of the story they were telling and the characters they were performing.

To mark the occasion I wrote a 20-page booklet called ‘What’s It all About: An Exploration of the Characters and Story of Jesus Christ Superstar’.  We handed it out free to all who came. It was a slightly crude attempt to get people to reflect more deeply and seriously on the questions and feeling that the performance had prompted.  I was surprised how positively it was received. One woman read the whole thing during the performance.

The whole experience was fascinating and compelling, an amazingly effective way to let the Jesus story capture people’s imaginations. I remembered that when it first came out in 1972 the church was very unhappy about it, and the placard carriers took to the streets. ‘See Godspell instead’, was the message. Superstar was considered blasphemous because the story ended with the crucifixion. There was also the problem of the very human portrait of Jesus. ‘He’s just a man’ sang Mary Magdalene, and all the Christians wanted to contradict the point rather than pay closer attention to the spiritual tension which her song articulates.

It may seem strange to say it, but I think the church today is more confident than it was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  Superstar came out at much the same time that John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were ‘more famous than Jesus’.  What is interesting about the point is that the criterion of ‘fame’ seemed to matter so much.

The importance of fame has of course increased enormously since then.  Young people will happily say that they have an ambition to be famous. Whereas, if I remember rightly, those who were young in the 1970s wanted to be successful or good at something – playing football, say.  But they (I mean ‘we’) would see it as intrinsically good. Not as a short cut to either fame or wealth.   The goal in the back of the net was its own reward.

Maybe the Superstar-era was something of a cultural turning point.  The word and concept of ‘celebrity’ was not yet current in the strong and pervasive sense that it is today.  And yet there was something intriguing about the man from Nazareth who – whether you believed he was Son of God and Saviour of the World or not – was certainly someone who could raise a crowd, cause a commotion and be a subject of fascination.

Looking back at my little booklet I am intrigued to see how thoroughly I went about the task of trying to connect the characters and story of the show with what the New Testament says.  The plot details seemed to me secondary, though it is interesting that the publicity for the Arena tour says that the story is loosely based on the last few days of Jesus life.  As if there was an uncontroversial and universally accepted ‘tight’ version.

Where Superstar becomes interesting is in its exploration of characters, attitudes and relationships.

I have mentioned Mary Magdalene.  The portrayal of Peter is very familiar from the Bible. We get a strong and impulsive character who is full of insight but also weak and fickle. He is a man who learns much, thereby setting the example to all who follow in the way of discipleship.  Simon the Zealot is energetic and impatient. He wants results and is not convinced that Jesus’ approach – which seems to be informed by soft values like love and compassion is ever going change anything.

The main character is of course Judas. Superstar was ahead of its time drawing this character to central stage. The show is at its most powerful when it allows us to feel all the negativity we have towards Jesus and his story.  Judas is in a way like Simon but he has a more anguished inner life. He is more sensitive soul who feels used and abused, by Jesus. He is the necessary betrayer, the pawn in God’s plan. The tragedy is that he cannot reconcile himself with this or with himself and that is the cause of his suicide.

The jaunty song of Herod is one of the most famous from the show.  But it is not a comfortable toe-tapping tune. It takes us to the place of mockery. As I wrote in my little booklet,

‘Mockery is insidious. Ignore it and you are oppressed. Name it and you are failing to see the joke and taking yourself far too seriously. Personally I don’t like the scene, but then again I don’t like mockery. But mockery is real and so the scene has to be there. Mockery was certainly there in the trial and death of Jesus. It is there in the crown of thorns; it in there in the notice which read ‘Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews’. The gospels also record that Jesus is mocked and scoffed at when on the cross.’

Again in the little booklet, I wrote about Pilate under the heading ‘Pilate’s Nightmare’.  The spectre of man of power being humbled by the man he is confronting. Jesus certainly gets the best of him in John’s gospel – leaving him to mumble ‘but what is truth?’ The sign that any debater has actually given up. He is revealed as impotent and yet there he is at the centre of things and apparently responsible.  He should be in control, but is subject to the madness of the crowds.

I could of course go on – for there is much to be gained from engaging with Jesus Christ Superstar.  It is in some ways a very raw piece of work. Rice and Lloyd Webber were in their early twenties when they wrote it, and there are aspects of the things which are unhelpful. The Dean of Birmingham took me to task when I was tweeting positively about it, pointing out that its portrayal of women was ghastly.  She had a good point, and there are several others, and they have challenged me to think why I feel that Superstar is worth our attention.

I have already told you that my former church was packed every night we put it on.  And it is not a small church – and it was not in the habit of being packed.  The Metro Arena was packed on Friday and not by the kind of people you will see in this Cathedral at most services or in the parish churches of the diocese. There was a huge standing ovation at the end of the performance.  People had been touched and excited by what they had seen. It had struck a chord, hit a nerve.  It was not an occasion of worship, but it was an experience which dragged people by the scruff of their neck to connect with the Jesus story in some way. And the method was not just rock music and edgy lyrics; it was to open up the question of how Jesus impacted on people, how they related to him, how he raised deep and urgent, life and death question for them.

What I love most of all about Superstar is that it is not boring. Nor is it pretentious or aloof. One young man was shouting to his mate in the interval – ‘I just love this show! Seen the film loads of times.’

I have been a long time getting round to this Gospel reading in this sermon (Mark 9.38-end).  It tells us that Jesus threw demons out of people and told the disciples that they needed to be like salt and salted with fire.  He also says that whoever is not against us is for us.

That tells me that the religion of Jesus should be combative, sparky, lively and inclusive.  It should be compelling and vital enough to get people to spend the thick end of £60 to sit on uncomfortable seats in an arena designed for ice-hockey.  It should be able to get blokes shouting to their mates about how much it means to them.

That’s a lot of ‘shoulds’ and I apologise for them. ‘Should’ is rarely helpful word as it invites the response of guilt.

Someone else has articulated these kinds of thoughts much better than that recently and I want to end by quoting him.  I am referring here to an interview given by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan not long before he died.  It was an interview in which he was urging the Catholic Church to adopt some attitudes and practices which are familiar in Anglicanism. But the part I am going to quote might speak to us just as prophetically – and therefore annoyingly – as they have done to the Roman Catholic establishment.

‘The Church is tired in affluent Europe and in America. Our culture has grown old, our Churches are big, our religious houses are empty, the bureaucracy of our Churches is growing out of proportion, our liturgies and our vestments are pompous,,, The Church is 200 years behind the times. How come it doesn’t rouse itself? Are we afraid? Fearful instead of courageous?’

I don’t suppose Martini had seen Superstar – but I know he had read Mark’s gospel.  ‘have salt in yourselves’. Do not let the taste of your faith grow stale or bland. And above all else – do not be afraid.

I began this sermon mentioning the CNC and the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury.  We hope and pray they were not looking for a superstar, nor for another Jesus. Nor even another Rowan. These options are not on the table.

But there is a need for someone who can – like the dying Cardinal Martini – speak the truth to a church which is in danger of being salt-free, fearful and pompous when it is called to be salty, courageous and humble. And to speak to the world in a way that compels attention, respect and response.

But this is a sermon and not a submission to the CNC and so the point is not that we need a certain character as Archbishop but that you and I need to be people of a certain character if we are to be faithful Christians. We need to have the rough and ready, passion-inspiring and difference-making quality of saltiness. Being bland is not an option. We all need to be people of salt.


Seventh Sunday of Easter 20.5.12 John 17.6-19

12 05 2012

Looking Up, Looking Forward

On this Sunday – sandwiched between Ascension (going up) and Pentecost (coming down) – the Gospel reading is always part of John chapter 17.  It is Jesus’ extended prayer which he says immediately before his passion begins. It is often called his ‘high-priestly prayer’ and  as soon as it ends Jesus sets out for the garden where he will be met by Judas together with soldiers and police.

John 17.6-19

Jesus looked up to heaven and prayed, ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Reflections and Questions

‘I  am asking on their behalf’ v 9 This is Jesus in prayer for others.  He is interceding for his disciples and by implication for us.

How do you understand the intercession that is offered for us by Christ? How do you understand the intercession that we offer for others?  Is there an opportunity to talk about the seriousness of intercession here?

‘I am not asking on behalf of the world.’ v 9. Oh dear. This does not seem right. But there it is in black and white. There is a limit to the reach of Jesus’ prayer tonight. 

How do you square this with our habit of praying for ‘the world’?

‘the one destined to be lost’ v12  Just to be clear – this is Judas.  We don’t talk about Judas much – maybe not enough.  Perhaps this is an opportunity.

What do you have to say about Judas?  Was there something wrong with him from the start? Did the money corrupt him? Is he just being used as a pawn in God’s chess game (an accusation which Judas makes in Jesus Christ Superstar: ‘you have used me!’  see )

‘Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth’ v17 

Holiness and truth are seen as one here, and the word of God is connected with both.

How do you see holiness and truth connected? Which do you prioritize in your personal pilgrimage through life?