Sermons

Judas and JC: A Bright Sunday Sermon; Rev. Dee Ledger, April 8th, 2018

Do I have God by my side?

Do I have God on my side?

Is God for me or against me?

At some point in life we will ask this question or some form of it.  Sometimes it is when we feel completely flattened by life, or deeply misunderstood, ill at ease in our skin or in our hearts, or when circumstances shift and we find ourselves in a losing battle with our hopes or dreams for the present, not to mention the future.  Then we ask our bitter questions in the light of day or the stillness of the night and wonder just who or what is standing next to us, listening.

Usually, the Sunday after Easter we hear about Thomas, the one who wasn’t in the room when Jesus showed his resurrected self to the disciples.  Thomas, who is called the “Twin” in the bible and the “Doubting Thomas” by the Church, can be actually quite similar to many of us.  Thomas may have been out of the room or out on an errand, but for whatever reason, he was out of that closed room where the disciples had gathered in lock-down, and in fear and sadness, after Jesus’ death.

So it is important, very important, that Jesus came to Thomas and that he offers himself to the one soul who was missing-in-action that Resurrection day, to the doubting one, and to the one who couldn’t believe such a ludicrous thing could be true– that Jesus had visited his friends in the flesh after death and breathed peace upon them.  We need Thomas because he is so very much like us—the realist who says, “Unless I see the marks…unless I touch this truth…I will not believe.”  And we also need to know that God breathes peace upon us, when we are in lock-down mode, fearful and confused.

But today we also remember another disciple who wasn’t there: Judas.  Unlike Thomas, we do know why Judas wasn’t there.  From Matthew’s gospel, we learn that Judas eventually repented, but he also despaired and eventually hung himself.  It is a sad end, and one that we tend to pass over quickly after the hard events of Holy Week.  But we need to remember him too, even if tradition has portrayed him as a traitor or filled with the Devil.  We need to remember because Judas struggles with his disappointment, his relationship with Jesus, and what he will ultimately do with that disappointment.  We dare not make Judas so unlike us that we cannot perceive his despair as being beyond our experience or consideration.  We dare not make Judas so beyond God’s reach that we start to believe that we are somehow beyond God’s reach too—even in our death-dealing choices and despair.

And today while we are having a bit of resurrection fun with our theme of Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas figures prominently.   From scripture, we know that Judas repented of his betrayal, threw aside the money that he received for handing Jesus over, and regretted his kiss-of-death.  But even though tradition has made Judas the arch-enemy of Jesus, we must remember that Judas was a very close associate of Jesus, and part of his intimate inner circle.  It is quite likely that Judas loved Jesus, and Jesus loved Judas, despite what happened to their friendship, and despite what happened to Jesus.

So, what led to Judas’ action?  And where was God in that mix?  Is it possible that Judas was never deserted by God, but that he felt alienated by his disappointment and his own desires for the movement underway?

Indeed, the musical and film, Jesus Christ Superstar, attempts to show this.  It presents Judas in greater complexity and with greater sympathy than our bible and the church often affords.   For this, Superstar has been severely criticized over the years, as if every portrayal of our gospel story must leave Judas in the dust and paint him as a one-dimensional evil.  As the composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, once explained,

Jesus Christ Superstar was really not an irreligious piece, as has been so often suggested. In its own way and in its own time it was simply a work attempting to ask a couple of questions, the chief of which was stated by Bob Dylan some years ago: ‘Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?’ Webber said, “That was the question that intrigued Tim Rice and me, and that was Tim’s starting point for the text. I mean, clearly Iscariot was not an unintelligent man, and how much was the whole thing in the end an accident of what was necessary given the politics of the day? That’s really what we were asking in Superstar.”[1]

Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?  Do we have God “on our side” or close by even when we struggle and betray the best of ourselves and of God’s intentions for humankind?  Judas, as portrayed by Webber and Rice, struggles with the way Jesus is conducting himself and the movement that has so compelled Jesus’ followers even amidst the oppression of the Roman government.    In the song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” Judas sings,

Listen Jesus I don’t like what I see.
All I ask is that you listen to me.
And remember, I’ve been your right hand man all along.
You have set them all on fire.
They think they’ve found the new Messiah.
And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.

I remember when this whole thing began.
No talk of God then, we called you a man.
And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died.
But every word you say today
Gets twisted ’round some other way.
And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied.

And so the question becomes relevant for us; that is, how do we deal with our disappointment and disgust when our movement towards God, or justice, or peace goes awry, or when our most profound disappointments tempt us to betray the very people or causes to which we have been committed?

Brandon Victor Dixon, who recently played ‘Judas’ in the NBC musical production of JC Superstar, has said, “What I’ve learned is that Judas is far less culpable of the things that he is accused of than people assume. Judas feels acutely a perversion of the message, and he also feels the danger of the message getting out of control — of dedication and love and unity and community turning into fanaticism and zealotry.”[2]  In an article with VanityFair, the Tony-nominated Dixon explained, “I want people to connect with and be moved by Judas… I want people to understand. People don’t seem to really actually understand that Judas loved Christ, and Judas was working to maintain the integrity of Christ’s message.”[3]

Several criticisms were leveled at JC Superstar both when it debuted as first a concept album, a musical on Broadway, and then also as a film.  The BBC temporarily banned it as sacrilegious.  Christian believers often thought it was blasphemous due to its emphasis on Judas’ star-dom as opposed to Jesus’, the title notwithstanding.  Like the Last Temptation of Christ, it was criticized for its depiction of Jesus as human, its more blatant suggestion of a romantic relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, and its refusal to portray the resurrection.  Likewise, those who have studied the scriptures in depth, have found the association of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute frustrating, as it perpetuates a stereotype of Magdalene that isn’t biblically accurate, but something that has thrust been upon her.

And we know from reports that the original 1971 theatrical depiction of JC Superstar fell completely short of Webber’s expectations.  That is, he was profoundly disappointed with the original production that was markedly different from what he had imagined.  In fact, in his disappointment, Webber recalled that opening night “was probably the worst night of my life. It was a vulgar travesty.”[4] Fears of anti-Semitism haunted its production, and despite Superstar’s brilliant music, the Anti-Defamation league as well as viewers seeing the original film took note that Judas was portrayed as a black man, and Jesus as a white savior.

All that being said, the recent NBC revival and remake of JC Superstar captivated many, including several pastors such as myself.  For one thing, the cast appeared much more diverse and the parts of both Jesus and Judas were both played by people of color.  John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper were a stellar cast and the production had a different feel than the original.   For myself—the casting of John Legend and Brandon Victor Dixon both as strong vocal leads and persons of color electrified the re-telling of the gospel story and made their parts appear more equitable than the film version of the story.  And, as a white pastor watching the lashing of a black Jesus, I could not escape the associations with our American history and the sin of slavery.  It was a powerful and poignant reminder, particularly with our current understandings of racism and systemic oppression over time.

And even if resurrection was not explicitly a part of JC Superstar, one cannot help but wonder if redemption was actually present both within the recent production and behind the scenes.  Judas’ spirit returns from the dead in a way that I did not quite catch before.  Even if he is singing in the afterlife to a crucified Jesus, Judas has a part and his questions persist beyond death as he sings:

“Every time I look at you I don’t understand/

Why you let the things you did get so out of hand./

You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned./

Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?”

And although God doesn’t answer here, something in me recalls another promise in scripture that trumps our tendency to consign Judas to alienation and misery beyond the grave.  The scripture is found in the epistles: Romans 8:35-38.  Do you remember:  “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Interestingly, of all the primary actors and singers in the recent JC Superstar, only one principal actor admits to a Christian faith.  Ironically, it is Alice Cooper, someone who is known for his outlandish and ghoulish stage performances.  Cooper played the part of Herod in NBC’s production.  This is what Cooper had to say:

“My dad was a pastor. My grandfather was an evangelist. And my wife’s father is a Baptist pastor. I was basically the prodigal child — I grew up in the church, went as far away as you could possibly go, and then came back. When I got sober, I started understanding — I had all the fame and the money and everything that went with it, but I started realizing what was important to me was my relationship with Jesus Christ, who I just absolutely torture in this show.

I study the Bible every morning. When I’m at home I have a Wednesday morning men’s Bible study. I pray before every show. I go to church every Sunday with my wife and kids. I don’t think I’ve ever been more happy in my life. People say, ‘Think of all you gave up to be a Christian.’ What did I give up? Dying of alcoholism? I’m not giving anything up. I’m giving it back, to him.”[5]

Sisters and brothers, no one is beyond the reach of God, not even Judas, not even a theatrical production that deeply disappointed its founding composer.  And that is good news on this Bright Sunday as we try to hang onto the resurrection a little longer than one day, one moment, or one lifetime.

And besides, the word on the street is that Andrew Lloyd Webber was much more pleased this time around with JC Superstar.  Which means that there is hope even for the deeply disappointed and hopes for our attempts to do justice to this story that we share.

Alleluia.

 

 

[1] Dennis Polkow, “Andrew Lloyd Webber: From Superstar to Requiem,” Religion-Online. This article originally appeared as the March 18-25, 1987 cover story of The Christian Century. Copyright 1987.  https://www.religion-online.org/article/andrew-lloyd-webber-from-superstar-to-requiem/

[2] Michael Paulson, “How John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Co-Stars See ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Roles,”

March 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/29/arts/john-legend-and-the-jesus-christ-superstar-cast-on-faith-and-musicals.html

[3] Zuckerman, Esther. “Can Jesus Christ Superstar LiveCapture the Holy Grail?” March 29, 2018.

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/03/jesus-christ-superstar-live-nbc-musical-john-legend-sara-bareilles

[4] Gillian Brockell, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’: Why Jews, Christians and even its composer hated it at first,”

April 2, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/04/01/jesus-christ-superstar-why-jews-christians-and-even-its-composer-hated-it-at-first/?utm_term=.06f8c66e746b

[5] Michael Paulson, “How John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Co-Stars See ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Roles,”

March 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/29/arts/john-legend-and-the-jesus-christ-superstar-cast-on-faith-and-musicals.html