Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Playing Pilate

“Because it’s fun to play a bad guy,” is the superficial answer I give when someone asks me why I wanted to play Pilate. And that is true. It is engaging for me as an actor to portray a “bad guy” in a show. There are more layers of the character to reveal.

But for me, playing Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar is much deeper than that. Ever since I was a kid listening to my parent’s LP, I have been intrigued by how Pilate is portrayed in Superstar. In fact, the Bible itself portrays Pilate as a more complicated figure than he is often given credit for.

And his story, as the early church told it, is similarly complicated. Some early documents indicate he converted to become a follower of Jesus himself. The Coptic tradition considers him to be a martyr. The date and manner of his death are subject to scholarly debate, which is odd for such a notable figure. Augustine believed that Pilate was sincere when he wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (see John 19:19-22). “It could not be torn from his heart that Jesus was the King of the Jews,” Augustine wrote.

So I am working with a lot of “back story” to enter into this character and attempt to convey at least some of that nuance and complexity on stage. And here’s what I’ve got…

Pilate has been appointed to Jerusalem, in the Jewish nation of Judea, to be the head Roman in charge. But he is not the least bit engaged with governing the people. In fact he would rather just isolate himself in his palace and let the temple leaders handle their own business. As long as there’s no trouble, as long as the people stay quiet and continue to pay their taxes, as long as Caesar’s attention is not turned this direction, all is well. No news is good news.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus draws the aloof Pilate into the story against his will, kicking and screaming. The first pull comes when Pilate is haunted by a vision in which Pilate sees Jesus, though he only knows him as a random Galilean. Pilate confronts him, but gets no response, and since Pilate is a man accustomed to people responding, this alone is noteworthy. Suddenly Pilate witnesses Jesus attacked by wild and angry men who disappear into the mist, a puzzling development. The vision shifts into an image of countless people grieving for Jesus, and the deepest cut of all, they seem to be leaving Pilate the blame for his death.

This dream has shaken Pilate, enough that he feels compelled to share it, to talk about it. He has no idea what it means, but he cannot let it go. The most amazing Galilean in his dream has looked directly into his hidden self, and left an imprint that cannot be erased.

And so, when the temple leaders bring Jesus to him, it comes as somewhat of a relief to see that he is a rather ordinary, unfortunate man. Not a king at all. Pilate is actually bemused,  if somewhat annoyed, at this initial encounter with Jesus, and he even connects with him on a personal level, bantering a bit, admiring how cool Jesus is under pressure.

But Pilate gets bored easily, and after all this is just a random smelly Galilean, so Pilate dismisses him - Herod’s race? Herod’s case!

Jesus does not stay long at Herod’s place, however. All too quickly he is dragged back to Pilate, and the point is clear. His role in the drama is limited. “We need him crucified, it’s all you have to do,” say the leaders of the temple.

Pilate resists. First of all, Pilate does not take orders from anyone in Judea. He is naturally inclined to minimize the significance of a demand coming from the temple. And so he initially attempts to laugh it off, to wave it away like a persistent swarm of gnats.

And then there is a moment. The crowd is still, Pilate kneels next to Jesus whose eyes meet his, looking directly into his hidden self, and a phrase from his dream floats through the room. In this moment things begin to change; from here the energy builds relentlessly toward the inevitable conclusion.

Hoping to avoid killing him, Pilate decides to flog Jesus. Many times before, public flogging has been enough. Perhaps that will satisfy the crowd this time, too. But something happens as the punishment is enforced. What begins as a mundane event, chilling in its ordinariness, becomes a disturbing, horrifying, and convicting act of savagery.

Something inside of Pilate cracks.

It is just at this moment, when he is the most vulnerable, the most exposed, that grace comes to Pilate. “You have nothing in your hands,” Jesus tells him. “Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.” Jesus absolves Pilate of blame, removing from his hands the shame and guilt of this atrocity.

But grace, as it often is, is difficult to receive. The shock of it terrifies Pilate, and deepens the fissures in his soul. He struggles to keep himself together, to regain control.

The crowd spots the weakness and intensifies their pressure, leaning on Pilate, pressing him, shouting at him. “Remember Caesar!” they yell, which of course adds a whole new dimension to the torment. If news of this disturbance somehow gets to Caesar’s ears, the consequences get serious for Pilate. The weight is enormous, unrelenting, eroding his resistance, crushing him.

And finally … he breaks.

Pilate shatters into a thousand pieces, his thoughts reduced to a nearly indecipherable shriek. “DIE, if you want to! You innocent puppet…”

And he exits. He has become the broken man, the unfortunate, good for nothing but cluttering up a hallway. He tries to wash his hands of Christ’s great self-destruction, but finds them indelibly stained.

And yet, there was a glance. There was a hint. A seed of grace has been planted deeply in his hidden self. We are left to wonder if it will take root and blossom.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

There Will Be A Church

It could happen this way…

In 2024 there will be three denominations that include the 12 million people who currently comprise the United Methodist denomination.

There will be the Wesleyan Covenant Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the Scriptural authority part a bit more. They will not allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a Progressive Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the grace part a bit more. They will allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a United Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, and will constantly wrestle with the tensions that inevitably arise when Scripture is read through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. They will remove sexual orientation and gender identity as barriers to marriage and ordination, leaving authority to make those decisions in the hands of pastors and Annual Conferences.

The three new denominations will be in “full communion” with one another. This means that they are unified in the essentials of the faith but recognize clear differences of opinion regarding how a holy life is to be lived. We will be able to celebrate Holy Communion together. There will be a way to recognize ordination among the three, though I’m sure there would be extensive discussion as to how that would look. And most importantly, we will share a common commitment to the mission of the Church.

At some point, maybe in 40 years, maybe in 60, these three denominations will merge again.

… or it might not. Who knows really?

What I know for certain is that I am not in the least bit anxious about the future of the church. I believe Jesus when he says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I believe in resurrection. I believe in something eternal, something that exists beyond my ability to comprehend it, that will outlive me.

And even if it looks nothing like it looks today, there will be a church.

As long as there are people who need to know they are worthy of the deepest love imaginable, there will be a church to tell them.

As long as there is evil, injustice, and oppression to be resisted in whatever forms they present themselves, there will be a church to resist them.

As long as there are widows, orphans, and immigrants in need of help for their journey, there will be a church to walk alongside them.

As long as there are people who need the transformative power of grace to flip their lives around so they might become the people they are created to be, there will be a church to offer it to them.

As long as God’s mission is unfulfilled, there will be a church working to realize it. Yes, even if it looks not in the least bit like it does today, there will be a church.