A Sacred Story
When I was about 6 or 7, I decided one year that I wanted to dress up as Jesus for Halloween. I didn’t really appreciate how weird that was, and even though my mom probably did, she went along with it anyway.
Growing up, Jesus was one of my heroes. I believed every single person that told me that he loved me and that he died for my sins and that I could have a personal relationship with him. And I loved him back because of it. The stories of Jesus seemed like some of the best stories there were, full of love and kindness and goodness.
Of course, since I was a child, I couldn’t always differentiate between the stories Jesus told and the stories other people told about Jesus. So the idea that Jesus rescued the one lamb that went astray by breaking its legs out of love so that it couldn’t hurt itself again was tied up in there with the story about Jesus healing a leper.
Coming out as a gay man was not easy, having been raised in churches and environments where stories about Jesus’ “tough love” were prominent. It forced me to reconsider pretty much every component of my faith and my understanding of who this carpenter that was born two millennia ago really was. I spent months poring over commentaries and translations and scholarly articles, not just about the idea of homosexuality, but about Jesus himself. It felt like nobody could make any conclusive arguments about anything in scripture without first making a basic assumption about Jesus and God and their relationship to humanity. In other words, nothing was actually provable, it all came down to, well, faith, appropriately enough.
And as I deconstructed two decades of teachings that conflated the stories Jesus told with the stories others told about Jesus, I found two verses in the book of Matthew that I had read many times over, but was only just seeing the full meaning of:
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:34-40, New International Version
These verses have become the core of my worldview; they’re my basic assumption, if you will. Love is my litmus test for pretty much everything, whether doctrinal, political, or personal, and I have come to accept that I experience the divine most powerfully through my relationships with others. But I struggle with whether I still consider myself to be a Christian, when so much of what most people consider to be part of Christianity are things I don’t find truth in anymore. And for the past few years, I’ve struggled to find a connection to that faith, even while I have such a strong connection with so many people who practice it.
Recently, I’ve had the joy and privilege of playing Jesus in a local, community theatre production of Godspell. I was asked to take part by a friend, and at first I did so more out of a desire to establish connections with a theatre group I hadn’t worked with before. But, as is often the case when dealing with the story of Jesus, it ended up becoming a much deeper and more personal experience
Godspell is taken mostly from the text of the book of Matthew, my favorite of the four gospels, both because the verses above are taken from it, and because of a repetitive literary structure the writer uses to explain Jesus’ teaching: “You have heard it said…but I tell you…” In this structure, Jesus sets the standards for moral behavior firmly in the acts of the heart and not simply actions. And since God alone can judge the heart, it puts us all on an equal playing field, something that didn’t really exist in the churches where I grew up.
Having the opportunity to revisit these words and portray a version of the man who is said to have uttered them has been an honor. I am reminded of the wonder with which I heard his parables taught as a child, and the skill with which he told those stories. This, too, is another key element of the book of Matthew (and of all the gospels): Jesus taught through story. As a storyteller myself, this connection is one that had been lost to me until I began working on this show.
We choose what is sacred to us by the attention we give it, and performing these words over and over in rehearsal (I write this the night before we open) has reminded me that Jesus held people sacred. His relationships with everyone he came in contact with, but especially those cast aside by the religious and societal leaders, were the core of who he was. In this way, I think the impact that the stories Jesus of Nazareth told had on me as a child was indelible. And having the opportunity to rediscover them by speaking his words from my mouth through theatre (which is a sacred art form to me) has been an absolute and incredible joy.