Talk About The Passion #4 – Servant King

I’VE BEEN CAST AS JESUS in The Nottingham Passion theatre production at St Mary’s in the Lace Market this Easter. If you’re reading this without having checked out earlier instalments, I’d suggest going back on those first. It’s not a great idea to come into any story at episode four, unless it’s Star Wars, which is the only exception to this rule I can think of.

To be clear, this series of blogs bears no resemblance to the Star Wars movies. If anything, there are many significant differences, like the first three episodes in this series of blogs being well written. Reverend James Pacey (pictured above), our production’s director, once politely took me to task about mocking the quality of Star Wars scripts, so it’s possible that by the time you’ve finished reading this I’ll have been sacked from The Nottingham Passion for mocking the quality of Star Wars scripts again.

Spoiler: James prefers Star Trek. I may be okay.

To recap.

In blog one, I wrote about how I’ve found my faith difficult and how being cast as Jesus has caused me to consider how the events of Passion Week might have felt from the perspective of the central figure in all of it.

In blog two, I wrote about how Jesus may have experienced the events of Palm Sunday. I shared my thoughts on how Jesus seemed to have seen in people an absolute beauty that they couldn’t see in themselves, and how Jesus’ powers of prophecy may have made the triumphal entry into Jerusalem feel less than triumphal to him. For all the hurrahs and hosannas, Jesus knew the crowds did not understand who he really was and why he had come.

In blog three, I wrote about Jesus as a paradox – the complex challenges that must have been part and parcel of simultaneously being fully human and fully God. I suggested that an example of this (as shown in our production) might be the Godly rage and righteous anger tempered with human restraint that Jesus shows when cleansing the temple of the merchants and money changers.

You’ll see that I’ve called out three ‘p’ words above – perspective, prophecy, and paradox. Do you see where this might be going?

In a possible minor violation of rule 3 below, I appear to have worked out a way of setting out my thoughts in (gasp!) some semblance of order and sequence. I don’t usually ‘do’ alliteration, but hey. Here we are in this blog, looking at the Last Supper and how that hugely significant gathering in Jerusalem’s Upper Room two thousand years ago saw Jesus share with his disciples a model of humanity and love for others so extraordinary that it would become a catalyst for a sequence of events that would utterly change the world. In Jerusalem’s Upper Room, Jesus knew what was coming, and he knew how critical it was that his disciples were prepared for all that would follow.

Oh no! There’s a fourth ‘p’ word now, and a lovely graphic and everything because I’ve been testing out some new diagramming software.

If you’ve kept up with the series so far, you’ll know there are some rules of engagement as below. Don’t worry! Rule 3’s still intact. I can still promise there are no twee testimonies or stage-managed epiphanies coming at you later. Rest assured that the purpose of the series remains the same – to provide some reflections on how I’m preparing to play the role of Jesus, and how I’m trying to see and show the events of Passion Week from his perspective.

  1. I’m not going to try to answer all (any?) of life’s big questions for you, though I hope there may be something in what I’m writing which prompts you to explore some of these questions more deeply;
  2. I’m not going to preach to you – I have a faith, but this stuff is aimed at everyone, whatever their point of view;
  3. There is no pre-planned structure to this series which ends with me ‘seeing the light’ through my experience of playing Jesus. There’ll be no fluffy, gift-wrapped testimony from me at the end. That would be so twee, and perhaps a little cynical. So, to be clear. I genuinely don’t know how these pieces of writing will develop;
  4. I’m not about to get all ‘pretentious artist’ on you. I’m not that person, and I don’t do this acting lark for a living. I’m a part-time writer and performer who sincerely just wants to do the best job he can, as honestly as he can.

By the way, I’m not adding this as an official rule 5, but I’d suggest buying your tickets as soon as you can, because they’re selling out. Here’s the poster, and the rest is up to you.

It’s traditionally called ‘the Last Supper’ because it’s the last meal Jesus was able to share with the core group of twelve disciples before his arrest. There would be other chances for Jesus to break bread with gatherings of disciples (such as on the road to Emmaus following the resurrection) but we’re not there yet.

For now, at this point in the Passion Week story, the Last Supper would seem to be coming down the tracks with all the foreboding, impending sorrow and grim sense of finality you’d expect to have to teach spotty students like me in any typical GCSE Religious Education syllabus of the late 80s and early 90s if your name was Mrs Maureen Gleason and you were a member of staff at the Angmering School in West Sussex.

I know this reference sounds very specific, and quite possibly very specific to me and my RE teacher, but I’d always been taught that the Last Supper was just so very … well. Last.

Please don’t misunderstand me. In my life I’ve been to many organised dinner gatherings where there has been foreboding, impending sorrow and a grim sense of finality. But this is what you get with some family weddings.

At a superficial level, there is something which feels so brooding and ominous about the Last Supper. But at a deeper level, if we look at what Jesus does and achieves at that momentous gathering in Jerusalem’s Upper Room, through powers of communication rich in compassion, empathy, and intuition, surely the Last Supper is far from brooding and ominous. It’s far some sorrowful. It’s one of the most significant and empowering events in world history.

The fullest account of the events of the Last Supper is found in John’s gospel. It’s been necessary to distil this into a reduced account for our production, but each of the core components remains intact without any reduction in the scene’s power. And the scene is so powerful. We’re making some videos about the process as we go along, and here’s one all about the Last Supper.

When it’s boiled down to its basic elements, what seems most remarkable to me is how Jesus communicates such tough, heart breaking, messages to his disciples. The actual simplicity of how he approaches it, the emotional intelligence he displays when he does it, how Jesus connects with his disciples so impactfully and powerfully, ensuring clarity of instruction as well as throwing in some beautifully balanced tough love and consolation for good measure, is nothing short of extraordinary. Supernaturally extraordinary.

You need a role model for effective servant leadership? Throw out the name of any celebrated self-help guru or life coach, and I’ll raise you Jesus. Throw out How to Win Friends and Influence People, or similar volume, and I’ll raise you what Jesus models at the Last Supper. As I’ve said in previous blogs, whether you believe Jesus to have been the son of God, or instead to have been a mere human being who had some interesting things to say about love or morality, he surely must, as a minimum, have been a wholly decent man with decent intentions. And he surely must have been the most consummate, authentic, influential communicator of all time.

The Last Supper is a masterclass in communication and leadership. It isn’t Jesus preparing himself for the ordeals which are coming (his own preparation for these will come in the garden of Gethsemane and in the subsequent trials at the hands of the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate), this is Jesus preparing his disciples for the ordeals which are coming.

For the disciples these ordeals will include the devastating trauma of Jesus being ripped from them, the bitter introspection, the savage self-loathing, of having deserted and denied their lord, master and best friend. These ordeals will include picking themselves up, summoning the will and strength to raise themselves from their respective pits of despair to reunify and then begin to build a movement in the memory and model of the one whom they loved and lost. These ordeals will include carrying on without him.

Turns out this Last Supper was quite the dinner engagement.

At the Last Supper Jesus shows, as well as tells. It’s who he is. It’s how he operates. It’s in his nature. He shows the disciples what to do. He explains to them why it’s important. He asks them to do it too. And then he asks them to show everyone else, after he’s gone. And in case they might forget, he shows them something to remember him by.

‘Thaddeus? Pass me some bread.’

There’s almost perfect symmetry in it. There are two practical activities bookending the scene. The washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus, and the taking of the first communion, the inaugural breaking of bread (body broken) and drinking of wine (blood spilled).

In between the practical aspects there are the pedagogic aspects (‘I am the way, the truth and the life … I shall give you a new commandment’) and the prophetic aspects (‘You will desert me … Peter, you will deny me three times’). Of course, I only use the word ‘pedagogic’ (a posh word for ‘teaching’) because I seem to be through the looking glass with ‘p’ words now so I might as well just crack on.

It isn’t just about the saying with Jesus (mighty though his words undoubtedly are). Jesus is also about the doing. As Messiahs go, he’s demonstrably hands on.

Jesus isn’t: ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’

Jesus is: ‘Do what I do, hear what I say.’

A servant leader. A servant King.

Of course, a servant King is not what the oppressed and brutalised people of Israel are expecting to arrive in Jerusalem for Passover. The clues about the kind of Messiah Jesus is going to be are there from the beginning of Passion Week. A King not coming to take power by force, or by war, but coming in service, in peace and humility.

People were desperate, weren’t they? To see him, hear him, touch him. Pushing their way through the adoring crowds, jostling for position, reaching out in faith just to get the slightest touch of his garment as he passed by, wanting to receive some of that healing power they’d heard so much about. The healing power that radiated from him, poured out of him, just as the words of the Divine sprung from his lips, like honey for the soul.

I’m really pleased with the ‘honey for the soul’ line, and I hope you like it too. But I’m going to ruin it now by saying: ‘I don’t like my feet.’

Bear with me. There’s a point I’m making which I’ll get to soon.

I’m wearing shoes and not sandals for the production. I’ll let you into a backstage secret. After I’m crucified, I need to exit the church at one end and then quickly peg it round the outside of the church and come in at the other end so I don’t miss my cue for my scene with the wonderful Rachel Fisken (Mary Magdalene) in which I reveal I’ve been resurrected. This gives me an ideal health and safety excuse for wearing shoes and not sandals, because any eejit knows you can’t sprint in sandals.

I saw the Chariots of Fire movie when I was a kid. Athlete Eric Liddell (beautifully portrayed by actor Ian Charleson) was an immensely impressive man of God, but if he’d competed in the men’s 100 metres final at the 1924 Paris Olympics, I’m telling you he wouldn’t have won it in sandals. You can put that alternative reality to an Oscar-winning Vangelis soundtrack all you like folks, but that Liddell fella’s going base over apex in those strapped pumps.

And it’s the same with me going for a run outside of the church post-crucifixion.

‘Why’s Jesus not been resurrected yet?’

‘Fell over his sandals. On his face. I think he’s lost two teeth.’

‘Flipping heck! I paid a fiver!’

The silly and ridiculous aside I just made is that I’m uncomfortable about my horrible gnarly feet and would consider it manifestly cruel and unchristian to inflict them on anyone else, even in an intense passion play format. Other cast members have openly shared their misgivings with me about their own feet, and why they’re glad their toes won’t be inflicted on innocent audience members. Some cast members are just too ticklish and don’t want their feet touched. I wonder if Jesus ever had to deal with ticklish disciples. There must have been one of them who wanted Jesus to just jog on and leave his feet alone, even if Jesus was the son of God.

But! The serious point I was brazenly softening you up for with my disarming humour is that while pretend Jesus (me) doesn’t do feet, real Jesus absolutely does. The washing of the disciples’ feet is of huge symbolic significance. In first century Palestine, a servant wouldn’t think twice about washing the feet of their master – but a master would never wash a servant’s feet. I mean, ever. So for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet? That’s the social order inverted, completely turned on its head.

It seems trivial today (because what’s some foot washing between friends?), but at the time it would have been shocking for Jesus’ disciples to even countenance it. There was no way they’d want Jesus to wash their feet, yet here Jesus is, doing just that anyway at the Last Supper, telling his disciples why it’s important and what this simple and humble act means.

It’s about love, plain and simple. It’s about love coming down. It’s about love transcending social order, class, convention. It’s about God as a human being, looking you in the eye, showing you care, consideration, intimacy, one to one.

And what does care, consideration, love, look like as we go out into the world and minister to others? It looks like what Jesus shows us. It looks like what he shows his best friends in all the world in Jerusalem’s Upper Room at that Last Supper and first ever communion, two thousand years ago.

And if we ever forget what it looks like, then we merely reach for some bread, and some wine, and we remember.

‘A new commandment I give you. If you love me, then love one another. And love one another as I have loved you. As I wash your feet, so you wash the feet of others.’

It echoes what Jesus says in the cleansing of the temple scene. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ No exceptions to this. No carve outs. No caveats. This video explains.

It’s tough, trying to show all of this, in performance. But man! It’s such an honour.

The Last Supper is, put simply, the world turned upside down.

Everything you thought you knew about the potential in human beings for hope, for joy, for love, is eclipsed by this. The Last Supper demonstrates a new model, a new way, a new potential, for human relationships. What passes from Jesus’ lips to the ears of his closest friends over a simple meal is audacious, fearless, revolutionary. It is breathtakingly counter-cultural. And at the centre of the Last Supper? The most audacious, fearless, counter-cultural human being there has ever been.

Jesus. Teacher, leader, inspirational speaker, worker of wonders and miracles. Tenacious, outspoken opponent of religious dogma, corruption, and misuse of power.

Jesus. Defender and upholder of the poor, oppressed, and marginalised. Healer of the physically and mentally sick. A literal embodiment of God’s love.

Jesus, who saw both the conflict, and the great potential, in people. Jesus, who saw struggle, touched wounds, dried tears, showed love, washed feet. A warrior for human rights and equal opportunities and social justice before such concepts even existed.

Next stop for him in this story, though? Gethsemane.

As ever, thank you for reading.

copyright (c) carterbloke, 2023

Links – Nottingham Passion