One thing William Shakespeare knew about his audiences was that they were hungry to see something wonderful. The public theaters of early modern England were built on the premise that the public would pay for novelty, for spectacle, and for either a happy ending or a savagely bitter one, depending on the story at hand. We are of course familiar with this logic. Entertainment is a huge industry for us, and there are theme parks and malls and entire chunks of Florida devoted to keeping us fascinated by the latest spectacle. But in Shakespeare’s day the notion of selling a big spectacle was quite new, and it required his genius, among others, to win over a big audience and the profits they brought with them. Needless to say, he won.
Of all the spectacles Shakespeare promulgated, one of the most fascinating is his depiction of Cleopatra. It’s a real tour de force, although it’s laden with attitudes about women and Egyptians that should have ended right there in the early seventeenth century. Think about it: Shakespeare is asking his actors to present the legendary queen in all her glory, able to captivate Antony and Caesar (more than one Caesar, actually) and any number of lesser folk. And whom does he have to play this supremely captivating role? Just a thirteen year-old boy with a squeaky voice. It’s a famous mismatch, and a famous moment of theatrical audacity. Because all the women’s roles in Shakespeare’s day were played by boy actors, Shakespeare wrote this play about an aging Cleopatra knowing that his writing would have to turn an adolescent into a famous seductress.
I won’t go on and on about the strategies he uses, except to suggest that the play works in part by telling us over and over again, that what we see isn’t anywhere near as wonderful as the original. At one moment, Cleopatra actually says that she doesn’t want to be captured by Rome because the Romans will want to display her as a trophy, and they will put on stupid plays with boy actors in them, trying to imitate her. Incredible! Here is Cleopatra in her own play, telling us that she literally wouldn’t be caught dead in a play like the one we are seeing. Here is a boy actor playing Cleopatra and looking us right in the eye to say that no boy actor is ever going to be able to play Cleopatra.
Well I have a new theory about all of this: that’s evangelism. Being a squeaky adolescent who tries to play Cleopatra is what evangelism looks like in practice. It’s part of what it means to say “We have seen the risen Lord!” while we strut awkwardly about on the stage of this world, doing a very poor imitation of being a close friend of Jesus.
Ask the disciples who were locked in an upper room for fear of the religious authorities in John’s gospel this morning. Their performance was so unconvincing that their own friend Thomas gave it a terrible review. “You’ve seen the risen Lord? This is what your salvation looks like? What kind of bad theater is this?”
Bad theater indeed. And anyone coming into the church in our day could say the same thing. These people--huddled together, fearful of what the world has to say about us, uncertain about our role, baffled by the resurrected Christ—surely these people aren’t the church of God. Surely God hasn’t entrusted the keys of the kingdom to such spiritual adolescents.
But God has. And along with the unconvincing performance, God has given us the Thomas’s of this world, the theater critics who challenge us to be authentic. “No,” Thomas tells them, “this thing you are doing in a closed room is not enough for me. Your religion is not enough for me. Give me Jesus.”
Thomas wants to see Jesus. Thomas wants to touch Jesus. Thomas wants Jesus to be vulnerable to him, available to him, real, personal. Above all, Thomas doesn’t want to pretend that he has seen Jesus if he has not. He knows that he cannot be an apostle if Jesus is dead for him.
And Thomas’s reluctance to applaud their bad performance tells us something new and wonderful about what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s not what we might have been expecting.
It appears that what is required to be a follower of Jesus is not exactly faith, or at least not faith as we commonly represent it. What’s required is dissatisfaction. What’s required is the ability to look at the church—huddled up behind a locked door, fearful, discouraged even though we have seen the Lord—the ability to look that church in the eye and say “This is not enough for me.”
We need the ability to look at our lives, which may be very pleasant and good lives, and say, “This is not enough. I haven’t seen Jesus. I haven’t seen Jesus in a life that has been focused on doing what pleases and distracts me. I haven’t seen Jesus in a life that’s tame and complacent. Jesus hasn’t been real for me yet, and sometimes when I look at you I wonder whether you’ve seen him, either.”
Was Easter enough for you? It doesn’t have to have been! Yes, it was gorgeous and stirring here and deeply moving. But that doesn’t have to have been enough. Jesus isn’t through with us. No, far from being satisfied with Easter—I don’t care how great our church is—far from being satisfied with Easter, we need to stay clear that the full life of our risen Lord is something we haven’t seen yet.
Jesus is the real Cleopatra, far surpassing Shakespeare’s exotic English fantasies about an ancient Egyptian queen. This is what Shakespeare says about Cleopatra:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
If a seventeenth-century English playwright can put into words what it means to gaze on Cleopatra and still be unsatisfied, surely the church can learn, as Shakespeare did, to turn our defects into a virtue.
No, when you look at us, you aren’t getting the whole picture of Jesus no matter how hard we try to make that happen. Yes, Jesus is here, hands outstretched, available, intimate. And always calling us to want to see him more fully.
In truth, most of us need to need more from God. We need to be hungrier. We’ve picked up the idea, subtly or not so subtly, that it’s in bad taste to be desperate for God, haunted by our need to see God. Somewhere along the road, we’ve learned that real adults tuck their spiritual needs away discretely out of sight. We are grateful for experiences and people and communities that draw us closer to Jesus but we don’t make a big deal out of our need for them.
But God doesn’t work that way. God needs us to need more. Like Cleopatra, God wants to arouse our hunger every time God feeds us. Jesus didn’t call us to be his friends so that we could politely stifle our need for him. Jesus isn’t one of those friends who doesn’t want to know you.
Thank God what happened last week wasn’t enough! Thank God there are still the dissatisfied among us who are looking for more! Hungry for more. For the whole thing, the whole life of Jesus in us that makes no sense and that brings peace where peace has not been possible before. Thank God that what we’re up to in our lives of faith is not a performance that can be perfected in one Holy Week. Let’s hold out for more. Let’s hold out for the spirit of God in us doing something we could never have predicted.
And like that boy actor, performing an impossible role, let us look one another in the eye with supreme, knowing, confidence, certain that our playwright reigns.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
The Second Sunday of Easter, 8 April 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia