The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible, its message vital to the teachings of Christianity.
Jesus’ words blessing the poor, the meek, the pure of spirit and the merciful, among others, come from some of the most ancient New Testament texts. The central concept of the story is one of humility, charity and love for others.
But connecting the message in the Gospel of Matthew to people’s lives today can be a challenge.
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“The question is, how do we get ourselves to turn off the TV for a moment and stop checking the last thing on our cellphones, and actually listen to these words that are so foundational, that speak to deeper parts of ourselves?” he said.
Runyeon will present his dramatic twist on the Sermon on the Mount during a special performance this weekend at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. The longtime actor, who has been featured in television shows such as “As the World Turns,” “LA Law” and “Melrose Place,” will help people better adapt Jesus’ words in everyday life.
“I hope that it helps them see things in their lives that they maybe knew they were struggling with but couldn’t quite make sense of it. They can go back to their life and it makes a little more sense,” Runyeon said. “Helping people live lives of greater joy is my goal.”
Runyeon has won acclaim during the past 25 years for his dramatic portrayal of biblical texts. But before that, he was a noted television star.
His best-known role is probably Steve Andropoulos, who he portrayed for seven years opposite of Meg Ryan on “As the World Turns.” The episode depicting their wedding garnered the second-highest ratings in the history of American soap operas.
He also was a regular on shows such as “Santa Barbara” and “General Hospital.”
In the midst of his television career, Runyeon was dealing with issues in his personal life. One of the hardest hitting was when his roommate from college, one of his best friends, committed suicide.
“That makes you ask some hard questions, when you’re a busy actor and you get the news that one of your best friends jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, it sort of takes you breath away,” he said. “It makes you step back and ask yourself, ‘What is the story here?’ Maybe it’s not just about getting the best TV ratings or the next contract.”
At the same time, Runyeon’s children were getting older. He wanted to teach them important life lessons, but in a way that captured their attention.
“I ended up taking some courses on the side, to help my kids understand the story of faith that I had been brought up on. And I realized I had been brought up with a kind of fourth-grade faith also,” he said. “That’s where most of us are in America: Folks raise their kids in the church, they get confirmed then they kind of wander away until they come back when they’re raising their own kids. But they don’t really get it.”
Inspired by author C.S. Lewis, Runyeon began to dig deeper into biblical texts and what those meant to life.
To go with his television pedigree, he had the theological chops needed to get into the words and meaning behind the biblical stories he has interpreted. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in religion, and studied at Yale Divinity School and General Theological Seminary, from which he received his master’s degree with honors in 1994.
He attended Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the world’s most influential evangelical institutions, before writing his first one-man play, “AFRAID!: The Gospel of Mark.”
Runyeon learned Greek in order to read primary texts that the biblical stories had been translated from. In going to the original language, he found that the translations were missing some subtle differences that put the meaning of the stories in an entirely new light.
“I started looking at the original text of these stories much like you would the original versions of Beethoven or Chopin. You can get the dumbed-down version, but when you’re looking at the original, there’s a beauty there that you don’t get,” he said.
Since that time, Runyeon has created shows examining the Gospels of Luke, John and Mark, as well as Christmas and the Letter of James.
The Sermon on the Mount performance grew out his continuing to look for the deeper meaning in these texts.
“As Americans, we’re all busy pursuing happiness and we’re constantly being pitched what will make us happy, it makes it much easier to understand what it’s talking about,” he said. “That is, we’re all trying to figure out what to do to be happy in our lives, and that’s what the Sermon on the Mount is about.”
In Runyeon’s portrayal, he plays the apostle Matthew teaching the Sermon on the Mount to a group congregated in Antioch, an ancient pocket in what is today Syria. He addresses the group after the Roman army has burned Jerusalem to the ground, in a time of extreme danger and difficulty to early Christians.
The audience will hear the human stories of that group gathered in Antioch, including a livestock merchant, silk trader, deacon and seamstress.
“No matter what text I’m doing, in the end, it needs to be something that you can imagine that you’re witnessing here and now. Frankly, that’s true about everything in scripture,” he said. “I have to spend enough time with each story and text to see how it’s sort of about my life right now, and how I might make that alive in the room.”
Augmenting the Sermon on the Mount show on Friday will be a second performance on Saturday, “Hollywood vs. Faith: The Three Other Beatitudes.” Runyeon will humorously share anecdotes from his time in Hollywood and his own life, looking at how media portrayal shapes the ways people try to be happy.
“On the first night, we’ll have a to-do list of what it takes to be happy through the Sermon on the Mount. Then the second night, we’ll say, as soon as you walk out the door of the church, what do the storytellers out there tell you makes you happy,” he said. “There’s this tug-of-way we’re all stuck in.”
Frank Runyeon performances
“Sermon on the Mount:” 7 p.m. Friday; A live one-man show performed by Frank Runyeon bringing the well-known biblical story to life.
“Hollywood vs. Faith: The Three Other Beatitudes:” 7 p.m. Saturday; a different look at the Beatitudes and the challenges we face in our American culture today, seen through a humorous lens.
Where: St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, 114 Lancelot Dr., Franklin
Tickets: No cost to attend, though donations will be accepted on site.
Childcare for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students will be available. For free childcare during the performance each evening, please call or email in advance to make a reservation.
Information and reservations: saintrose.net, 317-738-3929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.