“A Centurion’s Response”
Luke 23:44-56

This week we’ve been hearing about the various people around Jesus. We’ve looked at the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees and what Rev. Peter reminded us was an explosive situation. We’ve looked at Judas and were reminded by Pastor Rick about how his heart was hardened and never really open to the amazing love and grace being offered by Jesus. We’ve looked at Peter with Father Thomas, and were invited to look through Peter’s eyes how he rejected Jesus and was strengthened and changed by the experience, allowing him to become the leader he would be for the new church. Yesterday, Marion looked at Pontius Pilate and the pickle he found himself in, where he had to choose between doing the right thing, and saving his own job. And we know the choice he made.

Today, our focus is on the cross. But we’ve also heard of some more who were following Jesus on this day. We heard from Pilate’s wife. We heard of Simon of Cyrene called into action to help carry the cross. We heard of the daughters of Jerusalem, the women who were following Jesus down the street wailing and weeping. At the foot of the cross, Jesus spoke to his mother, who was accompanied by Mary, wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple whom he loved. Finally we heard the words of the Roman Centurion who was active in the death of our Lord. Each of these characters had small roles in the events we remember here today, yet look at their responses.

Each of them were not disciples of Jesus, yet here they are in the stories. In some cases they are witnesses who are pulled into the story, such as Simon of Cyrene. Yet all of them are bearing witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ by submitting and, in their own ways, proclaiming who he is.

Jesus wasn’t alone in carrying a cross, there were the two criminals walking with him. Yet we don’t hear cries for them. We don’t hear of people asking for mercy for them. We don’t hear words of hope come from their mouths as they speak to the crowd. No, Jesus was the focus because of his importance in the lives of people who heard about and encountered him.

The Roman centurion is in interesting character. Here is a man in charge of the soldiers who were brutally flogging Jesus. He gave the orders to drive the nails into his hands and feet. He stood by, watching, as they lifted him up and let him hang there in the most brutal form of execution.

As we think about the centurion, I found the following reflection written by Captain Shannon Philio, a chaplain with the USAF. It’s written as an account of the situation from the centurion’s eyes. (source: http://www.cresourcei.org/centurion.html)

“Were you there? I was there. I’m a Roman centurion, a military officer in charge of 100 soldiers. I have more pride than a pilot of an F-16, A-10, and U2 combined. I’m a soldier’s soldier. Deployed for one week in the Middle East, in Jerusalem. I didn’t want to be. But the Jews were having a special holiday, Passover, and Rome thought there might be trouble because of the crowds and because of a certain man and His followers, one Jesus of Nazareth. I had heard of this man. A friend of mine, another centurion, told me how his servant was miraculously healed by Him. I was curious. But I was also in no mood for these people’s religion. I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t want trouble. We were peacekeepers. But what I saw…

Jesus was weakened by the flogging. He couldn’t carry the crossbeam which weighed about thirty to forty pounds for the cross He would be crucified upon. A man named Simon was conscripted to carry it. The crowds were crazy. Women were following, wailing, mourning. We took Him to Golgatha, the place of the skull. Golgotha is Aramaic for skull. The Latin word for skull is Calvaria, thus the name of the place, Calvary.

We Romans crucified the basest of criminals, slaves, and enemies of Rome. Crucifixions were cruel. We would take heavy, wrought, iron nails and drive them through the victim’s wrists onto the crossbeam and the feet onto the vertical beam. And then we would lift the victim up so that the weight caused difficulty breathing. To ease the pain, the victims would lift with their feet, easing breathing but bringing great agony to the feet. Sometimes the pain would prolong for days.

I was amazed as I heard Jesus say as they drove the nails into His wrists and heels, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The people, the chief priests and rulers, and the teachers of the law mocked Him. They heaped insults upon Him and spat upon Him. Two rebels, insurrectionists, charged with treason against Rome, were also crucified with Him, one on each side, and they heaped insults upon Him. “Save yourself if you are the Son of God,” the crowds mocked. One of the criminals later repented. “This man has done nothing wrong.” And I thought as I sat under the cross, “Yes, he is right!” “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” the criminal said. And Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

And then Jesus looked at me, and I thought as I stared at Him, “I want to be in paradise too.”

The women were wailing. There were four of them nearby, one of them being His mother, Mary. And next to her was a disciple whom Jesus seemed to have loved very much. And when He saw them both, He said, “Woman, behold your son!” And then to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!”

And I thought to myself, “Incredible! Even in the midst of dying on the cross, in a time of intense physical pain and mental anguish, this Jesus was thinking of others.” And the words came back to my mind, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Still in control. Still strong. Still ministering and thinking of others.

Three hours had passed. It was noon on that Friday. For the next three hours, it was completely dark. “What was happening?”

At the ninth hour, about 3 p.m., after hanging on that cross for six hours, He cried, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani,” – “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” Such agony, such pain, as if He were experiencing Hell, as if all the sins of the world were placed upon Him. I later learned that at this moment His Father’s face was turned away from Him, this Jesus who from all eternity knew nothing but perfect, infinite, joyful bliss and communion with His Father, and now His Father had turned His face away from His Son. He who knew no sin had become sin in our place. I tried to close my ears. I tried to close my eyes. And then it stopped.

I looked at Him. He seemed tired, exhausted.

“I am thirsty,” He said. They gave Him wine mixed with gall, a bitter, sour vinegar, to mock Him and to keep Him revived to prolong the suffering.

Afterwards, Jesus said, “It is finished.” “What is finished?” I wondered. He seemed to be speaking about something more than His life.

And then in a loud voice, He cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” He didn’t go out weak. As was apparent by His voice, He was still strong. And He was still in control, as if He were waiting for all things to be fulfilled before He gave up His life, not anybody taking it from Him.

He breathed His last.

The curtain in the temple, which separated the Holy Place from the most Holy Place, was torn in two from top to bottom. There was a big earthquake. Rocks split open. Tombs were broken open. Later, bodies of many holy people who had died would rise to life and walk through the city.

I was terrified. I thought the end of the world had come. And I looked up at this man who days before was entering the city with palm branches waving, a man now at peace, as if He had a smile upon His lips, such beauty, such love, and I praised God and then exclaimed, “Surely this was a righteous man, surely He was the Son of God!””

Pastor Rick reminded us the other day that we shouldn’t try and put too much into the story that isn’t there. This story I think does a reasonable job of this. As a leader in the Roman army, the centurion would have been well aware of Jesus and his followers. He would have been prepped on what to expect, and would have been getting reports of his activities. But he also has a job to do, and that is to enforce the laws and the judgements made by the political leaders.

He would have been there through the brutal flogging of Jesus, beaten and torn within an inch of his life. He would have been following along with the march towards Calvary, seeing the crowd that has gathered as Jesus struggled with the weight of the cross, weeping and out-pouring their thanks, love and support for him.

He would have been there as he hung on the cross, talking with the criminals, talking to his mother, crying out in pain, forgiving his persecutors. He would have seen the water pour out when they pierced his side as he died of a broken heart.

Through it all, the centurion would have witnessed the strength of Jesus to endure the things that would have completely destroyed anyone else. They would have never made it this far, and they most certainly would not have been so quiet in accepting their punishment as innocent people.

Yet Jesus showed his strength. Jesus showed he was accepting his fate. Did the centurion fully understand why he did this? No. But the centurion saw something within his actions which caused him to question who Jesus is. His only conclusion at the end of the day, according to our reading from Luke, after everything he saw was this, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent”. And as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

Here is a man who has not seen Jesus heal, he has not heard a parable, he is basing his decision simply on what he has witnessed as he commanded the men who beat and put him on the cross. As a witness to the final moments, watching closely as to how Jesus responded to the hatred thrown upon him, he could only come to that conclusion.

We have heard much more. We read the scriptures and know what has lead up to this day. We know what will happen in three days. So when we bear witness to the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, what is our conclusion?

Is it the loss of a teacher? Is it the loss of a friend? Is it the death of a nice guy?

Or is it “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died… for me”?

I want to stress this is a very important question. It’s important because the victory of the empty tomb, the Easter resurrection depends on our answer. Who is Jesus to you?

Someone has died today. Someone has placed their life in the line of fire and taken a bullet for you. Actually, a bullet would be easy. He was beaten in the most brutal way imaginable. He was dragged through the streets of Jerusalem, tied to a cross. Then he was nailed to that cross and hung to die in what is known as one of the most inhumane methods of execution to have ever existed!

Why did he do it? He did it for his friends. He did it for those who did this to him. He did it for the centurion. He did it for the criminals beside him. He did it for you.

My friends, who is Jesus to you?