[Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012]
I’d like you to hear a little more from the last voice that spoke in the Passion Gospel – the Centurion. He was the commander of 100 soldiers stationed in Jerusalem, and his assignment was not easy. Jerusalem was always in a state of unrest because the Jewish people hated the Roman occupiers, and they longed for the return of a king of their own. In this constant unrest, the centurion’s job was to keep the peace – through sheer terror.
So I’d like to share with you a letter from this centurion, who has just witnessed the events of the first Holy Week. No, it’s not authentic history – just a fictional glimpse into a heart transformed by the Cross. He’s writing to his wife on the evening of Good Friday.
* * *
To the noble and beautiful Lydia –
I have to tell you what I have seen and heard over the past few days here in Jerusalem. I began this week as a soldier of Rome, a loyal subject of our divine Emperor, one who keeps people in line. But I end this week as someone else. I’m haunted by what I’ve seen and heard from a single man here, a Jew from the countryside. We thought he was leading a rebellion. Maybe he was, but it wasn’t like the other little rebellions we crush here.
This man was named Jesus, and earlier this week he came riding into Jerusalem on a colt, the way the Jews say their king will come to bring back their kingdom. We’d heard about Jesus, traveling through the countryside, proclaiming that their God’s kingdom was on its way. But then he came into Jerusalem with hundreds of his followers, hailing him as their king. We knew the crowd might get ugly, and I was ready to move on them.
But they went away peacefully, at least until the next day. Then this Jesus came to the temple of the Jews and started a riot, destroying property and screaming about how their leaders were profaning the holy place. Afterwards, when he was talking to the people, I’d never seen a crowd so spellbound – as if they were listening to their God himself. Again, I thought we’d have to break them up, because the crowd would have stormed the governor’s palace if Jesus had told them to. They would have done anything he told them to. But he left the city in peace. I couldn’t understand it. He had them just where he wanted them, but he wouldn’t let them make him king.
Then yesterday, everything turned upside down. The Jewish leaders arrested him and brought him to the governor’s palace this morning. I was there with my men because this is the Jews’ great festival, and you never know what will happen with so many of them in the city. The Jewish leaders brought Jesus to the governor, saying, “This man has proclaimed himself king. He’s a rebel against the Emperor.”
The governor has seen these rebel leaders come and go, and he’s quick to kill them off before they become a threat. So he asked Jesus who he was, sure that Jesus would incriminate himself. But he wouldn’t fight. He didn’t claim to be a king; he only said, “You say I’m king.” Then the Jewish leaders started accusing him of all kinds of actions against the Empire. But Jesus said nothing. I’ve never seen anything like it. No matter what they said about him, he just stood there, stronger and nobler than any Roman senator. He should have been defending himself; he should have been fighting back. There he was, standing before the leaders of his faith and the power of Rome itself. But in his silence, he held the power.
Even the governor was amazed. He didn’t know what to do. He tried to get rid of the problem by releasing Jesus to the crowd. But the crowd had turned on him. Who knows why? You never know how this mob will act. So the governor told us to take him out and do what we always do with traitors against the Emperor – torture, then crucify.
Lydia, I’ve been here so long it no longer seems strange to beat a man within an inch of his life, and humiliate him, and watch him wither in the sun on a cross. Making an example of these rebels is my job. But this one was different. We whipped him; then we took him back to the palace to continue the torture. They’d said he was a king, so we dressed him up in fine purple robes – and then beat him some more, just for sport. He could barely stand by this point. We made a crown out of branches with long thorns and jammed it into his head. Lydia, he should have been begging for mercy, like they always do. He should have been denying who he was and turning in his friends. But he just stared at me. Tears ran down his face, but he just stared at me. The whips and the thorns couldn’t touch what was inside this man. With his body broken and barely able to stand, he still held the power.
So we took him out and put the bar of the cross on his shoulders. But he couldn’t even stand under it, much less walk. So we dragged him to the hill while someone in the crowd carried the crossbar. Once we got there, I tried to give him wine with drugs in it – at least something for the new pain that was coming. But he wouldn’t take it. So we went ahead and nailed him to the wood. I took the sign that gave the charge, and I nailed that to the cross, too, like always. But this wasn’t the same as always. We were killing him because he was supposed to be a threat to the Empire. But this one wasn’t a threat, at least not the way the other rebels are. He didn’t want to take on my army or topple the governor. He wasn’t a revolutionary. He was something else.
I had to stay there at my post until it was over. I watched the people coming by, ridiculing him. He wouldn’t answer, not one of them. He just hung there. I could hear him moaning sometimes, trying to breathe, waiting for it to end. Sometimes, I’d turn around and look at him – and he gave me the strangest look I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t even the pain I knew he felt. It was sadness – the deepest sadness, the sadness of one who has seen too much but knows his work is not yet done.
Then, Lydia, as his life slipped away, the day grew darker and darker. The wind began to blow, as if a storm were moving in. And suddenly, this man who had suffered so long in silence finally spoke, but not to any of us who were killing him. He cried out to his God. In all his suffering, he never cried out against us. He never showed any fear of us. His only fear was whether his God was still with him.
When he cried out, I turned to look at him. Then the power I’d seen before returned. His eyes fixed on mine with fierce strength in the midst of anguish. Then he closed his eyes and cried out in a language only he and his God could know. In the wind and the darkness, I thought I felt the earth shake. And, in that moment, I knew this was the son of God I had tortured and killed.
There I was, with my armor and my spear and my hundred soldiers, and I was powerless. I’ve never seen anything so strong as that broken man. I’d never understood just how weak we are, we who occupy this land. All the legions of the Emperor were like dust that afternoon. When that man died, I should have felt victory. He was a rebel, my enemy; and I had beaten him and broken him. But when he died, I knew he had won. He and his God had power that makes our brutality look like child’s play. But I wasn’t afraid of it. His strength drew me in. Those eyes invited me to come to him, even though I’d killed him.
I don’t know what to do now, my dear Lydia. I’ve come to believe in a man I’ve just nailed to a cross. I don’t know yet where that leaves me. I want to find his followers; maybe their whole movement isn’t dead. But what I do know is that this story isn’t finished. This God whose son just we just killed – this God will not stay silent for long. Perhaps he’ll strike us down, but somehow I don’t think so. I have a feeling the end of this story will shock us. I have a feeling this God will do something we can’t imagine. I have a feeling this God will take killers like me and vanquish us with love. This God conquers death with life. And not even an army can stop it.