Truly this man was God's Son! — an Unknown centurion (Mk15:27)
Whatever we may think about Jesus’ death, the least that can be said about it is that it impressed at least one person in Jesus’ own day. That on person was a Roman Centurion, a man who was commander and sort of father for about 80 to 200 soldiers whose training and upkeep he was responsible for and who he would lead from the front into battle was such a thing needed. He was to be a man of valor, accustomed to take orders, even unpleasant ones, and carry them out recklessly even to the extent of his own death.
This centurion has spotted what everyone else either missed, denied, was afraid of, or was not brave enough to follow. He had spotted that Jesus was carrying out the will of another to whom he was obedient. He rightly assumes that the other is God. It is unknown if he had heard of Jesus prior to his entry to Jerusalem. It is doubtful that he had since Jesus hangs around Galilee until the very end of his earthly life. So, it seems that Jesus impressed the centurion with his bravery and resolve in dying.
In life, Jesus has won every battle posed to him. He has met every challenge in such a way as to shame his opponents as inferior while retaining the honor of one who leads a faction of disciples. Until his arrest. Then all things seem to go wrong. His faction disappears immediately. His intellectual sparring opponents, the pharisees seem to have won the day, though they do so by lies and deceit. What follows is a death in shame and dishonor, driven home by the fact that two thieves are executed with him.
But, on Palm Sunday everything is splendor and honor and praise. This is the Messiah. This is how Messiah is supposed to look. The week that follows brings a quick and drastic turn of fortunes. The centurion may have observed it rightly: Only obedience to something, someone, unseen but of great power can explain it. This is especially true for us who have, in the pages of the Gospels, walked along for the journey to Jerusalem. The priest would say mockingly: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” (Mk15:32) If he is the Messiah, he certainly can do exactly that. If he is truly the Messiah, he will do nothing of the sort. Obedience to the Father in Heaven vetoes the impulse.
But the centurion knows little or nothing of this. He is Roman and not tied to the silly little games and aspirations of the Hebrew nation that he is charged to keep in submission. He knows shame and he knows honor. He sees and commands Jesus’ final hours and concludes that he is looking at a man as honorable as a God.
It is customary to meditate on Jesus’ anguish and suffering during Holy Week. How must he have felt? How much did he suffer? What must have been his pain? What must he have thought? There are books out there by medical doctors who theorize about the extent of the pain that must have gone on in crucifixion. “A Doctor at Calvary” has just gone into another edition having been first published in 1936 with the first english version published in 1949. Others have done similar work since then. Most of these, though instructive, have come from Roman Catholic sources. Luther seems to have once quipped that if one was to meditate or concentrate on the suffering of Jesus one was missing the point of the Crucifixion. That makes sense for Luther. It is not how much he suffered that counts it is how much was done for you by that suffering that you, sinner of Christ’s redeeming work, must make yourself aware of daily.
The story of the crucifixion may just be asking its own questions though. It notes that Jesus is doing Holy week by himself after Thursday night. Everyone else is gone and gone with much resolve, witness the young man who leaves behind his clothes to get away from the arrest scene. (Mk 15:51-52) Is the battle that is going on one that only Jesus can fight? That is a fairly Lutheran colored question to be sure, but it has its basis in the fact that no one human draws near while it is happening. The story might also be asking the question: Where are you? We can use Peter as an example of the lack of faith of the disciples all we want. At least he was there in the courtyard. You? At least he heard the rooster and realized how he had dishonored the will of God and how he had abandoned the Lord on a quest that was not Peter’s quest anyway. At least he went and grieved his failure. You? Anyone? One wonders if Peter heard the rooster crow the first time but could not help himself in spite of the warning. How about you? Is your life without warning signs? But you, you pull up after the first crow, right?
Do you understand what you have been baptized into? Do you understand what you have been invited to? An internet meme shows a boy triumphant on a bike, hands in the air riding freehanded. The caption says: “I asked God for a bike, but God does not work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” Oh, how great was the pain of Jesus so I could have this bike — is my sarcastic codicil. No, the question is again about honor and shame: Seeing what you must see in the unfolding story that is Holy Week, how do you honor Jesus Christ? How do you follow Jesus Christ who insists on being obedient to the Father? If you have been baptized into him, have you any excuse not to be obedient with him? Jesus honored the Father by suffering the shame of the world so not to shame the Father’s will. What do you bring to the party? Jesus served whom? You or God? Don't’ let John 13 fool you into the wrong answer.