Ask the Centurion


Sermon for Palm Sunday 2018



I love Bible movies. I have quite a collection of movies based on stories from the scriptures, and I have no problem watching them over and over again. The movies, and the stories never get old to me. I guess that is because the Bible itself is a part of my daily life. It isn’t something that I turn to now and then looking for advice or justification; it is a world of texts and stories and individuals that I live with. I try to keep myself immersed in scripture, regularly swimming around in it, not because I am a priest, but because I am a person of faith. I want to remain connected to my ancestors in the faith, and scripture is one of the most important ways that we do that.


So I like to see how others interpret or imagine these biblical stories and scenes and since I love movies, what better way than watching an epic (and sometimes junky) bible movie now and then? Of course, Hollywood is in the business of entertainment, not education and certainly not worship, so one must always be careful of confusing a director’s vision or an actor’s performance, with the actual gospel; but even a failure on film can teach us something if it encourages us to look deeper or pay closer attention to what is happening. Even a bad bible movie can be good, if it draws us further into the story.


The best example of that that I can think of comes from the movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Very expensive and very long with a somewhat dull Jesus portrayed by Max Von Sydow, and a cameo role for just about every available actor in Hollywood at the time, but the worst failure of the movie (and in my opinion the number one bible movie fail of all time) comes near the end with Jesus’s death on Calvary. The movie famously employed John Wayne to play the centurion at the foot of the cross. He has one line to deliver: “Surely this man was the son of God” and he totally butchers it. I’m not exactly sure how that line should have been delivered, but I know that’s not it. There is no emotion or life in his words; no sense of the importance of what it is that he is saying. I like John Wayne, but this has to be a low point in his movie career: 4 seconds in a 4 hour movie, only seven words to say and he totally flops. But he does succeed in doing one thing: he makes me want to know more about this character that he is portraying.


The centurion at the foot of the cross is one of the oddest moments in the gospel story. In this whole story that we just heard, the one character that actually recognizes Jesus as the Son of God is this unnamed centurion watching Jesus die. How strange. What was it that this centurion saw or witnessed that led him to this belief? He wasn’t Jewish, so Jewish expectations about who the messiah was, or what he should or shouldn’t do or say would have been irrelevant to him. He wasn’t one of Jesus’s followers, so he hadn’t heard him preach, hadn’t seen any of his miracles. That wasn’t what convinced him. He certainly would have seen crucifixions before, so the brutality of the scene wouldn’t have shocked him. So what was it? Was it the manner in which he accepted his death? Was it the darkness in the sky or the ground shaking beneath his feet? We don’t know. It is a mystery to us, what exactly changed his heart, but here is what we do know:


In Mark’s Gospel, the individual that most profoundly recognizes who Jesus is, is also the individual most responsible for his death. The person who truly recognizes what is happening on the cross, is also the person who most has to take responsibility for it.


From the moment that Jesus predicts his own betrayal, his disciples began saying: “Surely, not I?” I couldn’t be the one responsible for your death. I would never do such a thing.


The religious authorities that tried him and mocked him as a prophet, they think he is deserving of death. They condemn him, but they don’t want to pull the trigger. Let the secular governor, Pilate, take care of that dirty deed.


Pilate has the power to set Jesus free, but he doesn’t. Instead of taking responsibility though, he makes sure that he can blame the crowd…after all, he was just fulfilling the will of the people wasn’t he? Surely Jesus’s blood wasn’t on his hands.


Nobody wants to take responsibility for the death of this man, but the buck has to stop somewhere. The executioner, the man closest to the action, the last person with any authority in our story and the person who might very well have had Jesus’s actual blood on his hands is this lonely centurion. Did he tell himself he was just following orders? Did he try to justify that his actions would save lives by somehow keeping the peace? Who knows what thoughts crossed his heart, but no accusation or blame crossed his lips. The truth is, the centurion cannot deny his role in the death of this man, and that is what makes his statement so much more powerful.


The words “truly this man was God’s son” are being uttered by the man who might very well have held the hammer and the nail. The man who truly recognized who Jesus was, also had to recognize the role that he played in his death. Jesus was judged and condemned for offending God and threatening the peace, but who was the guilty one?


Maybe the centurion walked away from Calvary recognizing a profound truth: humans are always putting God on trial for their own sins. How many times have I heard people say: “where is God with all of the suffering and evil in the world? How can you believe in a God that stands by while innocent people are killed? How can a loving God allow such pain to exist?” I wonder sometimes if all these questions aren’t just another way of saying “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Maybe we don’t want to acknowledge the role that we all have had to play in making the world as it is. But God has not ignored our suffering, even the suffering brought about by our own hands. He hears the cries of his children, he enters into our human flesh, feels our pain, experiences our fear, and offers us the promise of forgiveness and the promise of a new life. Christianity’s answer to what God is doing about the evil in the world is to point to the cross. In that one symbol we are forced to acknowledge both the consequences of our own actions, and the power of God’s love.


Where is God in a world filled with suffering?

Ask the centurion.