An Improbable Convert

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for Maundy Thursday, April 2,  came from various excerpts from Mark 14 and 15 and contrasted the actions of Judas Iscariot and the Roman Centurion who watched Jesus die on Good Friday.

Each week during Lent, we’ve been watching the interaction between Jesus and people who have had the opportunity to meet with him on more than one occasion. If you’ve been here in the past month or so, you’ve met John’s disciples, the man who was possessed, the blind man in John 9, and more. Tonight’s readings give us the opportunity to encounter two men who run into Jesus – maybe even on the same night – and they are men who are going in decidedly different directions.

The Kiss of Judas,  Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

The Kiss of Judas,
Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

Judas Iscariot has, of course, known Jesus for a while. As one of the twelve disciples, he’s traveled with the Lord for some years; he was one of the twelve who got sent out in Mark 6 and probably one of the seventy-two dispatched in Luke 10. Judas has, in fact, just finished celebrating the Passover Seder with Jesus, at which time his feet were washed by the Lord. For Judas, turning and re-turning to Jesus is something that has been second nature for two or three years. Now, however, Judas has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and so it’s time for him to cut his losses and move on. We’ll talk more about Judas on Sunday morning.

The other man who has captured my attention this evening is the unnamed centurion who watches Jesus die. We have no way of knowing how or when he first met Jesus or if, in fact, they had ever met before. Given the small size of the city of Jerusalem, however, and this man’s place in the Roman army of occupation, it’s hard for me to imagine that he would not have encountered the Lord during Holy Week. In tonight’s reading we see that the centurion, like Judas, has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and that leads this soldier to stake his claim to faith and see where God would lead him.

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

Who is this man that shows up in our reading this evening? A centurion was a member of a special class within the Roman military. The title does not reflect a specific rank (such as lieutenant or captain), but rather a place of honor. Historians believe that most centurions would have held ranks equivalent to anything between a major and a one star general in the modern military.

Centurions were men of significant prestige and power. Polybius, a second-century BC historian, said this about centurions: “In choosing their centurions the Romans look not so much for the daring or fire-eating type, but rather for men who are natural leaders and possess a stable and imperturbable temperament, not men who will open the battle and launch attacks, but those who will stand their ground even when worsted or hard-pressed, and will die in defense of their posts.”[1] Centurions were to be vigilant, strong, capable, and respectable.

Each centurion, in spite of what his title suggests, is thought to have led a group of 80 soldiers. In battle, they led from the front lines. They were easily identified by their distinctive helmets and other uniform features (which included a vitis, or “swagger stick”, a short stick made from rattan reeds), and perhaps as a result of this centurions suffered a disproportionate number of casualties during military engagements.

The centurion mentioned in Mark’s Gospel would almost certainly have been a Gentile – that is, a non-believer. One other item of note about this centurion – and all his compatriots, in fact – is that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament is spoken of in a positive manner. That is surprising, given that these men represented the army of occupation and the power of Rome.

So that’s a little about our centurion. What, or who, did he see when he looked at the prisoner Jesus of Nazareth? Initially, there was probably little to draw his attention to this itinerant Rabbi. After all, there was little in Jesus’ resume to attract much attention from the imperial elite. Peasant messiahs were a dime a dozen (or maybe I should say they were a shekel an ephah?) in those days.

He would not have been impressed with the method of Jesus’ capture. The religious authorities, who challenged Jesus publicly, chose not to detain the man from Nazareth until the crowds died down and they could sneak up on him in the middle of the night. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend, an act of dishonor, would have added to the centurion’s belief that this Nazarean was of no concern to him. Initially, the only trial that Jesus was given was before a religious body that would have had no impact on any Roman soldier.

However, it’s reasonable to think that this soldier, or at least others like him, would have stood by as the Roman Governor, Pilate, questioned Jesus and then shipped him off to the Jewish leader, Herod. The centurion would have seen the crowd’s rejection of Jesus in favor of Barabbas, who was known to be a thug and a mercenary.

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest's home in Jerusalem

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest’s home in Jerusalem

The centurion might have been able to witness the mockery that Jesus endured from the soldiers as he sat in the dimness of his prison cell. Five years ago I was privileged to visit Jerusalem, and was humbled to visit a dungeon in the basement of a church that was built on the site of the high priest’s house. There is no evidence to suggest that the cell I visited actually housed Jesus, but the conditions would have to have been similar, if not identical. Surrounded by damp walls and hearing only echoes from the street, I was struck by how intensely lonely Jesus must have been. The centurion would have seen that, all right. And he may, in fact, have been there. Do you remember the vitis? And how we read that the Lord was struck by “a reed”?

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

And we know that he was there as Jesus hung on the cross. He would have watched the taunting and the mockery continue. One particularly gruesome aspect of that mockery became clear to me when I visited some ancient Roman colonies and discovered, of all things, public toilets. We saw a long row of latrines that were constructed over a channel of flowing water. Someone in my group asked about hygiene, and we were informed that in the absence of modern toilet paper, every latrine had a bucket of vinegar close by, and every Roman soldier was issued a sponge and a stick to use for his personal hygiene. Upon learning this, my first thought was of this passage where a soldier asks Jesus if he’s thirsty while holding a vinegar-soaked sponge on a stick… The centurion watched as this kind of scorn was heaped upon the man from Galilee.

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

And, of course, the centurion saw Jesus breathe his last. It would not have been the first man he’d seen die, nor would it be the last. All we know for certain is that when this respected, powerful leader of the Roman army saw how Jesus conducted himself in his final hours, he was driven to worship the Lord.

Judas looked at Jesus and was disappointed. Jesus was not powerful enough, not strong enough, not gutsy enough, not aggressive enough to suit Judas’ ends. Jesus did not serve Judas’ purposes, and Judas moved on.

The centurion looked at Jesus and saw strength, power, and authority. This man, who served under governors and emperors and alongside of the most capable and fearsome troops that established Rome’s rule, was moved by what he saw in Jesus. The Romans, of course, had made a study of power. For them, power was a means to an end. The centurion and his colleagues were intensely pragmatic and not given much to theory or speculation. As he watched Jesus suffer and die without giving in to anger or self-pity, the centurion saw Jesus as the epitome of all that was good, righteous, and powerful – and therefore worthy of his worship.

Earlier this week, your church staff read the scriptures where the crowd chooses Barabbas instead of Jesus. As we talked about what would make a man like Judas turn his back on Jesus, and what would make the religious leaders incite the crowd to release a terrorist rather than a poor street preacher, we considered these words from James Harnish:

Is it possible that our world still knows better how to deal with a bandit, a murderer, an insurrectionist than it knows what to do with the Prince of Peace? There is a sense in which an assassin’s attempt on the pope’s life is less shocking to our world than the pope’s forgiveness of him. Is it possible that we would rather deal with raw power that rides on a stallion than with this one who comes on a donkey, with the weapons of love, patience, suffering, and peace? Given the choice, isn’t it possible that we would take Barabbas, too?[2]

The truth is, I’m afraid, that given half a chance, we – like Judas – are eager to call on our Jesus to serve our own ends. We seek Jesus on our own terms, and want him to come and take care of us.

Jesus, come on, Jesus, I really need to get an A on this test right now. Please, Jesus, just buy me that jet plane. Get me the job, Jesus. Heal my baby, Lord. Don’t forget, Jesus, the lottery drawing is tonight. Remember my dad in the hospital, Lord…

Listen – it’s not wrong to ask God about the things that are important to you. Jesus said that we were to go to God and open our hearts.

It’s important to remember, though, that we don’t follow Christ so that we get better stuff, or somehow receive better treatment from the Lord at the end of the day.

We come together as followers of the one who washed feet, who shared the loaf and the cup, and who laid down his life for his friends all while he was pointing to God’s eternal purposes of truth and reconciliation in the world. We follow Jesus not because we expect that somehow we will be treated better than he was treated, but so that the world, through us, will get a better glimpse of God’s intentions for healing and wholeness.

St. Longinus  Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

St. Longinus
Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

The ancient church liked to tell the story that this centurion who watched Jesus die was a Roman officer named Longinus, and that after bearing witness to the humble death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, he went on to be baptized, leave the army, and tell the world about the power that can be found in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t really know much about Longinus, and whether I trust that story.

The Confession of the Centurion James Tissot, c. 1890

The Confession of the Centurion
James Tissot, c. 1890

On this Maundy Thursday, however, I do know that I can be a selfish, broken, greedy, lonely, scared, violent, angry, suspicious, powerless little person, and that I am surrounded by people who are a lot like me. And like the centurion who watched Jesus die, I know that my best hope is to continue to look to Jesus to feed and clean me as I seek to follow him in humility, service, and love…which is, of course, the most significant power that the universe has ever seen. That’s the power that made the centurion stop in his tracks…and can re-arrange your life, and mine, this evening. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Rise of the Roman Empire, Translated by Ian Scott Kilvert, Penguin Books, New York, 1979, p.322

[2] from What Will You Do With King Jesus, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Reuben Job (Upper Room Books, 2006), p. 166.

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