The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On Palm/Passion Sunday (April 14, 2019), we imagined a friendship that might have shaped the world… We tried to see the crowds at the crucifixion, and we sought to consider what is the crux of the matter. Our Gospel text was Mark 15:21-41, and we heard it after considering the words of Isaiah 53.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship please visit the link below:
As I was preparing for this message I was struck by something that seemed surprising at this point in our study of Mark. You’ll remember that we have observed that Mark is typically the “sparest” of the Gospels. It’s the shortest, and it has the least of just about anything. There is no infancy narrative; there are not many extended teaching passages; and as we’ll see in the week to come, his treatment of the resurrection is the most abbreviated of all the Gospels. Mark is writing a short and to the point account of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is demonstrated in his treatment of the central event of his entire Gospel – the death of Jesus on the cross. His account of it is given to us in three words in verse 24: “they crucified him” (in the Greek, that’s only two words). It’s short and to the point. Just the facts.
And yet that stark reality is contrasted with the amount of detail that Mark lavishes on the scene surrounding this central event. In particular, I noted the naming of characters – something that Mark was not always eager to do. In these twenty verses, we hear the names of Simon, Alexander, Rufus, Elijah, Mary, Mary, James, Joseph, and Salome. We are further directed to consider a host of un-named participants: two bandits, countless passers-by, chief priests, scribes, many other women,and a centurion. I think that is Mark’s way of indicating that this event, and the Gospel, are to be known and interpreted in community where people’s names are known. In my attempt to do that, I’m imagining a scene in Rome close to 2000 years ago. There are forty or fifty individuals crowded into a catacomb under the city, listening to an aged black man tell a story. Listen with me:
Sisters and brothers, I am amazed at this unlikely community that the Master has formed here in Rome. I know that you see each other all the time, but I am here to remind you that it is unusual to come across a gathering that includes Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female – people from every walk of life are represented in this small circle. I am grateful for the ways that you have welcomed and loved my sons Alexander and Rufus in this place, and I am delighted even to see my second-born’s namesake, my old friend Rufus here – once a Centurion of Rome, now a man of leisure…
I do not know how you came to know the Master, but for me, it began in the context of community. I wasn’t looking for a savior; I wasn’t looking for a new religion; in fact, all I was looking for was the shortest route to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Growing up in Cyrene – I believe that some of you may know this area as Libya – in Northern Africa, coming to Jerusalem was a dream. I mean, we had a community of Jews in Cyrene, but all we talked about was one day making it to the City of God – all of the boys and men dreamed of being able to be in Jerusalem for the feast – and in that particular year, I had made it!
I was rushing through the outskirts of town trying to find the Temple. I was eager to worship YHWH in a new way, where I could see and smell the sacrifice and stand shoulder to shoulder with my brothers in the faith. I’d planned this trip for years. The last thing I wanted was a distraction.
I saw a crowd – it looked like a parade of some sort. The previous evening I’d stayed in Jericho, just outside of Jerusalem, and all the talk at the guest-house was of the events of the previous week when a teacher from Galilee rode into the city on a donkey, being proclaimed as Messiah. I had heard of others who claimed to be the ones to throw off Rome, or to bring liberation, and I wasn’t interested in politics like that. I hadn’t come to take part in a protest – I just wanted to see the splendor of the Temple. I wanted to see the place where YHWH dwelled.
But then, as I looked for an appropriate direction to go, it seemed as though all of a sudden the crowd was upon me. In a second, I sensed that somehow, all eyes were directed toward me – and I didn’t know why that was. I looked, and there was a giant of a man – a Roman Centurion – in fact, that man right over there – Rufus – and he was pointing directly at me, yelling words in a language I did not understand.
I tried to take it all in, and as I looked around wildly I saw what I knew to be the heart of the procession: there were three prisoners, each struggling under the weight of a cross. And even though I didn’t speak his language, I knew what that Roman Officer was saying.
We had, from time to time, crucifixions in Cyrene. And I knew that it was not uncommon for the Romans to make the condemned man carry his own cross beam. After all, why would a soldier get his hands dirty and his back sore merely to execute a common criminal? That was what was happening here.
And while two of the convicts were making their way all right, the third man was clearly not able to continue. He appeared to have been beaten savagely, and I was surprised he was able to even walk, let alone carry the timber that must have weighed a hundred pounds.
I felt sorry for the man; it was indeed a pathetic situation. But I grew up in Cyrene. I had seen plenty of pathos before. I didn’t want to get involved. And yet, in all of my years, I have not figured out how to say “no” to an armed Centurion backed by his entire cohort. And so I put aside my plans, girded my robe, and picked up the cross beam.
I was ashamed to be connected with that enterprise. At first, I was embarrassed – what if people thought that I was a criminal? In fact, I tried to get it over with quickly. I walked as fast as I could – outpacing the condemned man. The Centurion cracked a whip and told me to slow my pace and walk with the convicts. Then I was angry and frustrated, as I saw my chance for worship in the Temple – and for sharing in the sacrifice – slipping away.
And then we got to a place that is called Golgotha. Some soldiers came and took the wood from me. After taunting me for a bit, these men pushed me aside and gave me to understand that I was now free to go – that my work was done.
For the first time, I turned and I looked right at the prisoner whose cross I’d carried. I was unsettled to find that he was looking right at me. And then, I could tell that he was trying to speak. He licked his parched lips and he croaked out a single word. He said, “Yishar.” I had never heard that word before, but I later learned that it is the Aramaic word that Galileans use to say “thank you.”
“Yishar.” That is the only word that the Master ever spoke directly to me, and yet it has come to mean more to me than all the other words of his that I have come to know.
Well, my friends, I became a man transfixed. I could not leave that hillside. I was there to witness it all – the jeering of the crowd, the taunting of the bandits beside him… And yet the thing that I found most appalling – and surprising, since I had in fact come to see those men – was the way that the holy men I had come to see and worship with in the Temple were so eager to leave the beauty of the Temple and the splendor of YHWH behind in order to come and heap scorn and derision on this man as he was dying in a dump. I didn’t understand how it was that they who already had so much power and prestige – they had clearly already “won”, from what I could tell – and yet they could not say enough vile things about this poor man.
Now remember this, my friends: I had never met this man whom I’ve come to consider to be my Master; and I didn’t know any of those priests and scribes from the Temple, and yet even a man as simple as I was wise enough to know that the God whom I’d traveled to worship would not take delight in the suffering or death of anyone.
Remember, I had come to Jerusalem encounter the Divine Presence. To stand on the Promised Land. And most importantly, to pray. And on that Friday so many years ago, I only heard two prayers. And neither of them was in the Temple that had been the object of my journey.
The first prayer I heard came from the lips of the Man himself. It was a guttural cry of lament, loss, and brokenness. He managed to cry out the first verse of the 22ndPsalm, and that led me to consider the rest of that song – the ways that God’s people experience such pain and alienation.
The second prayer that I heard that day was uttered by our friend Rufus, the Centurion. When it was all done, I heard him whisper, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” Rufus told me later that he didn’t think he was praying, and that it was in fact the first prayer of his entire life.
And yet it was a prayer. And we are here this morning because brother Rufus was right. The man who was killed that day, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God. It occurred to me that perhaps I had, in fact, been witness to a sacrifice after all.
And it would be a good story, my friends, if I were to stand here and tell you that Rufus and I went out that evening for some wine, and that we spent the next few days in the company of the friends of Jesus as we learned and prayed together.
But that didn’t happen. I was a poor foreigner from Africa. He was a Roman soldier with work to do in a place that didn’t like or respect Rome. So I faded into the twilight at the end of the day. I made it to the Temple after all, and was witness to the disturbance that was caused when the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in a manner that no man could have done… And even when I was there, peering in on the altar itself – I was aware that the holiest thing I would ever see was the death of this Son of God.
I remained in Jerusalem. I had only planned to stay for a couple of weeks, but I got sick and by the time I recovered it was time for the Feast of Pentecost, and I decided to celebrate that feast with the people in Jerusalem. On the day of the feast I was making my way down the street when I heard a voice calling, crisp and clear, in my own language. I turned, and I recognized the speaker to be one of the followers of the Galilean who had been killed. That man seemed to be as surprised to be speaking in my language as I was to hear it! And yet on that day I was able to hear, for the first time, the significance of the life that this man had lived – and I heard the news of his resurrection as well.
Later that day, as I listened to Peter preaching about the new life that Jesus offered, I turned and saw a shock of red hair and recognized Rufus as the Centurion who had been present at Golgotha.
It was thenthat Rufus and I did become friends. Together, we went with the followers of Jesus back to their lodging and shared in a meal. We became more than friends – we are brothers. In fact, my second-born son bears his name.
And yet – and yet, I realize that the story of how God worked to bring the lives of a simple laborer from Cyrene and a Roman Centurion together in this place – well, that’s a story for another day.
Today, we are gathered to remember what is crucial. We are here to consider the cruxof the matter, as our friends might say in Latin. We have heard from the book written by our brother Mark in Greek kai staurousin auton. In the language of Rome: et crucifigentes eum. And they crucified him.
That’s all our brother Mark tells us.
And yet it is the crucial thing. It is the crux of our faith.
I cannot say that I am glad that it he was crucified. I would have preferred it to be me, in fact. I surely deserved it more than he. No, I am not happy that it happened, and yet I must say that I am glad to have been there. Sharing in his death has made the opportunity of speaking of his life and resurrection even more meaningful to me.
Sisters and brothers, you know that the world has much evil and many problems. The fact that we are forced to worship here, in the catacombs, hiding among the dead while we proclaim life and light to all – that is one of the ways that you know that the world is a broken place. And yet, let us leave those great problems of the world aside for now. Let us meditate on those three words: they crucified him. And let us claim how that event has led us to experiences of new life, of improbable community, and of an understanding of the willingness of God – the one who I thought was hidden behind a curtain in the temple – let us hold fast to our appreciation for the fact that thatGod has demonstrated a willingness – no, an eagerness – to enter into the dark, hidden, painful and yes, even deadly places of our own lives.
Let us celebrate this Lord’s day the fact that the God of whom I had learned as a boy growing up in Cyrene is the One who was revealed in the person of Jesus to the Centurion; the One whom we had thought to dwell in a room in Jerusalem has risen to fill the world. Let us embrace as the crux of the matter the truth that because he has known death, we can know life. And as we think on all of those things then let us, beloved, find it in us to whisper back to him that which he said to me: yishar. Yishar. Thanks be to God. Amen.