Yishar

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.

The Crucifixion, Luca Signorelli (c. 1505)

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:

Early Christians Worship in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus (19th c. woodcut)

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!

Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple, Alex Levin (used by permission http://www.artlevin.com).

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.

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.