Good Friday Witness The Centurion by Sara Sosa, pastor at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, MN
I didn’t want this tour of duty. I was happier with my battalion back home. Close to my wife...my kids. Near to my friends. But when Rome calls, obedience is the only choice. I arrived in Jerusalem just last week. Crowds were already streaming into the city. Cheaters and thieves among them, plotting to overcharge, steal, bribe and kill anyone who got in the way. Perfect cover for them in these large crowds. I was bitter. I was angry. Who wants to be in Jerusalem during the Passover celebration of those Jews and their crazy zealots? Not me. No, not me.
Barely received by the other soldiers on duty, I could feel their cold stares and recognition of me as a temporary recruit from some outlying location. They didn’t try to hide their contempt. I pretended I didn’t care. I soon found I didn’t like their way of soldiering. Keep the peace? That, I can do. Arrest those in violation of Roman law? I can do that, too. Abuse my power to take advantage of others? That’s a place I can’t go.
Yet I am standing on this lonely, forsaken hill they call Calvary. We are waiting for death to arrive and claim the three condemned souls up on those crosses. What a way to die. Surely there is another way to punish? I hate this job. Today, I don’t even really like me. I stood by and watched, kept the crowd at bay, as these men were beaten, shoved, degraded, brutalized and nailed to wooden beams. Nails? Until today, I thought they used rope. I guess I am a simple country soldier. I’ve seen plenty of death, but this? This is different than taking the life of your enemy in combat. I may not have driven those spikes, but I certainly am part of this crucifixion. It makes my stomach turn. I try to think of my wife, but I have to stop. I don’t want to bring her to this hill with me.
From where I stand, I can see these men as they struggle to breathe on their crosses. I can see the other soldiers gambling at their feet. I survey the crowd and see curiosity in some faces, satisfaction in others and extreme anguish in a few. There is a woman crumpled to the ground who seems to be unable to look up. Her grief emanates from her body. Close by, there is another woman in black. Silent tears are on her face as she makes herself look to the one in the middle. A man stands next to her with his arm around her, the pain of the moment clearly etched on his face. This must be family. Only family could stand and witness what they must witness.
My gaze shifts to the religious leaders gathered off to the side. A small group of men who clearly feel superior. I shake my head. These Jewish people are so fanatical about their faith. It doesn’t appeal to me. Rules, rules and more rules. My world as a soldier has plenty of that. No, if I were going to be part of a religious movement, it would be compassion that would draw me, not more rules.
The Jewish leaders seem satisfied with what is taking place and they look like they are planning to leave the hill. I know they are concerned about the one in the middle...the one I have heard others call Jesus. I saw the sign they put above him in mockery...King of the Jews. I allow myself to think on that. What does it mean? Clearly he is not really a king. As a soldier of Rome, I would know if we had captured a king and were putting him to death. The crowd gathered here would be ten times bigger and much more unruly. This is no king. I look at him and find he is looking at me. I stop breathing for a moment. Such compassion in that look! I feel as if he really sees me. Then he looks away.
What just happened? My heart is racing as my mind grapples with those fleeting seconds in time. Who is he? How can he look at me, a stranger, for just moments in time and leave me feeling as if I have known him my whole life? I suddenly feel exposed standing on that hill. For all my gear as a soldier, I feel as if I am laid bare. It shakes me to the core and forces me to look at the man they have called king. With great effort, he is talking to one of the thieves hanging next to him. What is he saying? Are they words of compassion that match the gift he has just given me? Who is this man?
I want to draw closer. I find I want to hear him speak. I want to talk to those gathered at the foot of his cross. But I dare not move. I have a job to do. I have been assigned a post. Out of obedience, I stay where I am. But I long to be obedient to another and cannot even say from whence this desire comes. I have never questioned my call before. I am a soldier. I am a soldier. But today, the one with eyes of compassion has seen me as a man. He has seen me. Somehow, in the midst of his death, he has seen all of me.
I notice the sky is darkening in an eerie way. I look around, but there is no explanation. Only fear and anxiety. The religious leaders are hurrying away. I step toward the crosses. I know I am not supposed to leave my post, but I am drawn anyway. The darkness is deepening, the cries of the women intensify. But I stare at the man in the middle...the one who has seen me. Unbelievably, he raises his head and says to the sky “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” With that, his head falls forward and I know he is gone. The sadness overwhelms me and I find that I wish I could have gone with him. I say out loud what I am thinking, “Surely, this was a righteous man.”
I stare at him on the cross and think...this man of compassion, the one who has seen me...I can follow this man.
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