Faces and Places Around The Cross: Unknown Soldier
This is from the Gospel according to Mark. But this is the Word of God.
“At the sixth hour, darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’
“When some of those standing near heard this, they said, ‘Listen, He’s calling Elijah.’
“One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. ‘Leave Him alone now. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take Him down,’ he said.
“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed His last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard His cry and saw how He died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy Word.
Pray with me please. Lord, nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling. Amen.
He is, as I choose to call him, the man who saw it all and said it all. I refer to the Roman centurion who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus. We know little about him. We do not even know his name. And therefore, in a sense, we can say he is an unknown soldier. Oh, mind you, there is no monument built above his grave. There are no intricate decorations marking his final resting place. But nevertheless, he is at least as far as we are concerned, an unknown soldier. And yet it was this unknown Roman centurion who directed and observed all of the details surrounding the death of Jesus on the cross. He saw it all. And then afterward, when Jesus had breathed his last, he proceeded to deliver a declaration about Jesus which he announced for all the world to hear. He said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
And dear friends, when he said that, he said it all. Yes, he was the man who saw it all and then said it all. I think it’s important for us to remember that Jesus was sentenced to death on the charge of blasphemy. That is to say, He was accused of claiming to be the Son of God and that was regarded at that point as blasphemy. And so that’s the reason that they nailed Him to the cross. And so it was that this Roman centurion, who carefully tended to all of the details to make sure that the sentence was carried out properly, this Roman centurion, after Jesus breathed His last, delivered some incredible words. These words from His lips. Mind you, they are the last words on Calvary and they are the first words about what happened on Calvary. These words delivered from this Roman centurion stand as a magnificent affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ. In essence, the soldier was saying Jesus was and is who He claimed to be. A magnificent affirmation from a most unlikely source.
And I would have to tell you that that moves me to wish that I knew more about this unknown Roman centurion. I do believe that there are certain things about him, at least, that we can assume were true. For example, we can assume that he was a bit older. He was certainly beyond middle age. One did not rise to the position of Roman centurion, that is the commander of a company of 600 soldiers, one did not rise to that level without having amassed a considerable number of years of military experience. Furthermore, we can assume that he was battle-hardened. One did not reach the command post in the Roman legion unless one had been tested repeatedly in many different kinds of intense combat situations.
Furthermore, I think we can assume that he grew up in a home where the Roman gods were acknowledged, maybe even worshiped: Jupiter and Janus, Isis and Osiris, Cybele and Mithra. And I rather imagine that his wife, as he prepared to leave on this particular tour of duty, his wife probably slipped into his bag some little wooden statuettes of those Roman gods to whom she would be praying for his protection. And I also imagine that when he reached his quarters in the Roman barracks in Jerusalem that he set up those little wooden gods as a kind of personal shrine. But I think it’s also easy to assume that, as was true for most Romans at the time, religion was, well, really nothing more than just a sideline activity. Just one of life’s little extras.
And so we can assume, I think, logically, that this Roman centurion would have been more blasé than passionate about matters of faith. And that, my beloved, that single truth is what makes this moment on Calvary so astounding. So incredibly astounding. This tough, battle-hardened old Roman soldier suddenly, surprisingly, passionately cries out, “Surely, this man was the Son of God!” An amazing, an amazing moment. A terribly costly, courageous thing to do as we shall soon see.
But what I would like to do for just a few moments is to share with you some thoughts about this unknown Roman soldier.
In the first place, quite obviously, this Roman centurion had a mind that was open.
It’s worth noting that God never penetrates a closed mind. Oh, He can do that. Absolutely. He can do it whenever He wishes. It’s just that He chooses not to. He could invade any mind regardless of the resistance. But He chooses not to do that. He will not violate, intimidate, dominate, or manipulate people into believing in Him. You do remember, don’t you, the great line from the book of Revelation where Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with Him and he with Me.” There is no suggestion there of a battering ram. There is no indication that He will blast His way into our minds and hearts. No. To put it bluntly, redemption in Jesus Christ is an inside job. He will knock, yes. But we have to open. Redemption in Jesus Christ comes only when we are open to who Jesus is and to what Jesus does.
That’s the kind of open mind that we see in this Roman centurion. Make no mistake about it. Of all the stupid things that have ever been said, this is the most stupid of all: what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Rubbish. What we don’t know hurts us terribly. We do not know the cure for cancer. We do not know the solution to heart disease. We do not know the things that make for peace in this world. We do not know what hurts us terribly. Ignorance is a curse. And yet all too often, that ignorance is caused by the folly of a closed mind.
That is not what we see in this Roman centurion. Oh, to be sure, he was a man who listened to the commands of those in authority over him, yes. But obviously, he was also a man who was open to new ideas. He was a man who had courage enough to be willing to die for what he believed, but he also was a man courageous enough to be open to some new belief when it was presented to him. It is that blessed open-mindedness that led to the astonishing declaration that he made on the hill called Calvary. And we would do well to imitate that open-mindedness of the Roman centurion. To be open. To be always open to whatever it is that Jesus wants to do in us and with us and through us in life.
So this Roman centurion not only had a mind that was open, he also had a mind that was changed.
I want you to realize that this Roman centurion did not behold Jesus in anything other than the most difficult, horrendous circumstances imaginable. He didn’t see Jesus as He is sometimes portrayed, gentle Jesus meek and mild, sitting there with a little bird on His shoulder and a little child in His lap and a little lamb at His feet and with a beatific look on His face. No. No no no. He saw Jesus in the bloody claw of unrelieved torture. A torture which he himself had ordered. Make no mistake, this Roman centurion was one tough man. He crucified people without a qualm. He controlled the soldiers under his command, not only by his experience but by his brutality. This was no milquetoast militarist. He was rock hard in his mind, his body, and his strength.
And it would have taken something truly extraordinary to ever lead him to change his mind. Now I know there are some people who suggest that this Roman centurion saw Jesus enduring the horrors of the cross without a whine or a whimper and he began to admire the courage of the one hanging on the cross. I don’t buy that for a moment. This centurion had crucified who knows how many people. There had been elements of courage that he had encountered along the way, to be sure. No, I think that understanding of what happened between the centurion and the Christ is way too shallow. I think, remember what I said, it would have taken something truly extraordinary to ever make him change his mind. And that’s why I believe that when he looked at the cross of Jesus Christ that he saw there something infinitely more powerful than courage and heroism.
He saw the power of unconditional love. It wasn’t the fact that Jesus didn’t curse. It was the fact that Jesus prayed. It wasn’t the fact that Jesus controlled His anger. It was the fact that He forgave those who put Him there. It wasn’t the fact that Jesus breathed no threats. It was the fact that He breathed compassion. It wasn’t the fact that he saw in Jesus no vicious, vengeful spirit. It was that he saw in Jesus the victory of an unconquerable soul. He encountered that day, I believe for the first time in his life, the amazing, incredible power of unconditional love. Up to that point in his life, power always meant Rome and armies and legions and shields and swords and spears. But now, suddenly for the first time in his life, he saw real power. The power of unconditional love. He saw mercy to be stronger than might. He saw gentle love to be stronger than cruel force.
And as he beheld the unconditional love of Jesus Christ on the cross, I believe that that is what changed his mind. It took something extraordinary and there is nothing more extraordinary than the sacrificial, unconditional love of Jesus Christ. And if the love of Jesus Christ could change a tough, hard-bitten old Roman soldier, then the love of Jesus Christ can change us as well.
Ah, but this Roman centurion not only had a mind that was open, not only had a mind that was changed, also he had a mind that was redirected.
Here’s what I want you to see. You cannot miss this. This is so important. The moment that this Roman centurion delivered the words, “Surely, this man was the Son of God!”—in that moment, he knew that his life would never be the same. His life would take a new direction. It was an incredibly costly thing to say and to do. And he knew it. He knew the minute the words left his mouth that the soldiers under his command who heard the words would report it to the military brass. They would remove him from his command. They would strip him of his rank. They may even have ordered him to be put to death. We don’t know what of those things may have occurred.
But even if they had not occurred, even if none of them had happened, he still knew that in that moment, his life was never going to be the same again. Because he knew that now he could never again try to stop the force of love with the power of force. He knew that he would now have to renounce his loyalty to the Roman emperor, who himself claimed to be God. You see, the Roman centurion knew loyalty cannot be divided. Allegiance cannot be fragmented. You cannot run two flags to the top of the same pole. He knew that moment his life was going to move in a new direction. Once you are gripped by the reality of the one true God in Jesus Christ, no other gods will do.
Please hear me, my beloved people. Following Jesus Christ in faith is not easy. It never has been. It never will be. But the moment that we put Jesus Christ first in our lives, the moment when we take Jesus into our hearts, the moment when we allow Jesus to redirect the way we think and the way we act and the way we live and the way we love, that moment is the moment when we begin to experience our greatest joy in life. No one has ever said it better, perhaps, than Dean Inge of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He said, “We are never more truly and intensely ourselves than when we are most possessed by God.” I believe that to be true. And I believe that’s what the centurion learned on Calvary. I believe that as he looked at Jesus on the cross and suddenly was confronted by the all-conquering, all-powerful love of Jesus Christ, that he knew he would never be the same again.
He knew that he could no longer hate what Jesus loves. Ooh, stop right there just a moment. I’m going to say that again because I want you to ponder what impact it would make if you and I were today to make that the motto of our lives going forward from here. I cannot hate what Jesus loves. Think what a difference that would make in our relationships at home, at school, at work. Think what a difference that would make in the racial unrest that exists in our time. Think what that would do in the tensions among nations and peoples in the world. I cannot hate what Jesus loves. I believe that that tough, hard-bitten, battle-hardened old Roman soldier suddenly understood that he could never hate what Jesus loves and that his life was headed in a new direction. And if the love of Jesus Christ could redirect his life, let me gently suggest that that same love of Jesus could redirect our lives as well.
And so, do you understand what I mean when I say in the absence of love, there can be no final victory? And in the presence of love, there can be no final defeat. Well, something truly astounding happened that day on Calvary, though we tend to overlook it. It’s all captured in a single sentence in scripture. Though we do tend just to read right over it. But I ask you to listen once more to the words. The centurion who stood there in front of Jesus heard His cry and saw how He died and he said, “Surely, this man was the Son of God!”
And in that moment, I believe we can be certain that it happened. In that moment, this tough, battle-hardened Roman centurion drew his sword and jammed it into the ground. For the Roman soldier, that was the sign of surrender. And he removed the helmet from his head. For the Roman soldier, that was the sign of renouncing his power and his position. And then, in total surrender, looking up at the crucified one, he cried out, “Jesus, you are who you say you are. Surely, surely, this man was the Son of God!” And dear friends, when he said that, he said it all.
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.