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The Man Who Saw It All And Said It All

Matthew 27:51-54, Luke 23:44-47

The Roman Centurion who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus was “The man who saw it all and said it all.”

We do not know his name. He was, at least for us, an unknown soldier. There is no monument that marks his grave. There is no decoration upon his final resting place. Yet he was the man who observed the details of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ more closely than anyone else. He saw it all. At the end of it, he arrived at a conclusion about Jesus which he did not hesitate to announce for all the world to hear. He said: “Surely this man was the innocent Son of God.” And my friends, when he said that, he said it all.

Understand, please, that Jesus was being crucified on the charge of blasphemy; that is, claiming to be the Son of God when in fact He was not. That’s why they nailed Him to the cross and after it’s all been done, the Centurion renders his own verdict on the case. He declares that Jesus was, in fact, who He claimed to be. The statement of this unknown centurion is a magnificent affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ.

What comes home to me very powerfully is that in these words—the last words spoken on Calvary and the first words spoken about what happened there—this centurion who saw it all, who had been involved in it from the very beginning, who had overseen the entire hideous process, came to the conclusion that Jesus was and is who He claims to be. There is something deeply moving about that—and I think that’s why I find myself wanting to know more about this unknown soldier.

There are, I believe, certain qualities about him which we can assume were true. He was probably an older man. You did not get to be centurion until you had amassed considerable military experience. He was, no doubt, battle-hardened. You did not rise to command positions in the Roman Legion without having been tested in the most intense combat situations. He would have been reared in a home where the Roman gods were worshipped: Jupiter and Janus, Iris and Osirus, Cybale and Mithra. His wife, perhaps when he went off on his tour of duty, would slip into his duffle bag some little wooden statues of deities to whom she prayed for his protection. And it is very likely that in his barracks quarters there in Jerusalem, he would have set up those wooden gods as a small shrine. Of course, for him as for most Romans of that day, his religion was a sideline affair—one of life’s little extras. He would have been more blase’ than passionate about the matters of faith.

Of course, that makes all the more astonishing the fact that this centurion, after watching and participating in the death of Jesus of Nazareth, would suddenly and passionately declare Him to be the Son of God. And that leads me to share with you three thoughts about this unknown soldier…

First, this Roman centurion had a mind that was open.

You know it’s interesting to note that even God will not penetrate a closed mind. I do not mean that God cannot do it—God can force Himself into any mind regardless of its resistance—but God does not violate the freedom of His creation. He does dominate or intimidate or manipulate people into believing. You will remember that great passage in the Book of Revelation where Jesus says: “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens to me I will come into him and sup with him and he with Me.” There is no reference here to a battering ram. There is no suggestion that He is going to blast His way into our hearts and lives. He knocks, but we have to let Him in. Redemption, you see, is an inside job. The requirement for redemption in Jesus Christ is a mind that is open and is willing to act on the basis of that openness. That kind of open mind is what we see in this Roman centurion.

My friends, make no mistake about it. Of all the stupid things that have ever been said, one of the most stupid is this: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” The fact is that 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. Many of us do not know the blessings of faithful stewardship because we have never tried it. Ignorance is a curse—and many times ignorance exists simply because of the folly of closed minds.

But in this unknown Roman centurion we see a humble man—a man who listened by command to those who were in authority over him, but who was also open to new ideas. And we see in the centurion a brave man—a man who was willing to lay down his life for what he believed, but who was also courageous enough to confront a new belief and to consider it. And out of that humility and that bravery, out of that blessed open-mindedness, the beginnings of his faith were forged. It would do us well, my beloved, to imitate the open-mindedness of this unknown soldier.

Secondly, this Roman centurion not only had a mind that was open, it was also a mind that was changed.

He saw Jesus in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. He didn’t see Jesus as He is so often pictured, with a bird on His shoulder and a child on His lap, and a lamb at His feet and a beatific look on His face. He saw Jesus caught in the bloody claws of torture. Remember, please, this centurion was a tough man. He crucified people without a qualm. He controlled the soldiers who served under him who were younger and stronger and faster—and one of the ways he controlled them was by his experience and another was by his brutality. This is no milquetoast militarist. Even the gods that he worshipped were as hard as the hobs on his Roman sandals. His gods were heroes and there was no weakness in them. This Roman soldier was a tough, strong man. And there are those who suggest that when this tough centurion saw Jesus endure the horrors of the cross without so much as a whine or whimper, this old soldier came to admire the courage of the young soldier dying on the cross.

But I would suggest to you that that understanding of what transpired between the centurion and the Christ is far too shallow. For what the centurion really saw when he looked at the cross was not only heroism but also love. It wasn’t the fact that Jesus didn’t curse, it was the fact that He prayed. It wasn’t the fact that He controlled His anger, it was the fact that He forgave those who put Him there. It wasn’t that He breathed out no threats, it was that He breathed out compassion. It wasn’t that in Jesus he saw no viciousness of a vengeful spirit, it was that in Jesus he saw the victory of an unconquerable soul. This old Roman soldier, perhaps for the first time in his life, saw the power of love giving itself away for the sake of those who were loved. That was a new power for him. Up to that time, power for him meant Rome and armies and legions and swords. But in Jesus he saw the loving power of a greater idea. He saw a strength and compassion which would not quit. He learned that mercy is greater than might, that gentle love is stronger than cruel force.

Dr. Martin Niemoeller, whose faith led him to stand against Hitler, was imprisoned for years in Nazi concentration camps. He told of how at one point in time, his cell in Dachau looked out upon the gallows and every day he would see men hanged there, many of them dying with curses and screams of hatred upon their lips. In the midst of that, he asked himself what would have happened had Jesus, when He was put upon the cross, cried out to those gathered there: “Criminals! Scum! My Father will see to it that you get yours!” And then posing the question of what would have happened, Niemoeller answered it. He said that nothing would have happened, absolutely nothing. We would never have heard the name of Jesus. There would be no Gospels. There would be no New Testament. There would be no church. For you see, the magnetism of the cross is precisely this: that Jesus, put in such a place by such people, nevertheless was able to say: “I will not be the enemy of your enemies. I am not even the enemy of those who want to be my enemies.”

That kind of omnipotent love revealed so clearly in the cross of Jesus Christ is what changed the mind of that tough, wizened, old Roman soldier. And it is that same love of Jesus Christ that can change our minds as well.

Then thirdly, this Roman centurion’s mind was not only opened and changed—it was also redirected.

Understand, please, that once that centurion made his declaration of faith in the innocence of Jesus, God’s Son, his life had to take a new direction. That word from his mouth heard by the other soldiers in his command, would have been reported to the military brass. He would have been relieved of his command and stripped of his rank. But, of course, even if that hadn’t happened, the centurion would have had to lay aside his Roman authority. You see, loyalty cannot be divided. Allegiance cannot be fragmented. You cannot run two flags to the top of the same mast. And once he surrendered himself to the Son of God, he would have had to forsake his loyalty to the Roman emperor, who himself claimed to be God. You see, once you have been gripped by the reality of the one true God, no other gods will do.

We haven’t learned that yet, sad to say. I came across an article the other day which, if it hadn’t been so funny, would have been sad. It was called “The New Yuppee Hymnal,” and it took some of the old and familiar hymns and gave them a new twist and a new thrust. Listen:

“I Surrender All” becomes “I Surrender Some.”
“Fill My Cup, Lord” becomes “Fill My Spoon, Lord”
“He’s Everything To Me” becomes “He’s Quite A Bit To Me”
“Where He Leads I Will Follow” becomes “Where He Leads I Will Consider Following”
“Just As I am” becomes “Just As I Pretend To Be”
“I Love To Tell The Story” becomes “I Love To Talk About Telling The Story.”

We are still trying, you see, to hold onto the Big God and all of our little gods as well. We are still trying to make the faith a matter of convenience, not commitment.

Please hear me, friends, following Jesus Christ in faith is not easy. It never has been. It never will be. But it is when we put Jesus Christ first in our lives, it is when we let Him redirect the way we think and the way we act that we find our greatest joy in life. I think maybe Dean Inge of St. Paul’s Cathedral said it best: “We are never so truly and intensely ourselves as when we are most possessed by God.”

That’s what that centurion discovered on Calvary. When he saw Jesus on the cross, nailed there by the hatred of others, yet still loving the very ones who hated Him, loving them enough to die for them. When the centurion saw that and took it to his heart, he knew that his life was headed in a new direction. He knew that he could never again use the power of force to stop the power of love. He knew he could never hate what Jesus loved. Wrap your mind and heart around that, will you? Think what an impact it would have if you and I adopted as a motto for our lives: “I cannot hate what God loves.” Think what it would mean in our relationships at home. Think what it would do for the racial unrest that exists in our time. Think what it would do to defuse the tensions among nations and peoples. You see, if the power of love could redirect the life of a battle-hardened Roman centurion, then that power of love can give new direction to our lives and to our world. Do you understand what I mean when I say that in the absence of love there can be no final victory and in the presence of love there can be no final defeat?

So…

Let’s remember today that it is the crucified Christ who grips all of human history. This lonely figure, dying in the dark, praying for His enemies is the One whose magnificent power will ultimately judge all of the world, and that includes us, even as it judged that centurion on Calvary who saw it all. And that strong Roman centurion, when he looked up at the One dying on the central cross, suddenly raised his war-scarred hands and removed from his head the golden helmet which was the symbol of his honor and position in the world, and dropped it into the dust, and from the depths of total surrender, cried: “Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean, for the power of Your love is greater than the power of this world, and You are who You say You are. Truly, this man was the innocent Son of God.”

And my friends, when he said that, he said it all…

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