Sermon for Passion Sunday
Sunday, March 28, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 03/28/2021)

“Truly this man was God’s Son!”

That was the stunning and surprising confession of the Roman centurion at the death of Jesus [Mark 15:39].

St. Mark tells us nothing else about the centurion [Mark 14:1-15:47]. No mention of a previous connection with Jesus, no reason to believe the centurion knew about Jesus prior to his public arrest and crucifixion. Just this confession at the foot of the cross after Jesus breathed his last.

That being said, I suspect it was likely the centurion was aware of the public drama unfolding around the arrest and trial of Jesus. It may have been possible the centurion and his soldiers were there monitoring the crowds when the crowds were presented the choice of sparing from execution either a religious man accused of heresy – Jesus; or an insurrectionist who joined a murderous mob in rebellion – Barabbas.

After that, perhaps it was the centurion’s soldiers to whom Jesus was handed over to for execution after he was condemned to die? Maybe he was there to watch as his own soldiers dressed Jesus in a purple cloak, twisted thorns into a crown, put it on his head, and saluted him with, “Hail, King of the Jews.” Maybe the centurion himself joined in as the soldiers hit him, spat on him, and knelt down in front of him to mock him?

I suspect this kind of beating was routine. Young Roman soldiers, away from home, drunk on power, showing off to one another how cruel they could be to the oppressed minority. Maybe they took special pleasure in beating up this local lowlife who dared think he was a king of the people.  A king?  Haha? Some king!

We know the centurion was at the cross. I suspect he was there the whole day to oversee the three executions. Keeping order, and monitoring the crowds, he would have experienced them mocking Jesus. St. Mark writes:  “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and built it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”

Was there a difference in how Jesus handled these taunts?  The centurion would have seen others mocked and taunted as they died, was Jesus different?  Was there a spark of faith in the centurion, a recognition that in Jesus something was different?

Maybe the centurion heard Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Mark said it was a loud voice. And though the centurion probably heard this loud cry, he probably didn’t understand Jesus was quoting from the ancient Jewish psalms, the Psalm we know today as Psalm 22. But maybe the centurion recognized in Jesus’s loud cry, the truth that one could only feel forsaken and abandoned by one with whom one had felt great intimacy and connection.  Maybe in that cry the centurion recognized a deep and abiding faith in Jesus, and perhaps led to another spark of faith?

“Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last …”

Another loud cry according to Mark. Did the centurion hear something in that loud cry that not even Mark heard? Was there something in that final breath – a chill, or sorrow, or sadness – the centurion felt as the Son of God died at the hands of his own children? 

The condemnation by the crowds, the flogging by the soldiers, the mocking of the  bystanders, a loud plea of forsakenness, and a final cry before his last breath. That is what the centurion witnessed in the ministry of Jesus. And it was that first-hand experience of the passion of Christ that led the centurion to exclaim, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

For us today, and in the liturgies of this week we call holy, we are invited once  again into the mystery of the cross and of the passion of Jesus Christ. In our communal liturgies, and in personal prayer/fasting/almsgiving, we are invited to gather with the centurion at the foot of the cross. As we do, we are serenaded by that early Christian hymn recorded today in Philippians, older than Mark’s Gospel, that sings the heart of our faith:  

“Though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

As we kneel at the cross, we do not kneel in sorrow or despair, but in hope and faith. Lutheran theologian Gordon Lathrop writes, that in the cross God announces that: “There is no place of sorrow or death where God in Jesus has not first come. Indeed, in Jesus God has come to where God cannot be, to the places where our experience says God is not. At the deepest place of abandonment, the Spirit of God has set a fountain of life-giving water. This Passion Sunday not only bears witness to that fountain. It offers us to drink.

And so for this reason, the cross of Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago at calvary, helps us see and recognize where we find the cross of Christ today. The cross of Christ today is all those places where Christ is once again crucified by the world’s systems of violence and hate, all those places where innocent victims are killed in horrific and violent deaths today.  As so, we kneel at the cross, and the living presence of the crucified Christ when we kneel at:

  • the shooting deaths in Georgia of Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, Elcias Herndez-Ortiz, Hyan Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, and Suncha Kim … #StopAsianHate
  • the shooting deaths in Colorado of Officer Eric Talley, Rikki Olds, Denny Strong, Teri Leiker, Kevin Mahoney, Tralona Bartkowiak, Suzanne Fountain, Jody Waters, Lynn Murray, and Neven Stanisic. TheViolenceProject
  • the murders of Breanna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, Marvin Scott III, Jenoah Donald, Patrick Warren, and so many more.  #SayTheirNames

Alive in the hope of God who in Christ Jesus joins us in our pain and sorrow, God’s fountain of living water, may your faith be deepened, renewed, and awakened. In response to this astonishing announcement of God’s solidarity with pain and death today, at the wonder of Christ with you in your pain and death, may your confession echo the centurion’s: “Truly, this man Jesus is God’s Son!”  

Indeed may it be so.