The following is a sermon by the Rev. Kate Hanch, an ordained minister and adjunct instructor in the St. Louis area. In this post-Easter reflection, Rev. Hanch suggests that God works in and through unexpected events and people, often confounding those who think they best know God. Rev. Hanch’s full bio is below.
“A Promise Fulfilled”
25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
The Death of Jesus
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
Have you ever read the bible and discovered something you hadn’t realized before? Maybe it’s from one of the lesser known books, like Obadiah or Zephaniah or Hezekiah (ok, I made that last one up).
Or maybe it’s a passage or story you’ve heard many times, but discovered something new.
That happened when I was teaching world religions at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. We covered the major religions of the world, like Islam or Hinduism.
In some ways, though, it was more difficult to teach Christianity. If you taught Christianity--how it was formed, its history, and how it acts today, what would you include?
I am used to teaching theology to persons who were committed to Christianity and had a vested interest in the church. Now, I was communicating it to persons from a wide variety of backgrounds, who had different levels of interest (or disinterest).
Since we read primary religious texts in class, I had them read the shortest gospel—Mark—what we read today. And in reading that text, I realized something for the very first time as a Baptist, bible reading Christian.
It is the Roman Centurion who is the first person to recognize Jesus as the Son of God in Mark’s gospel.
At Jesus’ baptism, you see God announcing that he is “my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And a couple of times in Mark’s Gospel, you’ll see the demons shrink in fear, asking Jesus “what have you to do with us, Son of the Most High?”
But, at least in the Gospel of Mark, it is the Roman Centurion who is the first person to make that utterance.
When you read Mark, though, you begin to realize that this common to how Mark works. As I’ve remarked to my students, what’s most likely to happen—what you expect—doesn’t occur. But what is least likely to happen—the unexpected, the unusual—does.
So, in the Gospel of Mark, the first person to preach about Jesus outside the apostles was not a well-connected figure, but a social outcast. You can read the story in Mark 5. This demon possessed person would roam the cemetery late at night, howling in torment. Mark, who only gives the readers what we need to know, gives him no name, but we know him as the man from Gerasa whom Jesus cast out his demons into the pigs, and the pigs run off the cliff and drown. That would be an interesting movie to recreate.
If you were a first century Judean, you would not want to be caught in that area, Gerasa. And yet this guy, whose fellow townspeople all knew him well--and not at all--whose clothes were dirty and tattered, and who probably did not have a pleasant body odor, becomes the first person to share the Good News in Mark’s Gospel.
The same concept of the unexpected thing happening, or the unexpected person who “gets it” also occurs with the Roman centurion.
So, what is a Roman Centurion, anyway?
A centurion was a Roman soldier in charge of 100 men, about the equivalent of a major sergeant today. They were well-trained as leaders who cared for their soldiers. I imagine they had quite a bit of power, and some respect. The soldiers whom the centurion was responsible for were conscripted, or drafted, into the Roman army in their late teens.
This particular centurion may have overseen the soldiers prepare Jesus for crucifixion. The soldiers who spit on his face, who twisted the crown of thorns. The soldiers who pretended to bow to him as he lay beaten, saying in a sing-songy voice “Hail King of the Jews.” The soldiers who bet on his clothes.
If you’ve ever watched Jesus Christ Superstar, and remember the song Pilate sings, in that mocking tone, “What is this unfortunate man, cluttering up my hallway?” Or Herod’s taunting Jesus: “If you are the Christ, walk across my swimming pool”—That’s the kind of mocking I’m thinking about. It’s intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation on Jesus. To make light of him.
The centurion’s oversight didn’t stop after Jesus was hanging on the cross. He made sure Jesus, and the other two guys hanging next to him, were dead. He counted the hours and watched the sky darken. He saw Jesus cry in despair to his God “Why have you forsaken me?” He saw a bystander give Jesus some sour wine. He witnessed Jesus’ breaths become more labored and shallow, and saw the tiredness in Jesus’ eyes.
And this centurion, who faces Jesus as he struggles for his last breath, says in amazement: this man was God’s Son.
Notice—the person who killed Jesus says this. It wasn’t Peter, whom we can assume ran away after denying he had ever seen Jesus. It wasn’t any of the other apostles. Mark fails to mention them at all in chapter 15. It was a Roman sergeant, who had turned a blind eye to his soldiers’ mocking Jesus, who now declared him as the Son of God.
The affirmation of Jesus as God’s Son present at baptism is confirmed by the man who murdered Jesus. The beginning of the Good news of Christ, declared in the opening of Mark, is concluded, as the centurion utters those words. The hero and the villain both declare the same thing. A promise fulfilled. But not in the way anyone would expect.
Mark doesn’t tell us what happens to this Roman centurion after he witnesses Jesus’ death and makes his statement. Could he continue soldiering, knowing that he had a hand in killing the Son of God? Or, did he join the Jesus movement, knowing Jesus’ true identity, and want to be a part of sharing that message?
We don’t know. But somehow, I take hope in the fact that the very person who killed Jesus plays a major role in recognizing him for who he is. I, perhaps naively, take hope in knowing that God chooses to work in this way.
It’s interesting to contrast the solider to the story of the road to Emmaus, found in Luke 24. Do you remember that story?
Here, the disciples, reflecting upon Jesus’ death, are walking to Emmaus, saddened and discouraged. As one pastor says, their scriptures and their tradition tell them a dead person cannot be the Messiah. A man appears and begins to walk with them, asking them what was wrong. The disciples explain that the person whom they thought was the messiah, the savior, was dead. The man walks alongside them and explains to them how Jesus was the fulfillment of the scriptures. And when they finally stop for a meal, the man breaks the bread. At this moment the disciples’ eyes are opened, and they realize the man they had journeyed with is Jesus, the Son of God.
Who is this God, who works through figures like the Roman centurion, when Jesus’ closest friends don’t get it? This is the God who keeps us on our toes. This is the God who assures we can never get too comfortable in our own expectations and interpretations. A God who shows us that there’s even hope for redemption for our bitterest enemies.
I try to imagine that in a modern-day scenario. What would happen if Jesus lived among us today? I like to do that with Scripture, although, at times, it can make me uncomfortable.
The government would be the one to approve of the killing, just as Pilate, who was part of the Roman empire, had ok’ed it. Who would be Pilate if Jesus’ death had happened today? We know most citizens would approve, if the Gospel of Mark is any indication. As my friend Tripp says, executing God, as horrific as it sounds, is entirely human. But who would be the centurion—the executioner?
Who would Jesus look like? If Jesus lived in the United States and was imprisoned, he most likely would be a man of color.
What crime would he be charged with?
Who would be in the crowd that mocked Jesus? Who would be the soldiers, who bet on his belongings? Who would be like Peter, who ran away and did not seen anything? Whose dreams would be dashed? Who would be standing at the cross?
As we think of the centurion, and how his confession reflects God’s own intention from the beginning, maybe we can begin to see how God works through the folks we would be least likely to suspect. Those folks whom our politicians demonize. Those folks who we would disapprove of. The ones we’ve written off. The ones we can’t stand. The ones whose eyes we don’t meet on the sidewalk. Our enemies.
And let’s take heart and take hope. Even today, God can work through the hardest of hearts to change minds. That’s what the Bible is about: with the centurion, with Zacchaeus the tax collector, with the Apostle Paul, who killed Christians. Those who had taken advantage of the vulnerable, who had stolen from the poor, who had killed God—it’s these folks who had literal come-to-Jesus moments. The murderers become the evangelists. The crucifiers are transformed by the crucified. Their hearts are changed, and because of that, our world is changed.
And this takes a while, and we can’t see the results. We know that Paul had a traumatic conversion experience, but spent about three years learning before he began to preach the gospel. Sometimes, the Spirit moves slowly. Think of the seven miles the apostles traveled to Emmaus with Jesus before the recognized him. Think of how God works in your own life—slowly and gently, so that when you look back, you can only begin to make sense of it all.
For those of us who think we know how and when God speaks—let us be surprised when God is revealed in unexpected ways—like in the Roman centurion.
For those of us who are weary of waiting, let us hope in the God whose Spirit gradually transforms our hearts, so that when we finally see, we can realize like the apostles— “were not our hearts burning?”
This is God’s promise.
This is God’s blessing.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Kate Hanch is a PhD candidate in theology and ethics. She perceives her calling to serve the church and the world through teaching, research, and ministry. Her dissertation seeks to articulate a feminist prophetic humility as a habitus utilizing the writings of medieval female mystics and nineteenth century African American female preachers. She enjoys bringing overlooked voices to the fore as theologians in her work, like writing on the theology of Zilpha Elaw and Mechtild of Hackeborn. Kate is ordained in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and currently serves on the leadership team at her church. She lives in the St. Louis, Missouri, area, where she works as an adjunct instructor.