the witness of a Roman Centurion
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
March 25, 2018
Vashon United Methodist Church
March 25, 2018
Philippians 2:1-11, Mark 11:1-11
|Christ Enters Jerusalem|
I was born for greatness! Almost. Oh, I came from a great family – one of the fifty – the ruling families of Rome. My cousins are generals, my uncle in the senate. Power and governance run in my veins. Only one small problem. Even though I’m the oldest son of my father – even though my mother was from the fifty families too – my father was a second son. I never had a chance to take the reins of power. So, I settled for the reins of a horse – the life of a soldier, but not just any soldier! A centurion. One of the elite. In my younger days I did everything I could to be noticed by the generals. I took any chance that could advance my standing, to set up my heirs for security. My big break came when my legion was assigned to the provincial capital in Syria in what turned out to be the waning days of Augustus, son of god, savior, lord of all earth, prince of peace, the greatest emperor of the greatest empire. That was sixteen years ago. I was at my best – a recognized leader among a hundred elite soldiers. I commanded the trust, respect, and loyalty of my peers, and was – even then – older than most of them. Now, I serve Emperor Tiberius in this dusty provincial outpost, Jerusalem.
Who would have thought that Jerusalem would be so important to the empire? It’s on the way to nowhere. Who would have thought that these ragtag locals could have ousted the remnants of Persian rule? They have no army. Who would have thought they could continue to pose a threat to Rome after having been sucked dry by the domination system of the empire? Who would have thought that the old man Herod – the one who called himself the Great – as if he rivalled Rome – could have built the most glorious temple in the known world – some say greater than Athens in her glory. But the locals – against common wisdom – continued in trust, reverence, and loyalty to a god they claimed to be the only God. Of course, we Romans don’t really believe in a supernatural pantheon of gods – at least not those of us who are literate and sane. We worship Caesar, but we do not believe that he can command the elements. And he certainly can not command and keep the peace without the support of the military. That’s just the way it is – the way of the world. If peace and security are to prevail, the legions must enforce it. If the legions are to enforce it, taxation, regulation, and control must extract a heavy toll on the common people. The wealthy, too, must support and participate in this system. It’s just the natural order of things.
Or so I used to think. Somehow, these untrained but loyal, trusting, god-fearing people have begun to work their way into my heart. I know it’s dangerous to grow close to those you are supposed to control. But I have my own respect and admiration for their insistence that their God will keep the promise of sending a leader who is truly Son of God, Savior, Lord of all earth, Prince of peace, the greatest emperor of the greatest empire. But, it’s a dangerous mix – divinity and power – religion and politics.
How can I begin to tell you of the transformation that has come over me in just the past few days? It was just dies Sōlis – the day of the sun – that I was here in the fortress Antonia, with its commanding view of the city of Jerusalem. The fortress was built by Herod the Great and named after his friend, Marc Antony. It looms over the forty-acre temple mount also built by Herod the Great. From this vantage point I could see the western gate of the city, and in the distance, I could see the dust rising from the reinforcements – the additional legion that was called to keep the peace – to quell any possible insurrection during the Passover. There has never been a time in my sixteen years here that there has not been an insurgency brewing. I could hear the drums that kept the foot soldiers marching in lockstep. I could see the fluttering of the red capes and crests of my fellow centurions. I should have felt relief. But I only felt foreboding. Something big was about to happen. Where would it lead me?
I turned my watch across the temple mount toward the northeastern gate. There too, something caught my attention. It was closer and quieter, but it too seemed like some sort of parade. People were lining the street, waving branches, stripping off their cloaks, and as the wind shifted it brought their voices to me. “Hosanna” they were shouting, as if to get the attention of the gods. “Save us!” Didn’t they know they were safe with us? Didn’t they know that their security lay in keeping their heads down? Submitting to their lot – the human capital on whose backs the empire is built?
That parade seemed to be comprised of a single figure on a tiny animal – ludicrous and insignificant in comparison to the magnificent beasts of the centurions. Suddenly I felt a boulder in the pit of my stomach. If I believed the gods would care – could respond – I would have prostrated myself in prayer. Please, do not let this be a challenger to the empire. But no, it couldn’t be. How could a single man with no armor and no army oppose – much less conquer – the greatest empire ever known?
Well, the next day, that same man – if the rumors are true – showed up in the temple. All we could really do was watch. The temple police were in charge, and we could only intervene if the chief priests called on the governor. They weren’t likely to do that when he had just arrived with the reinforcements the day before. Besides, it was again just one man. But he acted as though he was backed up by the power of the heavens – brazen and confident – almost like a centurion – like one of us. I began to have some respect for the man. I was drawn to know more of him. He did seem to carry the poise of the elements – the winds, the tides, the nurturing and protecting landscape, the gentle touch of a mother. If only I had known what fate he would meet, I would have run to him then and warned him.
Now, it’s Friday, only five days since I first caught sight of him. I still can hardly believe what I have just witnessed. During a mere few days, the collaborating machines of the law – of both the temple and the empire – have rushed to judgement. Unlikely as it may seem, I was assigned to assist in carrying out the sentence.
That man, who rode in humility on a young colt, entering the city through a crowd with much more enthusiasm than those who greeted the legion on the other side of the city –
that man, who possessed the calm and power of earth and sky – far outweighing the charisma of Caesar himself –
that man, who taught that all are welcome in the realm of the one God, who cared and fed and healed despite the admonitions of his people’s god –
that man, who stood up to the governor as I have seen no other man do –
that man has just been raised up on a rude cross – the most humiliating and excruciating tool of the empire – meant to keep the insurrection at bay.
And from that vantage point, surely, he could see the opposing parades entering the city of heaven – the parade that desperately clung to terror and violence as a means to security and power meeting the parade of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. I am certain that those opposing parades – those opposing forces – will continue to meet each other in human hearts as long as long can be.
But in that moment, as I stood at his feet, and our eyes met, I knew – even in the most desperate times, that love would win.
I think I heard him say, “Follow me.”