s103g00 Somerton Park Palm Sunday 16/4/2000
"When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"" Mark 15:39.
I do not intend a long sermon this morning. With the extra liturgy of the palms to begin our service, it is enough that the proclamation of the passion (lengthy as it is) speaks for itself. Good Friday will be the time when I will more extensively meditate on what is the central event in our faith.
It is important that the events of Holy Week are not seen as just events that nasty and misguided people did so long ago to a good person, who we call the Son of God. To point the finger at the ancient people of God, the Jews, and suggest it was ALL THEIR FAULT, and that WE in the Church OF COURSE would have recognised Jesus as the messiah and welcomed him, is to negate the power of God's word for ourselves and our own lives now. Thereby the passion is made into an interesting fable, with little or no relevance to life as we live it.
This centurion was in all likelihood one of the ones who had struck Jesus, spat upon him, mocked him, crucified him and who still had some of his clothing in his possession. His vision of who Jesus really was is in stark contrast to the religious authorities who instigated these events. They saw just the death of an ordinary person, someone who had become a nuisance and embarrassment to them. This centurion, the epitome of everything irreligious, and only following the orders of others as he was trained to do, sees in Jesus far more than the religious authorities, who brought about his death. The respective culpability of the authorities and the soldier in the gruesome events were pretty much the same. The religious authorities didn't hammer in the nails literally, they had centurions, just like this one, to do that for them. Yet here was the person who dutifully followed his orders and did the deed, and it is this person who sees in Jesus something more.
The gospel tells us that the irreligious see in Jesus more than the religious - which turns our human perceptions quite up side down - even here "down under" in Australia.
This centurion was hardly likely to convert to any form of religion. We do not hear that the realisation that Jesus was God's Son led him to do anything. We don't hear that he helped in the removal and burial of the body. He probably still never would have darkened the doors of synagogue or church. Such places were not for him, he had done too many things and seen far too much of the real world. And yet he saw, and saw more than those who went religiously to synagogue and church.
In our presentation of the gospel, do we take our vision of God's glory to others, blithely assuming that others haven't seen? Is in fact our vision of God's glory rather too narrow, and the vision of this centurion bids us widen it?
The gospel tells us that when ordinary people see the Cross, they perhaps see more than us.
The exercise of evangelism, of which often the Church makes such hard going, is only to point out to people what they already have realised, indeed what God has already shown them. In fact, we in the Church get as much out of evangelism as those to whom we present, it as the sheer breadth of God's mercy becomes more and more obvious to us and to all.
The passion does indeed speak for itself - as indeed it did to this hardened soldier. We have no need to embellish it with fine phrases or moral strictures. Rather we need to catch the vision, that in our dutiful, Sunday by Sunday, recitation of the Creed, which is only the gospel in "shorthand", we too proclaim Jesus as God's Son - and this has a very practical outcome.
Our recitation of the Creed means that God works through people even like this centurion, that God's acceptance of people's contributions extends to people such as him. If our recitation of the Creed doesn't have these practical outcomes in the lives of ordinary people, those words mean nothing and the cross and resurrection remains an interesting fable, which deserves to be derided and discarded by those around us.
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