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By the Sword
Palm Sunday, March 19, 1989

MARK 15:16-20, 33-39

Jesus didn't want to die. Most of us don't want to die, nor did Jesus. The night before he died, I am told he went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed and agonized over what was going to happen to him, just like we heard sung.

Jesus didn't want to die, but he surely knew how to die. I've never seen anyone die like Jesus died, and watching him die changed my life. My beliefs, value system, and assumptions were all changed. Jesus turned me upside down and inside out.

I'm the centurion who was in charge of the crucifixion, and I was invited this morning to reflect upon that event, share with you what I remember, and tell you how it affected me. I witnessed those tragic events of Jesus' last week on this earth.

I watched the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem which you have just reenacted. It was very similar to what you did this morning. The streets of Jerusalem, not much wider than your aisles, were lined with shops and houses. People waved palm branches and laid them on the streets, making a carpet for Jesus to ride on. Children crowded around, just like this morning. Children always like commotion. News spreads quickly that something is happening, and they appear from all over.

The city heard something was happening and many people wondered what was going on. They were told this was Jesus, the man from Galilee, the one they called prophet, rabbi, teacher, healer, king, messiah. Many in Jerusalem had heard the tales of miraculous healings and the stir Jesus had caused up north, so there was a great deal of interest and excitement when Jesus came.

I was sent from Rome to command 100 soldiers, hence the title "centurion." I must admit I didn't like my assignment. I didn't speak the local language, and so was often not sure what was happening. I didn't like the country. It was hot and dirty. There was constant trouble. There was a tension in the air, like some big revolution was about to take place. There were skirmishes with insurrectionists. There were terrorist attacks on us soldiers. One reason Pontius Pilate, the governor, was paranoid and yielded to pressure to convict Jesus was his fear of revolution. Pilate wanted to take no chances on antagonizing terrorists.

In particular, I didn't like being in charge of executions. Crucifixions were common then. It was my job to keep order. Crowd control was my responsibility. I thought this morning you could have used my services, but the minister wouldn't let me! Then, after the criminal died, we were in charge of the burial detail. Hardly a glorious job, was it, but someone has to do the dirty work! Every job has its down side.

A problem I have is my sensitivity. I am the kind of person who is sensitive to the positions of other people. I can see both sides of a question. I can to a degree, for no one really can completely, put myself in other people's places. For example, I had sympathy with the Jews in their bondage. Of course, I couldn't admit it publicly. 100 men looked to me for leadership, discipline, and motivation.

I had particular sympathy with the man Jesus. I really couldn't see what he had done wrong. I stood there at the foot of the cross watching Jesus die and I questioned Roman justice. We Romans were proud of our system, proud of our country, but I really questioned the sentencing of Jesus to death. Where was the case? What had he done and what was he threatening to do? I questioned whether he had a fair trial. He had no lawyer, no one to defend him. I wonder how much Jesus understood. After all, Pilate and Jesus did not speak the same language.

But, mine is not to reason why, mine is to do or die. A soldier does not question orders. If he did, it would probably mean the end of the military system. There must be unquestioned loyalty. Interesting, I heard how Jesus questioned the entire militaristic system on which Rome was built. Jesus said, "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword."

Not only did I question why Jesus was sentenced to die, I was struck by Jesus the man. He was different from your typical criminal. I was impressed with his courage and his ability to endure pain. He had tremendous self-control. He didn't cry out when the nails were pounded into his flesh. He refused to use the little ledge at the base of the cross to rest his body. He could have relieved pressure on his body by resting on the ledge. But, Jesus didn't and therefore died quickly. When we soldiers got tired of waiting and decided it was time for the crucified to die, we would break their legs so they couldn't rest on the ledge any longer. But when we went to break Jesus' legs, he had already died. A very brave man.

I saw in Jesus something I'd never seen in other people. As I watched him, and listened to him speak from the cross, I caught a glimpse of a way of life I had never seen or heard of, a way of life that was far different from the Roman way of doing things.

I saw a man who died without fear. He wasn't afraid. Most of those who were executed were afraid, afraid of the pain, afraid of dying, but not Jesus.

I saw a man who had no hate, not even towards us soldiers, not even towards Pilate. He had no bitterness or desire for revenge. Jesus didn't call down the fire of heaven on us. Nor, did he swear to get even.

I was very impressed and moved. Could people actually live like this man? As I stood there at the foot of the cross, suddenly I had a vision. Oh, can I explain it to you? Can I put it into words that will help you see and understand my vision?

Watching Jesus, suddenly I saw people living together not by the sword, but by justice.

I saw people not coerced by fear of the sword, not by power of military might, but I saw people compelled, directed by inner values and ethics.

I saw people treating others as they want to be treated.

I saw a world where children are free to run, play, laugh, sing with full stomachs, with minds learning and stretching, children surrounded only by love.

I saw a world where no one is better or worse than anyone else.

I saw a world without slavery, where everyone serves everyone else, rather than the poor and oppressed serving the rich and famous.

I saw a world without war that settles its differences with negotiation and mutual respect, rather than by military might. Oh, what a vision I had as I watched Jesus die.

And then, with my mind bursting with the thrill of a whole new way of living, Jesus spoke right to me.

Because of the language barrier, I didn't understand his words. I had to ask what he had said. I was dumfounded when they told me.

Jesus looked at the priests who were taunting him.

He looked at the crowds who mocked and jeered.

He looked at the soldiers who were gambling for his clothes.

He looked at the two thieves who were being crucified with him.

He looked at the small group of women followers (I learned later that his mother was one of them).

And then he looked at me. I know he was looking right at me. With piercing eyes that looked right through people, yet eyes filled with tenderness and love, he looked at me.

And he said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." A criminal on a cross asking forgiveness for those who crucified him? Forgiveness for those who pounded nails into his flesh, and forced him to die a tortured, painful, humiliating death? Nothing like this had ever happened before. Forgiveness was not a virtue in my Roman life. We were taught to get even with those who hurt us, not forgive them. Forgiveness was for cowards, we were taught. Yet, here was a man who was far from being a coward, a man strong, bravely enduring pain and humiliation, forgiving me.

I stood there as if my feet were nailed to the ground. I looked into his eyes, and I felt something break within me. I felt a sense of release. I felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt as if I were free, as if I could fly. I felt like I was being cleansed. Hatred, bitterness, vengeance were all washed away. Like a mighty flood, forgiveness flowed through me, filling me with peace. I felt contentment. I was now a good person, forgiven and accepted. I felt loved by God. And, strangely, I had this feeling come over me of love for other people, a feeling of gentleness, kindness, patience, tolerance, healing. I felt healed.

Suddenly I was jolted by an earthquake. The earth shook and the sky darkened. Even nature acquiesced to the power radiating from this man on the cross. Even nature responded to him, as I had responded to him.

I had been introduced to a whole new way of living, and I responded by giving my life to Jesus. I lay down my sword. I give up my old ways of serving. I promise to follow Jesus. As I was moved to say when he died, "Truly, surely, this is the Son of God."

© 1989 Douglas I. Norris