Find out what's happening at St. Paul's

What did the Roman Centurion see?

What did the Roman Centurion see?
March 25, 2018
Passage: (Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:36-27:54)
Service Type:

Today the Church says two things about Jesus.

First we say, “Hosanna!” as we greet the long-awaited King of Israel who brings hope that Israel might be freed from gentile Roman rule.

And very soon after we say, “Crucify him!”

It’s hard to hold these two things together: Jesus as King and Jesus dead on the cross.

We know what the Power of kings and other rulers looks like. We know how it’s exercised—in everything from press conferences to propaganda and other political techniques, in economic policy, in legislatures, in law enforcement and in court rooms, and, of course, in the military.

But the cross just looks like weakness. Not power at all, but the failure of power, the powerless succumbing to the powerful. Maybe even to us Christians. Maybe even we who accept Jesus as King in resurrection, at best see the cross as an obstacle, a moment of weakness, on his way to being that King.

But an interesting thing happens at the end of the Passion gospel today. The Roman Centurion, after everything that had happened, looking at Jesus’ dead body on the cross, said, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

What did this Roman Centurion see?


In the Passion we just proclaimed together Jesus was brought to Pilate’s headquarters and surrounded by soldiers, much like a Roman Emperor would be brought to the Praetorium and surrounded by the Praetorian guard before his enthronement.

Jesus was clothed in a purple robe and given a crown of thorns and a reed much like the Praetorian guard would bring a purple robe and put it on the new Emperor and place a wreath of gold on his head and a scepter of authority over Rome.

And the soldiers got on their knees before Jesus and shouted, “Hail, King of the Jews!” much as the Praetorian guard would acclaim the triumph of a Caesar-to-be.

And Jesus was processed through the streets of Jerusalem carrying his cross and receiving help from a man named Simon, like a Caesar-to-be would be processed through the streets of Rome with a sacrificial bull (dressed in the same purple as the new Emperor) following him, and someone to carry the sacrificial knife.

And they processed Jesus to a high hill in Jerusalem called Golgotha (the place of a skull), much like the soon to be Emperor was processed to the highest hill in Rome, the Capitoline Hill (the “head” hill).

And then Jesus was offered sour wine and gall to drink and he refused to drink it, much as a soon-to-be Emperor was offered a bowl of wine mixed with myrrh. which he refused.

And Jesus was crucfied with a revolutionary crucified on either side of him, and died, like how when the bull was sacrificed on that high hill in Rome and the Emperor ascended his throne flanked by his second and third in command.

And then the new Emperor was proclaimed Son of God. So maybe it’s not so strange that a Roman Centurion, knowing all the steps of the enthronement of a Roman Emperor, would see its echo in the steps of the crucifixion and complete the enthronement of Jesus the Christ by proclaiming, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”


Jesus as King and Jesus crucified. They are hard to hold together. But in the gospel they are one and the same. And that they are one and the same raises questions for us. Big questions. Questions about what it means to call a crucified man our King and liberator, and what it is we really need liberating from.

Questions about what it looks like to live right here and right now in the Kingdom of One who is King and who is powerful in giving everything away, even his own life, rather than clinging to it, in suffering violence rather than inflicting it, and to give our allegiance to that king and no other.

Questions about what is REAL power, and what does all of this mean for us? For the Church?

Can we see what the Centurion saw?


Saint Paul writes:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born into human likeness… And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Let the same mind be in you (and me) that was in Christ Jesus…

In other words, the point of all this church stuff isn’t for us to think about Jesus and treat it like an interesting problem to be solved. The point is that we might move from talking about Jesus (whether we say “Hosanna!” or “Crucify Him!” or even “This man is truly God’s Son.”), and be ourselves transformed by grace into what Jesus is by nature. The point is that who Jesus is is what we are baptized to become.


So what does it mean for us, for the Church, who are to be Christ in and for the world? How are we, as Christ’s Body, to ourselves be both King and Crucified?

I don’t think anything I can say this morning can will really answer that. But I can do much better than give you an answer. I can invite you to enter into the very reality of Christ both King and Crucified beginning this Thursday evening and continuing through Sunday morning.

I can invite you to enter into the reality of Christ King and Crucified by

taking up water and a towel and becoming a servant and washing feet;

embracing and kissing the cross—that symbol of Empire’s power to execute those who reveal a new kind of power… a new kind of Kingdom—and claim your willingness to join Christ on it;

entering into the darkness of the tomb itself, trusting that even there, even in that the greatest sign of powerlessness, the light of Christ shines and wins a victory for us and for the life of the world more powerful than any king or other so-called power of this world could ever win or even imagine.


1 Big pats of this sermon rely heavily on Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, 124ff.