Witness at the Cross: The Soldiers
March 12, 2023
INTRO TO SCRIPTURE Pastor Donna
Last week, we learned about two other victims who were crucified with Jesus. Most likely they were bandits from the Jewish community sentenced to the grotesque death of crucifixion.
The one on the left pleads, Jesus, save me! But most likely he was missing the point by asking Jesus to get him down from the cross. Jesus refuses. Did he ever understand that the salvation Jesus offers was not escape from the cross but taking up one’s cross that leads to eternal life?
The one on the right gets it. He sees Jesus as his savior. He pleads: Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
Today we are delving into the witness of outsiders beyond the Jewish community: those of the centurion and soldiers. Maybe you are like me, I’d never given them much thought before. So, here is a summary of what they do at the crucifixion. 
- The soldiers lead him to the place, and lift him up upon the cross.
- They divide his clothing and sandals, except cast lots for his shirt so as not to divide this seamless garment. In John’s gospel, there is more explanation about why the garment was kept intact.
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
- When the crucifixion is nearly complete, a soldier draws his spear and thrusts it into Jesus’ side. Water and blood gush out.
- In John’s gospel, when Jesus said I am thirsty, a soldier dips a hyssop branch into sour wine and lifts it to Jesus’ lips. (John 19:28-30) Then Jesus breaths his last.
- In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the centurion was moved to say, Truly he was God’s son. His witness is startling and very important. Why? Because he is an outsider – a Roman – and yet understood who Jesus was, exclaiming “truly he is God’s son.” In the watching of the crucifixion, he became a believer. His witness foretells the future of people beyond the borders of the Jewish community becoming believers in Jesus as God’s son. You could say his witness sets in motion spreading the good news of Jesus to all corners of the earth.
But do you recall an earlier encounter between Jesus and a centurion who sought Jesus to heal his servant (or many translations say child)? Jesus marvels at the unshakable faith of the centurion in his power to heal. The centurion explains, he knows about authority, because he commands authority among his troops. And he sees that Jesus has authority to heal.
Matthew 8:5-13 Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant[or child] is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” 8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word, and my servant[or child] will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will take their places at the banquet with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”13 And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant[or child] was healed in that hour.
LEADER: The Word of God that is still speaking.
ALL: Thanks be to God
MESSAGE Witness at the Cross: The Soldiers Pastor Donna Goltry
This centurion firmly believes in Jesus’ authority to heal, because he knows about authority, which he as a centurion has. And which he sees in Jesus. Jesus is amazed. And, in his healing of the centurion’s servant or child, Jesus brings healing into a Roman household. He has expended his mission beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community.
Luke 7:2-10 adds details for why Jesus would have consented to heal the centurion’s servant. Jesus’ friends plead with him: this man, a centurion, is a friend of ours and deserves this, he loves our people and has built our synagogue for us.
A bit about Roman soldiers and centurions. Is most of what you know of them is from old movies like The Robe or Ben Hur? I’ve seen these movies, but frankly do not remember much about them. Except as someone said in our study class, they always wore cool costumes. Helmets, swords, armor.
Judea and Galilee were ruled by governors appointed by Rome. Full garrisons of soldiers were not kept there except when insurrectionists were expected like during Passover.
A centurion was a Roman army officer, each one led a complement of 100 soldiers. When Rome was a republic, centurions rose through the ranks of soldiers by demonstrating superior leadership. Their rank was like the non-commissioned sergeant major in the US Army.
Maybe the centurion in Capernaum who sought healing for his servant had risen through the ranks? We don’t know for sure. His generosity to the Jewish community is what led to their loyalty to him and showed he was a good leader; he knew how to establish peaceful relations within a diverse community.
But by Jesus time when Rome was ruled by emperors, not all centurions rose through the ranks. Others were appointed by political patronage, owing their appointment to appeasing the emperor. 
The centurion at the crucifixion probably was repulsed at being assigned to oversee crucifixion duty. Yet, he knew his mission and did it. In so doing, he witnessed the person and power of Jesus in his suffering. As he watched, as darkness descended at noon, and unnatural events unfolded, he was moved.
In Mark’s gospel, the triggering unnatural event was the tearing of the curtain in two.
Now 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!”
For Matthew, it was the earthquake that shook him into faith.
Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
In Luke, it also was the tearing of the curtain, but something else is important. Luke’s portrayal of the centurion is different. He praises God, which points to him possibly already being a God-fearer. He saw Jesus as innocent, as righteous. He understood that Jesus did not deserve the punishment.
Can we surmise that for the centurion, watching Jesus die forever changed his life? Did he go from being a witness at the cross to becoming a full-fledged believer who began to share his faith with others? It is something to ponder. Above all else, when we focus on the centurion and the soldiers, we glimpse the future of their witness, one that is poised to spread into the wider world. Today Jesus draws followers from every nook and cranny of the world.
But a question for us, is how do we allow Christ to seep into the life and experiences of people of other faiths? Do we permit them to retain their own cultural identities and yet allow Christ to work within their lives? Or, must we try to remake them in the Westernized Christian imprint? In Westernized Christianity, how often we think it’s about right doctrine, adhering to the creeds. About right confession of faith. Maybe it is not. Maybe it is more of a transformation of the heart. That is what happened to the centurion. That is what happened to Mazhur Mallouhi.
Fifteen years ago I came across a book, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road. It told the story of Mazhur Mallouhi, a Syrian Muslim who stumbled into Christianity by reading a gospel while undergoing a deep depression. His story is complex and I can only skim a few points, but listen to the author describing Mallouhi’s transformation:
“In spiritual turmoil, on the verge of committing suicide, having no contact with or knowledge of the Church or Christianity, the words of Christ, ‘come to me all you who are wary and I will give you rest,’ lured him. One day, reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus’s promise, ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly,’ was strongly impressed upon him. At the age of twenty-four, standing on the Golan Heights in 1959, his responded, crying out, ‘This Christ that I am reading of is truly my Lord. Please give me this new life you promise.’”
And the price he paid? He made the pilgrimage to become fully immersed in the Christian community. It was a long and winding journey. Ultimately, he held to his faith in Jesus as his Savior, but saw that he could never lose the part of himself that was tied to the Muslim community. He returned to it as his cultural home.
How similar that might that experience have been for the Centurion? Or for Jews who opened their hearts to Jesus and followed him, ostracized by some but forming their own Jewish Christian beloved communities like that of Jesus’ brother James.
What the witness of the centurion teaches us is that all paths are not the same in finding Christ and becoming a follower. And even after finding Christ, all ways of walking as a pilgrim of Christ are not the same. But, in my heart of hearts, I believe each of our paths is a reflection of God’s tug on our hearts – our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, in Jesus as our Savior. If your heart is restless, may you, like the centurion before us, witness to Christ’s love that was so great that he became the conduit for our salvation. Amen.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Witness at the Cross: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Friday, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2021), 51-53.
 Ibid. 57-59.
 Paul-Gordon Chandler, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path between Two Faiths, (Lanham, etal: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 23.
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