April 10, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Hmmm, some army you are. (looking at one person) Where’s your helmet? (and then another) And you, where’s your sword? What kind of army are you?
How I miss my world. I used to be a Roman Legionnaire. I led a century of soldiers and was the most important man on the field of battle. I was the front line. It was my job to make sure that our defenses held or that we broke theirs. As we used to say, Sic centurio, sic pugnatur, “So goes the centurion, so goes the battle.”
I used to be a soldier…now I became a soldier for Christ.
What you believe about Jesus the Christ depends on what you believe…about anything. What do you believe? Do you believe that power is might? Or that the power of love is greater than the love of power? Do you believe in just rights or the right of justice? Do you believe mercy should be deserved or that by deserving it, it ceases to be mercy? Do you believe truth is what you make of it, or that truth makes you?
If you believe in love and justice and mercy and truth, then you believe in Jesus Christ, just as I came to believe in him.
My name is Petronis. I was a centurion in the Roman Legion serving in Judea under Pontious Pilate, prefect of Caesarea, and loyal subject to his divine sonship, Emperor Augustus. Loyal, that is, until I avowed faith in Another.
So how could I, of all people, come to believe in Jesus when I am I am the man who crucified Him. Imagine sharing that in a job interview. What outstanding things have you done in your life? Oh, I crucified the Savior of the world. Oh, well, thank you for applying, we’ll call you back.
When you are the one who nailed the nails in him, it makes you responsible to determine what you think of this man. It starts with what you think?
What are your favorite Latin phrases? Mine are Esse quam verde, it is more important to be rather than to seem. Per angusta, ad augusta—through difficulty to honor. Vini, Vidi, Vici—I came, I saw, I conquered. What are your favorite phrases? You do know Latin, right? Raise your hands if you do. It’s worse than I thought. All of you who didn’t raise a hand should lined up and executed. Do they not teach Latin in this world? Latin is the foundation of all western languages. Although what the Gauls did to it is galling. And what the Anglo Saxons did is despicable. Your English is about as common as a language gets. But beneath it is Latin. Latin is not just a language. It is a way of thinking. Right thinking directs right living, and to ask what is right living is to ask why am I here? And to ask that is the question of faith. If you have it changes everything.
But it all starts with right thinking, which takes me back to the cross. I have nailed many a man to the cross. If I ever see their eyes the look is unmistakable. It is rage, hate. Pure hate looking back at me. And honestly it makes the job easier. But when I drove the nails into one named Jesus of Nazareth, for the briefest moment I looked at him and he was staring back at me. And his look was not rage or anger but more like sunpathos, sympathy, compassion.
That is one look I have never seen in that experience, and I thought, what is he doing here? And I tried to make sense of the matter. It starts with thinking. That is not just what my language taught me but also my military training. As a centurion my job is to protect my men and carry out our objectives. That means I am among the people. Once you get above me to the commanders and generals, they are removed from the people they rule. They sit in offices and play politics. But I am taught to study, learn, understand the people. The better I do in understanding them, the less I have to use this (holds sword). And the more I can leave it here (places in sheath)
When I was assigned to Judea 10 years ago I only knew what I heard about the Judean people, how they could be obstinate and difficult. And in some ways I have found that to be true, but the more I learned about them, the better I understood their obstinance. It comes not from a defiance of spirit, but from their religion.
They are a peculiar brand of people who believe in only one God, a God who created the heavens and the earth and who rules over the universe and that every person is created in the image of that God. This is why they will not pay their taxes will roman coinage, because on every Roman mint is the image of the emperor with the inscription, “Caesar is Divine.” To even hold such a coin to them is idolatry. They believe they are to inhabit their land by divine right in order to witness to the will of this God for the world. To misunderstand that is to misunderstand everything about these people.
This was a strange thought for someone like me. In Rome we had gods for everything. If you maintained a good relationship with the gods, they would be kind to you. Success in life was due to our strong belief in the gods and what the gods would do for us. You worship what makes you successful.
The favorites for soldiers were the gods Mars and Mithras. Mars is the god of war, the god who gives victory in battle. Success for a soldier was winning the battle. Every soldier owned an idol of Mars. You don’t leave home without it!
And Mithras represented loyalty to the emperor. Mithras was the bull god. You worshipped Mithras by creating a tall platform in which initiates could walk underneath it as a bull was sacrificed and the blood poured down on you as walked below it. It was believed that the strength of the creature was in its blood. The nature of a creature was in the blood. By receiving its blood you received its nature, and you would be strong like the bull.
So to meet a people who believe in one God was an oddity, but their beliefs get odder still. You see, they believe that this God reveals Himself to them, not to make them stronger but more dependent. Through Moses, they say, God sent His Divine Law that gave them boundaries and put restraint on their freedoms. Most gods are worshipped in just the opposite manner. And then God sent prophets through whom God rebuked them. Who has ever heard of a god who makes you feel remorseful?
And they believe that God will one day send an Anointed One who will perfectly represent God’s will and liberate His people. And this is the belief most threatening for me, because such a person would be called a Divine Son, and I and all soldiers make a vow that only Caesar is the Divine son of the gods.
Over my decade in Judea there were several times that individuals rose up claiming to be such a Messiah, as they called him. They would rally people around them to fight and overthrow Roman occupation. Each time the rebellion would be put down and the instigator would be crucified. The point of crucifixion was to be slow, painful and public and was used most especially for zealots and rebels. It was meant as a deterrent.
And this brings me to my encounter with Jesus. A centurion is always assigned to a case anticipated to end in crucifixion. The charge against him was sedition, which was unusually made by the chief priest and his entourage. When did they care about a threat to imperial authority? But here he was, and standing before the Governor no less. What I remember most about him is how little he said, either to the charges brought or the questions by the Governor, who clearly wanted to give him every reason to be released.
Why would a man who is point blank asked, “Are you a king?” not say, “No!” in order to live, unless you actually believe you are a king? Yet silent as stone he stood. Until finally Pilate washed his hands to the cheering of the crowd and turned to me and said, “He’s yours.”
My men took him into the interior courtyard of the fortress where they stripped him and flogged him and then humiliated him with further torture as the typically do in cases like this. You convince yourself that such things are deserved. There is something that soldiering does to a person. You kill long enough and something inside yourself dies.
By the time we laid the cross beam on his back he could barely stand. We moved out in double formation surrounding him as we walked from the Antonia Fortress to a place called Golgotha where the executions took place. He didn’t even make it half way before we had to conscript someone from the crowd to carry the beam for him. Once we arrived the prisoner’s arms were stretched across the beam lying on the ground. The arms are tied by rope to the beam at about the elbow with hands nailed to the wood.
I nailed his right hand. And with each strike of my hammer I desperately wanted to ask, “What are you doing here? You don’t have to be. Why are you here?” And then I glanced at him and he was looking at me. I felt as if he knew exactly what I was thinking, an dhis look was one of complete confidence as to why he was there.
The next thing we did was hoist the beam against the post in the ground, and then we put his ankles on both sides of the post and affixed them to it…I think you know you what I mean by that. The reason we do this, is because as time goes by the weight of the body pulling down keeps the person from being able to breathe. That is what takes life and it is why it is so slow. Victims often try to push their bodies up so they breathe, but because of the way the ankles are affixed it is too painful.
I tell you all of this for a reason I will come back to in a moment.
What you need to understand at this point is what was going on this whole time. The moment we left the fortress a solar eclipse started, a complete eclipse that blotted out all daylight. It was darkness almost like nightfall. It caused a deep eeriness over everyone. There are stories about such occurrences happening at the deaths of great people, like Julius Caesar. They say that when he died the sky went black. Such occurrences portend the death of a son of God.
The religious leaders gathered below him and began taunting him. They had gotten what they wanted. Isn’t that enough? Why taunt him? And then I heard him finally speak. It was a prayer. He called his God, “Abba,” Father, and he prayed to forgive those who were taunting him. Who does such a thing? Who prays for your enemies who wanted you tortured and killed to be forgiven?
Shortly after, and very near his moment of death, he spoke again, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.” It means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I felt sorry for him. Of course it would come to this. If God allows you to be put in such a place, then that God has abandoned you. What God would allow one to suffer? Who needs a God who allows suffering?
But what happened next changed me in an instant. He let out aloud cry, and this is where I want to refer to my comments about crucifixion. Because by this point it would take a person all the strength they have just to breathe. To try and push their body up using their legs would be too painful. To be able to shout would be nearly impossible. But that’s what he did. He shouted and what he shouted was a single word. It’s a difficult word to translate. It’s like saying finished or complete, but more like an exclamation. Like finishing a task that has taken all your energy and at last you can shout, “Finished! It's done!!”
Have you ever said that? It’s like a soldier who realizes a hard fought battle has finally been won, lifts his sword and shouts, “Victory!” It was a shout of victory. And in that moment I responded without fully knowing why. In that moment, with the sky dark, when it is believed such a sign signals the death of a son of God, I said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
I’m not exactly sure why. There was just something about it that was a faith-inspiring. Even at the point of lowest agony any person could ever face, when you feel all have turned against you, even God, and you can still cry out in confidence? That is faith I have never seen.
The world is full of people looking for a victorious faith, looking for a faith that promises prosperity, and success, and wellbeing. The only problem is, that’s not how life works. Success and health and power come and go. And its why so many go through life chasing after new gods. But a faith that trusts even in agony, in the midst of suffering, a faith that will not let go of the God it pursues, that is no fleeting faith!
Later I asked one of their religious leaders about that statement, “eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” and he explained that it is the first line in one of their psalms. So I found a copy of this psalm and read it. The writer does begin asking why God has forsaken him. Where is God in his agony? But it goes. The writer, “Yet, you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” Without vindication, the writer affirms a trust in God and they God’s goodness will prevail. And it ends with these words: “Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it!”
Speaking of the future as if it’s already happened. That is a faith I am unfamiliar with. But I saw it in Him and I want it in me.
Now the funny thing is I did get to see His vindication. When His body was placed in a tomb, I was appointed to guard it and make sure no one could steal the body. And three days later, I experienced the vindication, but that’s another story for another time. But evenso, that wasn’t what brought me to faith in Him. The cross did. You see now I know there is a God who conquers through suffering, not apart from it. And I believe there is only one filius dei (kneels facing cross), Son of God.