Thursday, July 19, 2012

Epicurus and the Centurion

You know how radio hosts will toss out an old pre-recorded show on the days when they're sunning themselves in Maui?  Today is a bit like that.  Except for the Maui part.

So it's another transcript, this one from about a month ago.  I hope you like it.  More than that, I hope it's genuinely helpful.  No, really.  I ran across a quote yesterday that really struck me.  It's like so:
"Vain is the word of that philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man."  -Epicurus, 4th Century BCE
June 17th, 2012
I love watching thunderstorms.  I grew up east of Dallas, and these huge thunderstorms would come out of West Texas in the afternoons when it was just appallingly hot, and they would pound everything with rain and wind and hail and there would be lightning and thunder and tornadoes.

I just loved it.  Still do.

I don’t get to watch storms anymore, really.  And they’re different here.  But as it happens, I got to watch the big storm we had here on the Tuesday when the family was over in Alabama.  I just stood there in my dining room and looked out on our back yard and I watched the sheets of rain come in, and saw my trees whip around and twist.  The rain was so thick that it whited out the green of the trees.  It was amazing.  I read later that the wind got up to about 80mph, just over Cat 1 hurricane strength.

About the time I thought, “Wow, this is great!” the biggest tree in our back yard, this huge water oak, comes down right in front of me, about 40 or 50 feet away.  At the time, I was trying to think about what to talk with everybody about during the approaching Sunday’s communion service.  (This will be a little disjointed, so hang with me.)

It occurred to me, I didn’t have anything to do with that storm.  I didn’t do anything to make it happen.  I didn’t say anything to bring it on.  It was weather; it just happened.  And I watched it.  I was a bystander.

It got me thinking about one guy in the Bible specifically, a person that really intrigues me.  One day, he had a very different experience with weather – and with the world itself.  He was a Roman soldier.  The Bible further tells us he was a centurion, so he had some measure of authority.  And on this particular day, he was tasked with commanding the detail that would execute this Jewish rabbi agitator person.  Now I don’t know if he knew who Jesus was beforehand or not.  It doesn’t really matter.

While he was doing his job, and the three soldiers with him were doing theirs, some very strange things started to happen.  At some point, it got dark.  It got dark in the middle of the day.  It got dark in the middle of the day for three hours.  From about noon to three o’clock, we're told.  Luke says that the “sun’s light failed,” which is a really spooky way to render it.  

The centurion saw that.  How could he not?  Later on there was an earthquake, and the centurion certainly felt that.  It was so explosive that it split rocks open – I think we’re talking about boulders and such, here – and the centurion saw that, too.  He was close enough to hear everything that Jesus said, and what was said to him.  Other things were happening that maybe he heard about as well.  There were reports of dead people coming out of the cemeteries, the tombs, or about the big curtain in the temple ripping from top to bottom.  Maybe he heard about all that, too.

But at some point during that day, I think there was a moment where he realized that he wasn’t just a spectator in what was happening.  He realized that, either directly or indirectly, he was causing it.  He was causing the sun to not shine, causing earthquakes to happen.  And that’s a frightening way to experience the world.  I think I know all this because  of what Matthew tells us:  “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!’”  Mark puts it a little differently, with the centurion himself as the speaker, and that he “was facing [Jesus].”  Looking right at him.  Luke gives it yet another way, telling us that “[the centurion] praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent,’” or some versions have “was a righteous man.”  The KJV says he “glorifed God” when he said this.

I find the centurion really interesting for a lot of reasons, but I’ll just give you a few.  First, he’s a really good vantage point from which to see the crucifixion.  You can stand right there and experience it with him.  You can stand with him and see what it all must have looked like up close.

But the centurion plays this really negative role in the execution.  He’s giving the order for the death of Jesus.  You can’t get much closer to having blood on your hands than that.  And at the same time, we can stand there with the centurion, just as guilty as he is for causing Jesus’ death.  Our sin made the crucifixion necessary.  Again, a very negative role to play.  But almost at the same moment, the centurion plays a very positive role in what’s happening.  He sees all that goes on, he sees the signs, the wonders, what’s said, how Jesus dies, and as Luke puts it, he “praises God.”

What exactly did he do?  Well, he simply told the truth.  He said Jesus was an innocent man.  A righteous man.  He says then that Jesus was the son of God.  And we can participate in the same way.  We can, in our own lives, tell the truth about what Jesus was, and is, and will be.  About his perfect life, about his death, and about how he lives still, offering salvation for each of us.  We praise and glorify God when we do this.

Note:  I wish we knew more about the centurion.  I like to think he became a believer.  Chrysostom has a late (4th century) account that he did just that.  Some churches sainted him as “Longinus,” a Latinisation of the Greek word for "spear" or "lance," λόγχη.  That’s probably direct confirmation that that wasn’t his name (it would be like calling him “Commander Spearman”).  In the legends, the soldier that pierced Jesus’ side is identified as the centurion himself, but it’s unclear if they were the same man.


Ron said...

I don't understand why Jesus' death was 'necessary'. It seems like an extremely cruel act just to get our attention. Not that there is any shortage of cruelty in the Bible condoned or ordered by God. How do you explain all this to the layman?

El Comodoro said...

Great question, but one that needs a lot more room than a comment section allows. Stay tuned and I'll try to post a response soon.

El Comodoro said...

I've posted a response:


Apologies for the length, but there's a lot to cover.