But I want to take a minute to highlight a bit of good news in what we just heard. It is in the most amazing verse in the entire Gospel of Mark. “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’”
In this moment, at the foot of the cross, the centurion recognizes Jesus for who he is, God’s Son. There is a LOT that is surprising in that.
Now, by this time, every reader of the Gospel of Mark is well aware of the fact that Jesus is God’s Son. Mark tells us as much in the very first verse of the Gospel. Twice a voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s own Son. Throughout the Gospel demons refer to Jesus as the Son of God. As we just heard, Jesus himself tells his bitterest opponents that he is God’s Son. That is the reason they condemn him to die.
But, in the Gospel of Mark, before this verse, no human being recognizes Jesus as the Son of God. Other Gospels tells the story a little differently. But, I say again, in Mark no human being calls Jesus the Son of God during his lifetime. Peter comes closest when he calls Jesus the Messiah. But as Mark tells the story, not even Peter fully understand who Jesus is, fully recognizes Jesus as God’s Son.
And now, as Jesus dies on the cross, at last, he is recognized. And by whom? By the Roman soldier in charge of his execution. By the last person in the world we would ever expect to see the truth about our Lord.
What are we to make of that?
Here’s a second amazing thing. How does the centurion know? How does he recognize Jesus as the Son of God?
By this time, Jesus has said and done a lot of impressive things. But the centurion did not know anything about that.
A lot happens around Jesus’ death itself. A prolonged, unearthly darkness over the land. The temple curtain torn in two. Other Gospels add other impressive details: an earthquake, and people rising from the dead.
But none of that helps the centurion either. Mark is perfectly clear. The centurion recognizes Jesus as God’s Son by watching him die. That is amazing. How could Jesus’ death possibly reveal his divine nature?
We can learn at least two lessons from this most amazing verse.
The first is that God’s grace extends beyond anything we could possibly anticipate. God’s grace extends to the last person on earth we would expect in the least likely moment imaginable.
If God’s grace can extend even to the man who killed Jesus at the very moment of Christ’s death, surely it can extend to us. And not only to us, but to everyone we meet, everyone we hear about. Jesus’ name can come to be so highly exalted that at his name every knee should bend and every tongue confess that He is Lord. Our world and everyone in it is saturated with God’s grace and love, if only we could see it.
The second lesson is that the cross necessarily stands at the center of our faith as the revelation of who God is and what God is like. We worship a resurrected Lord, and next Sunday we will celebrate Christ’s resurrection with as much pomp and circumstance as we can muster. Without the resurrection, the crucifixion would be just another brutal tragedy.
But we can’t have resurrection without crucifixion either. Suffering is part of the deal, for Christ, and for us.
Our task, like the centurion, is to look hard at the Son of God on the cross. And by looking at him, we see the depths of God’s love for us, God who will not abandon us to sin and death, God who will do anything, suffer anything, to reconcile us to Himself.
And, by looking at Christ on the cross, we learn to see God in other dark places, in the pain and suffering that we all experience, even in death. If you have ever watched someone die, you know that death, awful though it may be, painful though it may be, is also holy. God is present as people breathe their last.
The centurion saw God’s presence on the cross in a special way on that day so many centuries ago. We can’t know what that glimpse of God incarnate, suffering and dying, meant to the centurion. Hopefully the experience changed him. Hopefully the experience opened him up to God’s presence more generally. Hopefully the experience taught him to see everyone who suffers as God’s beloved child.
But of course, the centurion has been dead a long time. For us today, the question is, what does Christ’s death mean for us? How does Christ’s death change our lives? Has Christ’s death opened our eyes to see him in our suffering brothers and sisters? Has Christ’s death opened our eyes to feel God’s presence in our lives?
I pray that the answer is yes. In the name of our crucified Lord. Amen.