When, on Friday, at the cross, the centurion gasps, “Truly this man was God’s Son,” he is not only telling us what his heart says about Jesus. He is also telling us what his heart says about spiritual authority in Jerusalem, a city in crisis, contested by two divine figures. It was under the banner of one of those divine figures, Augustus Caesar, known as “Saviour”, “god” and “Prince of Peace” that the centurion had entered the city the previous Sunday. And on the same (Palm) Sunday Jesus had entered Jerusalem through another gate and under the banner of another Lord—Yahweh. Two claims to divine spiritual authority over Jerusalem were made that Sunday. One, the claim of Caesar, is represented by the Roman governor, Pilate, and the Roman army. The other, the claim of Yahweh, is embodied by a Galilean rabbi and his followers. Now that rabbi’s body hangs lifeless on the cross. Still, the centurion’s heart tells him that this is the victory of Yahweh. “This man was God’s Son.”
The temple authorities believed that Jesus’ death would eliminate the threat he posed to their authority. All week long, they had plotted his capture, but they had been afraid to arrest him publicly because of the crowds who supported and surrounded him. Finally, they arrest him at night (away from the supportive crowds), hurry him in front of a different crowd, and secure his conviction. With Pilate as their gormless puppet, they appeal to the power of the Caesar (Saviour, Prince of Peace, god) who commands death. In a chilling irony, it is Pilate, who serves at the will of Caesar, who tries to save the life of Jesus—“I find no case against him,” while the “paid crowds,” ostensibly the servants of Yahweh, the Lord who saves life, shout “Crucify him!” As any demagogue will tell you, all it takes is the right crowd.
There is blood and suffering, payback time for Jesus’ harsh critique of the temple (“den of thieves”), where religious authorities hide behind a veneer of spiritual respectability. This is vindication for them, the end of Jesus. There is grief and confusion, betrayal, denial, and a tender vignette among Jesus, John and Mary—“Behold your mother, behold your son.” And then, “It is finished.”
Except it isn’t. On Sunday, the rolled-back stone, the paralyzed guards, astonished women, running disciples. Some One who isn’t the gardener after all speaks Mary’s name in love. Some One who isn’t dead after all passes into a locked room and shows his wounded hands and feet. Two grieving disciples trudge homeward and are joined by some One who isn’t a stranger after all and, breaking their bread, makes it holy and them whole. Peter has three chances to take back three denials (“Peter, do you love me?”) after sharing breakfast with some One who forgives, and even more than that, risks the whole enterprise once more on a frail and flawed Peter—“Feed my sheep.”
The empire will not know you and speak your name in love. The market will not bear wounds for your sake and mine. Demagogues will not remind you that the sharing of bread is a holy joy; instead they frame it as theft by taxes. The economy will not forgive you and trust you and heal your purpose. As we look at the world through Easter eyes, we begin to notice that the choices before us are not simply a matter of comfort, preference or personal well-being. They are choices in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Gods who do not call themselves gods lay claim to spiritual authority, demand our obedient fear. “Just the way things are” is one of their names, along with “let’s get real here” and “you have to look out for number one.” They talk tough and move fast and look strong and seem to prevail, as Caesar seemed to prevail in the execution of Jesus. But there is always a centurion, who comes into the story with invincible Lord Caesar but leaves with broken Lord Jesus. There are always two women on their way to the last place on earth, who stumble into the meadow of heaven and an empty tomb.
There is always One who speaks the name of the earth and all creatures in love. There is always One who stands wounded and in harm’s way for the sake of another. There is always One who bears witness to the holy joy that comes from sharing bread. There is always One who speaks into human frailty and flaws the word that heals the broken past and restores a purposeful future. That One, once dead by the brute power of Caesar, is alive by the love of Yahweh. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.”