Jesus and the Centurion…
Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10
As many of you know, I often like to take the opportunity during the holy days of Christianity to tell the stories of our faith through the eyes of one or more of the actual characters. This past week, while reflecting on Matthew’s account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, I was struck by his comment that the guards at the tomb saw the angel of the Lord and heard the angel tell the two women that Jesus had risen. I wanted to see then, if I could tell the story from the perspective of those Roman guards.
And then just a few days ago, when looking through a listing of ancient Roman names to give to the characters in my story I came across the name of Longinus…whom ancient Christian legend holds played an important role in today’s scripture story…as one who stood at the cross and later kept guard over the tomb.
And so, it is with deepest gratitude therefore that I acknowledge the Spirit’s role in bringing this man Longinus and myself together…
And while I have used my imagination liberally, the essential facts of the legend of Saint Longinus are true to that story, and the gospel record of Matthew is accurate as well. Let me share with you the Story of Jesus…and the Centurion…
Talking in low tones so as not to disturb the family sleeping in the adjoining room Longinus and his two friends Gaius and Cornelius often spent the late evening in each other’s company, sipping wine and reflecting on the many years they had been friends. And as they talked they looked back to their childhood growing up together in the same small village in Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey.
Gaius and Cornelius were sort of ordinary children, of average build and ability. Longinus on the other hand was not ordinary at all. To start with he was of noble lineage as attested to by the fact that the men of his family had always figured prominently among the leaders of the Roman Legion and his father was a decorated officer.
Longinus was born with one eye mostly blind, however the defect could not be discerned from the outside and only his family truly knew the extent of his limitation. Longinus, who was otherwise physically and intellectually far above his peers never let this physical lacking hold him back even a bit.
As a youngster he proved to be a born leader and excelled in schooling and in competition. Gaius and Cornelius both felt so very fortunate that Longinus was their friend as more than once he came to their aid when they were picked on by other children. And as they grew up their friendship became a bond of close trust and honesty with each other, and it remained so throughout their lives.
From the start, Longinus father was determined to mold his son into a model Roman citizen, schooled in the finer points of the Roman Law and proficient in all that was required for him to become a leader among men and a soldier after his own heart. As such, from a very young age Longinus spent many hours in civic and military instruction, even participating very proficiently in debates with others much older than himself. In truth his future seemed bright and promising and it was with the greatest of pride that his father watched as his son was installed as a Centurion in the Roman Army and placed on assignment in Jerusalem.
And it was in that capacity that Longinus was able to insure as well that his two childhood friends were selected to serve under him in his detachment…which was how they came to be together on this night, a few days before the start of the Jewish festival of Passover, sitting together as they had so often over the years…sipping a glass of wine and reflecting on life.
And as they talked the conversation turned to the story that had seemingly grabbed the city’s imagination over the past few days. It seemed that an itinerant Jewish teacher had come into the city earlier in the week and caused quite an uproar over at the Temple. He seemed very popular among the common folk with many starting to suggest that he just might be the promised Messiah the Jews had been waiting so long for. Longinus was familiar with other supposed ‘messiahs’ and in fact his father had played a part in eliminating several of them and shutting down their movements during his tenure in the military. Longinus didn’t really understand the Jewish religion, having never put too much stock in this people of a different faith that seemed so far from the Roman ideals of secular law, order, and civilized society. He could not understand why anyone would choose to follow another obviously inferior system of belief that seemed to have so many unanswered questions and called for faith in, and allegiance to a God who had for so long seemingly ignored the plight of his own people. It just made no sense to Longinus and so as he and his friends sat around discussing this latest in a series of Jewish ‘problems’ their conversation took a familiar path.
‘I think this is another issue that the Chief Priest is just going to have to solve on his own and do so sooner than later’, Longinus stated. ‘I agree’, said Gaius, ‘especially if they want their Passover celebration to go off without any problems.’ ‘To be sure’, said Cornelius, ‘and especially since the religious authorities are well aware that Pilate has no patience whatsoever for dissent and organized protests by the Jews within the city. He has put down such uprisings in the past and surely will not hesitate to do so again!’ ‘You mean that we will not hesitate to take care of any problems, don’t you Cornelius’, asked Longinus? ‘Of course’, replied Cornelius, ‘I was just speaking overall about the situation. We have always been the ones on call to respond to such problems and will do so again if the authorities over at the Temple are incapable of keeping this young new teacher in his place’. ‘Hopefully they will do just that’, said Gaius, ‘I much prefer orderly calm to dealing with situations like this. It never seems to end with these people and their radical religious views…why can’t they just behave and act like Romans’?
His question hung in the air for only a second as it was interrupted by a soft knock on the door. Looking at one another there was a knowing glance exchanged between them, each one aware that a late night visitor usually meant that something had happened requiring their immediate attention…and that ‘something’ was usually not a good thing.
Opening the door Longinus saw that the messenger from his detachment was standing there holding a sealed scroll. Taking it from him Longinus came back into the room and opening the scroll he held it close to the light and read aloud to his two comrades. ‘From the office of the Prelate of Judea, Pontius Pilate’, he began. ‘You are hereby required to report immediately to the Prelate’s prison in central Jerusalem in order to take custody of one Jewish individual known as Jesus of Nazareth, and to take him along with two other thieves to Golgotha and to crucify them there.’ ‘Signed for the Prelate, Titus Agrippa’.
‘I can’t believe it’, moaned Longinus, ‘here we are trying to enjoy a moment of relative calm and now once again we have to go and take care of a pesky Jewish problem’. ‘It must be a big problem’, said Gaius, ‘the Jews are not allowed to put anyone to death, and especially at this time of the year. This individual must have committed a grave crime against the state for Pilate to have gotten involved’. ‘To be sure’, said Cornelius, ‘perhaps the Jewish teacher’s antics of riding into the city in the way he did the other day offended the wrong people, after all, he was in fact imitating, if not ridiculing the greatest conquerors throughout our history in doing so’. Perhaps so’, said Longinus, ‘but orders are orders. So no matter what he did or did not do, we have a job to do and the order does say ‘immediately’ so we had best get going over to the prison’. The other two quickly agreed and, after leaving a note for his sleeping wife, Longinus and his friends headed out into the pre-dawn darkness to accept their assignment.
Arriving at their destination it was apparent that the soldiers of Pilate’s Guard were more than happy to be rid of the troublesome prisoner who stood beaten and bloody with a makeshift crown of rose thorns jammed down upon his head. Evidently he had not been a terribly cooperative prisoner, remaining silent throughout the long night of insults and torture meted out by the Prelate’s guards. But more curious to Longinus was the fact that none of them could tell him specifically what the prisoner’s crime had been, telling him that in fact Pilate had washed his hands of the whole ordeal and had acquiesced to the crucifixion only at the insistence of the High Priest and his supporters. Longinus found that very troubling; for he was not comfortable putting a potentially innocent man to death.
But orders were orders and so as the three convicted men were led out and each given their crosses to carry over to Golgotha; Longinus assumed his role as a Roman Centurion and ordered his soldiers to move the procession along smartly in order to be done with the unpleasant task as soon as possible. For in truth, this was one of the responsibilities Longinus disliked most deeply. He never took pleasure in putting someone to death, but usually the cases were more clear cut and serious violations of the law had indeed been committed…but in the case of this Hebrew man…he just didn’t know…and he was conflicted within.
And his feelings only intensified as he watched the Hebrew, now weakened from his night of beating and torture stumble frequently under the weight of the heavy cross, finally falling down on the ground only part way to the place of crucifixion. Grabbing a local man standing nearby, Longinus told him to carry the Hebrew’s cross the rest of the way, and slowly the procession made their way up onto the crest of the dreaded hill. Once there the soldiers began the unsavory task of nailing each one of the three to their cross.
Before they had a chance to start with Jesus however, Longinus took one more moment to try to assuage his own conscience and the inner doubt he just could not shake and tried to speak with the Hebrew man. Kneeling down next to him and looking deeply into his eyes Longinus was taken aback. There was a deep compassion and understanding that seemed to emanate from the eyes of Jesus that unnerved the Centurion completely. It was as if this stranger from Nazareth was able to look completely within his soul…seeing all of the hurt he had experienced as a child with a handicap and then his lifelong struggle to compensate by striving to be the brightest, the best, and the strongest. It was as if this man knew him better than he knew himself. Feeling deep emotions welling up within him, Longinus started to speak but was only able to say, ‘Jesus’…, before his eyes welled up with tears and he could speak no more. And as he struggled there at the feet of Jesus, not knowing what to do next he realized that somehow the prisoner was actually giving him permission to do what he had to do…as if Longinus was playing a part in a drama that simply had to be completed.
Backing away from him, Longinus stood up and walked away, leaving Jesus to the other soldiers who resumed their task and nailed first Jesus’ wrists and then his feet firmly to the cross. And as the other two were nailed to their crosses they had screamed out loudly in pain, protesting their innocence and cursing the soldiers loudly and with great hatred in their hearts. Jesus however said not a word, grimacing slightly but otherwise not acknowledging the pain or the grave physical insult to his body.
Standing off to one side, Longinus was approached by Gaius and Cornelius. ‘What is the matter Longinus’, asked Gaius, ‘you look terrible, is your eye bothering you again, it seems to be filled with tears’? ‘It’s not my eye at all’, answered Longinus, ‘It’s just that I can’t help but feel that this man Jesus might actually be innocent. The look he gave me was not that of someone who deserved to die. I just don’t understand’. ‘We too are troubled by this one’, said Cornelius, ‘Gaius and I have not felt right about this one ever since we picked him up at the prison. But there is nothing we can do, these are our orders and you know we have no choice but to follow them’.
Looking at his friends and knowing the anguish they all shared, Longinus nodded in agreement. At least they all felt the same way about this strange man from Nazareth, even if it appeared that they could do nothing to change his fate. In short order the soldiers had finished their onerous task and hoisted the heavy crosses upright into the holes that had been prepared for them. Then assembling over in front of Longinus they all stood quietly awaiting instruction as to which of them would be required to stand watch over the three men now suffering quietly in their pain.
Looking at his men, Longinus spoke saying, ‘All of you except for Gaius and Cornelius may return to your homes. We will take this one’. Surprised and actually quite grateful to be relieved of duty the soldiers walked back down the hill leaving the three friends alone in the company of the three now laden crosses and a few women who were off to the side, who it seemed were friends or companions of Jesus. Longinus, Gaius, and Cornelius then took up watch together, standing quietly side by side in the afternoon sun.
And then, somewhere in the middle of the afternoon the sky suddenly began to darken as though a storm might be approaching however it was not darkness in the usual way. Longinus shifted uncomfortably as it grew progressively darker even though there were no clouds apparently in sight. Suddenly Jesus cried out in a loud voice saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani’ or ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’?
Upon hearing this, some of those standing nearby said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah’. At once, one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine and hoisting it on a stick offered it up to Jesus to drink. But others said, ‘Wait! Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him!’ Then Jesus cried aloud again and breathed his last. At that very moment the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook violently and even rocks were split wide open.
Deeply moved and completely transfixed by what he had just witnessed, Longinus looked up at the cross and said softly, ‘This man truly was the Son of God’. Looking at his two friends Longinus knew that they all had witnessed and now believed as he did that they had seen something none of them could fathom, but that all of them yearned deeply to understand.
And as they stood there in awe their silence was broken by the arrival of several soldiers led by the messenger of the Centurion’s detachment. He had come up the hill bearing a new sealed scroll. Handing it over to Longinus he read aloud to his two friends, ‘You are hereby ordered to remove the bodies of the three prisoners from the crosses immediately. This order has been granted on behalf of the Office of the Chief Priest who has asked that the body of the Hebrew be taken down prior to the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown. You are further instructed to be sure that the prisoners are dead and if not to insure the same before surrendering the body of the Hebrew to one Joseph of Arimathea for disposal and burial. Furthermore, you are to seal the tomb of this prisoner and to stand watch over it until further notice’.
Looking at one another the three shook their heads, for they did not relish the task of ensuring a prisoner’s death which was usually accomplished by the breaking of their legs. Fortunately however the other soldiers who had arrived with the messenger were capable of doing the deed and started with the one to the left of Jesus. Then moving on to the other prisoner to his right they also removed him and broke his legs as well. When it came to Jesus however, it was apparent that he had already died. Just to be very sure however, Longinus lifted his lance and pushed the tip of it into Jesus’ side. Immediately blood and water issued forth falling upon Longinus and splashing over onto his face and into his eyes. Stepping back involuntarily Longinus wiped his face clean and realized with a start that somehow his bad eye had been mysteriously and completely made whole. He could see clearly and without difficulty for the first time in his life. Keeping the strange occurrence to himself however, he directed that the body of Jesus be removed from the cross and that his legs be left unbroken as he had already died. Then giving the body to one who identified himself as Joseph he dismissed the other soldiers and together with Gaius and Cornelius followed along after Joseph as he and another named Nicodemus took the body of Jesus to a new tomb lower down on the hill.
There was no question in Longinus’ mind that he needed to understand better what had just happened to him, and wanting to share it with his friends he waited somewhat impatiently as Joseph and Nicodemus hastily prepared Jesus’ body for burial, after which he and his two friends rolled a very large stone across the tomb entrance sealing it as their orders had directed. After the two Hebrews had left and all alone at last Longinus confided in his friends what had happened at the foot of the cross when his eye had been mysteriously healed by the blood of Jesus. Gaius and Cornelius were amazed and perplexed at what their friend told them, unsure of what it could possibly mean, but so thankful for his apparent good fortune. And all throughout that long first night on watch the three pondered and wondered what it could possibly have meant.
As day broke and the Sabbath was being celebrated in the city down below a contingent of relief soldiers appeared at the tomb saying that they had been sent by Pilate to relieve them of their duty of keeping watch over the tomb. Evidently Longinus’ father knew his son had been on watch now for over twenty four hours and had petitioned on his behalf with the Prelate. Not wanting to leave however, and sensing as well that his friends wanted to stay just a little longer, Longinus informed the soldiers that he desired to continue his watch over the tomb and did not need relief. Sending his gratitude for the consideration back to Pilate, Longinus dismissed the soldiers who made their way back down the hill.
Throughout that second day the three men continued to puzzle over the story they were now very much in the middle of. Unlike anything they had ever before witnessed, they somehow felt that by staying there at the tomb they might in some way find some answers as to why this Nazarene had impacted their lives so dramatically in such a short time…as well as what his apparently untimely death could mean. And as day wore thin and night fell fast upon them the three men grew weary and eventually fell fast asleep there in front of the entrance to the tomb.
Longinus was awakened suddenly very early in the morning by the sound of women’s voices just below them on the hill. Looking quickly to be sure the tomb was still secure he woke his friends and informed them that apparently they had visitors. As two women came into view before them there suddenly was a tremendous earthquake and falling to the ground the three soldiers were struck still and mute as stone. Unable even to move they watched in amazement as an angel of the Lord came down from Heaven and rolled back the stone from the entrance to the tomb. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was as white as snow. Taking a seat on the rock he beckoned to the two women. Apparently the women were not affected in the same way as the soldiers as they were able to stand and made their way over near to the angel in great fear and wonder.
Seeming able to sense their fear the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised from death, as he said. Come; see the place where he lay, the tomb is empty. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.’’ Leaving the tomb quickly the two women ran off to do as the angel had directed them leaving Longinus and his friends all alone with the angel.
Looking at them, from one to another the angel smiled and left just as he had come, the tomb empty and the body of Jesus nowhere in sight. For Gaius and Cornelius the angel’s look was frightening yet somehow drew them in entirely. For Longinus however, he recognized the same acceptance and compassion he had witnessed just two days earlier in the eyes of Jesus. Unsure of what to do and yet still somehow driven by a lifetime of training, Longinus was the first to speak. ‘I do not know what just happened, but I do believe that what that angel just said was the truth. Somehow the man we put to death has risen and is no longer here. It is our duty as those charged with keeping watch however, to go back to the Chief Priests and to report what we have just witnessed. Agreeing with their friend and leader Gaius and Cornelius stood and together with Longinus made their way down the hill and over to the house of Caiaphas.
Telling the servant of the High Priest quickly what they had seen, word was sent out immediately for all of the Temple priests to gather together. Coming together in the house of Caiaphas, Longinus shared the story of their encounter with the angel that morning. He left out the particulars of his own healing however for he felt in his heart that these men might not be trustworthy.
Upon hearing all that had transpired the priests asked the soldiers to wait while they went off into an inner room to discuss what they should do. After a short time they reemerged and the High Priest said to Longinus, ‘We have here a goodly sum of money, thirty silver coins. We would like to thank you for your service and trust that you will take this money in exchange for telling anyone who asks that as opposed to the story you have just now told us, that some of Jesus’ own disciples came during the night and stole his body while you were sleeping. If any of this gets back to your superiors or to the Prelate we will cover for you. We would be so pleased if you would do this for us’.
Looking first at his two friends and then staring straight into the eyes of the High Priest, Longinus said to him, ‘I know you are a man of high authority and command a great degree of respect. However I too am a man of great authority and am not a member of your faith. I have no wish to take your money and to knowingly lie as to what I and my men have seen and experienced. I fear you have underestimated not only who I am, but indeed the man you unsuccessfully tried to put to death as well. Good day sir’.
…and with that Longinus, Gaius, and Cornelius turned and left the house of the High Priest.
…and Christian legend from of old tells us that Longinus and his friends went on to retire from the Roman army and were baptized into the ministry of Jesus Christ. Returning home to Cappadocia their story inspired many and resulted in large numbers of converts coming to the faith…
…and I am sure there will always be doubters as to the veracity of these claims…however I am also sure of something else…
I am sure that the picture of our God as depicted in this timeless legend accurately reflects the loving nature of the God we follow. May his grace always be upon us…and especially…when we least expect it.