Palm Sunday: the Sunday of the Passion, Year B, St. Andrew’s Church, New Johnsonville, March 24, 2024

Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mk. 15:39).

When we get to the end of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we really have reached the summit of the Gospel. It’s not the end of the story, as we know: there is still more to come. But we have come to the culmination of the story, the crisis toward which we’ve been headed. The tension has been building as Jesus moves toward Jerusalem, as he enters the city and is arrested. He is tried, condemned, and crucified: a victim of public execution, of judicial murder.

Jesus’ death is not just the execution of a criminal, or even of an innocent man. It’s not that kind of story. There’s more meaning in it than that. Our Gospel reading lets us know as we come to the cross and see Jesus crucified, “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mk. 15:39). Truly, the centurion says, it is the Son of God.

In fairness to the Gospel of Mark, this is a story that he’s been telling from the very start. Here’s how the Gospel begins, first chapter, first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1). This declaration by the Gospel writer, at the very start, and the words of the centurion spoken at the cross, stand like bookends to the Gospel of Mark. What stands between them is the “good news” or “gospel” of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself sums up what that is in the first chapter of Mark, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (Mk. 1:14). The good news is that now, in Jesus Christ, the kingdom has come near.

These significant words at the culmination of the Gospel are spoken by a soldier, a centurion: in the Roman legionary system, the commander of a “century” or unit of a hundred soldiers. Six or so centuries made up a cohort, and fifty a legion, the largest standing Roman unit. The centurion was an officer, a Gentile not a Jew, perhaps from one of the units stationed in Jerusalem at that time to keep the peace. As part of the garrison, he was not a front-line soldier, somebody issued with the best weapons or armor, but an auxiliary in a minor unit. The centurion is doing what was effectively police work in a place that was far from the Persian frontier, where the real action was. In our reading today, he’s part of an execution squad.

The centurion is not an innocent bystander. I don’t think we are supposed to imagine that his hands or his heart were clean. Far from it. By passing on the centurion’s astonishing confession of faith, I think our Gospel is telling us that the fault line of sin and shame, grace and glory, runs through each of us. We are all sinners, capable of being part of the murder squad, of enlisting ourselves under the banner of the death-dealing legion of the devil.

But we are also susceptible, through grace, of becoming something more, and better than that. We are all capable of recognizing Jesus for who he is: the Son of God. Sin is terminal, but Jesus died on the cross so that we wouldn’t be: terminal that is. The good news of the coming of the kingdom has become the good news of Jesus death and resurrection. When God raised him from the dead, he gave us back the gift of life, and testified to his great love for the human race.

We ourselves now have the capacity to witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In a sense, this is what the centurion is doing at the cross. We gather today as witnesses, to offer our own testimony. What was done then is being lived out now. Today, we can all testify, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mk. 15:39).

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee