Jesus was being crucified with two “rebels” or “bandits”. Not “thieves” as traditionally rendered. These were not men who had run off with somebody’s handbag. Crucifixion was reserved for runaway slaves and those who had rebelled against Roman rule. Jesus has the charge “King of the Jews” over his head. Only the Emperor is allowed to say who is the King of Jews. Anybody proclaiming himself to be King of the Jews is a rebel.
I want to focus on the centurion, the soldier in charge of the crucifixion. As Jesus dies, the centurion is standing in front of him, looking at him. And he says these words “Certainly this man was the Son of God!”
He has probably killed many people by crucifixion, watched them suffer, sometimes for days, and watched them die. A prolonged agony accompanied by cursing, shouting, screaming. But this King of the Jews says almost nothing, apart from calling out to his God. He doesn’t curse, he doesn’t rail against those who are torturing him. He is different. Completely, radically, entirely different. So different that the centurion is compelled to say: “Certainly this was the Son of God”.
“Son of God” was one of the titles of the Roman Emperor. The centurion was pledged in absolute loyalty to the emperor and to his divine status. Now he is overturning that loyalty and saying: “actually, this crucified rebel is the real Son of God”. This is a momentous change of heart and mind and understanding. His whole worldview, his entire way of thinking about life and his place in it, has been overturned by Jesus. It’s a complete about turn, an earthquake in his understanding of life, the universe and everything. This is what is called in the history of science a “paradigm shift”. It’s like what Copernicus did to our view of the solar system or what Einstein did to our understanding of physics. Only more so.
And it was a dangerous thing to say. Lining himself up with a rebel against Rome and against the Emperor himself. A sign of how deeply this man had been touched.
Jesus said that when he was lifted up on the cross he would draw all people to himself, including all kinds of people. Even those like this man who on the face of it could hardly be further from coming to faith in a crucified Jew.
Nobody is beyond the reach of God’s love shown in the cross.
The power of the cross is the power of weakness.
Paul talks about “the weakness of God” [1 Cor 1.25] in relation to the cross. He says that Jesus was “crucified in weakness” [2 Cor 12.4].
Crucifixion is a profound and terrible experience of weakness. You can do virtually nothing, and certainly nothing to ease your pain. The most you can do is draw breath, and even that is unimaginably painful. In Mark’s account Jesus barely speaks. His only utterance is to cry out in desperation to God, not as “Father” but as “My God…”.
What does he do on the cross? Very little, except suffer. Hours and hours just enduring the horror.
But look at the fruit of this weakness. The conversion, literally the turning, of this hard-bitten Roman soldier. Converted not by Jesus’ words, or his miracles, but by his suffering and the way he bears it.
The power of the cross works in our lives too. God can sometimes work through our weakness more than through our strength, through who we just are rather than what we do or say. I was first drawn to Christianity by seeing something in a university friend which I didn’t have. This had nothing to do with what he said or what he did. It was something about the way he simply was.
That’s why Paul boasts of his weakness [2 Cor 11]. He is reluctant to boast of anything else.
Nobody enjoys their weakness. But sometimes when it feels as if everything has gone wrong, nothing is working, God is distant and we don’t know what to do or where to turn, that may be the time when God is most profoundly at work. That is part of the comfort of the cross – the cross as the way of life and peace.