Some thoughts on Jeff’s sermon from yesterday …
“When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!"” – Matthew 27:54
We don’t expect the most despicable people on the planet to experience spiritual transformation. It’s not supposed to work that way. We like it when sweet little old ladies like Mother Teresa encounter God early in their lives and then live out many decades of love and service. God bless the little old ladies. We don’t like it so much when, say, puppy murderer Michael Vick claims to see the light, and expresses a desire to use his prison time to get right with God. Despicable people should just stay despicable. Otherwise we have to start forgiving them, and we all know how messy that can be.
The particular centurion in question was a leader in the Roman army, which happened to be the occupying power in Judea at the time of Christ. The Romans, in spite of what you may have read in your high school or college history classes, were not always nice, enlightened people. They routinely executed anyone who was perceived to be a threat to their rule, and had, in fact, just done the same with Jesus, for the very same reasons. Before they did that, however, they tortured Jesus. They beat him, spat on him, mocked him.
We who have seen the tapes from Abu Ghraib have seen these diabolical dynamics played out. They are images that do not fade quickly or easily. There is far more than physical abuse at work here, although there is certainly that. There is also emotional degradation, humiliation, dehumanization. It is a scene that has been repeated throughout history, from the time of Christ to the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi concentration camps, from Stalin’s gulag to the killing fields of Cambodia to Abu Ghraib. It is appalling and deeply disturbing what human beings will do to other human beings. It is who we are when we are at our worst. And the centurion in question was in on that kind of action, the kind that is designed to suck the soul right out of somone who has the inalienable right to his or her soul, his or her stamp of humanity. It is treating human beings as less than human, and becoming a monster in the process.
So what does it mean when that kind of monster, that most despicable of human beings, has an encounter with God? How is it even possible that such a monster should encounter God? What about the notion, found in Romans 1, that God gives people over to the desires of their hearts, to be the people they want to be, and that monsters who want to be monsters are granted their wish? Can they be turned into handsome princes again, just like that? Should they be?
Jeff didn’t say it, but I will. I live with a fundamental schizophrenia: I don’t want to have mercy on some people, but I’m really glad that God has mercy on me. There is something in me that rebels at the notion of the centurion, or of serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, receiving the mercy of God. It’s not fair.
Which, of course, it is not. But it is gracious, and I’m very thankful for grace. Apparently it takes an earthquake to rouse some people from their lethargy, to make them see the truth. It did for the centurion. We don’t know what happened to him. He’s never mentioned in the Scriptures again. He disappears from history, having undergone some sort of spiritual epiphany, but I like to envision the story continuing. I like to envision him approaching Peter, John, any of the surviving apostles after the resurrection of Christ. I can picture the revulsion on their faces, the utter distaste with which they must view the man. I can see him admitting his guilt, and what he now knows to be true about the Son of God. I can feel the unbearable tension in that room. And I can see Peter – it would have to be Peter – slowly reaching out to touch him, to embrace him. Peter would understand what it’s like to betray the humanity of another. He would understand real guilt, and he would understand real forgiveness. And that’s the scene I try to call to mind when I don’t understand, when my foolish heart proclaims its innocence, and I need to be reminded of the monster within.