MATTHEW 27:33-54

At that time, when the soldiers came to a place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull), they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!

In today’s gospel we read about a centurion. A centurion was much like a sergeant in today’s military. He was a leader of a group of one hundred men. This centurion participated in the crucifixion of Jesus. We actually know the name of this centurion: his name was Longinus.

When Longinus saw how Jesus died he said, “surely this man was the Son of God.” It is interesting that we know the name of Longinus but not of the others with him. The gospel says, “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw …  what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Longinus was not alone but he is the one whose name we know. We know about his life after Jesus’ death and resurrection and today is his feast day.

Tradition suggests that Longinus believed because as the gospel says, the “earth shook, and the rocks were split and the tombs were opened.” But the gospel does not say that is the only reason he believed or even the primary reason he believed. Surely, one of the many reasons to believe would be that Jesus died without cursing the people who killed him. Jesus asked the Father to forgive them. Jesus gave hope to the thief on the cross beside him. Jesus blessed his disciple and his mother as they stood there. Longinus the centurion would have seen all of that as well.

Longinus is the one who was present at the crucifixion. He was faced with this terrible and awesome event just like each of us is faced every day with a moment of crisis when we decide what we think about the crucified one. There are many unique things about how Longinus saw the crucifixion. First of all, he was a participant. He was doing the crucifying. And the issue of how guilty he was or how much blood he had on his hands is rather unclear.

Longinus was ordered to crucify Jesus. He didn’t know Jesus previously. They told him to kill someone. That’s something soldiers did. So in one sense he had no choice. But on the other hand he chose to be a soldier and he must have known  that soldiers did things like this. Longinus was a small cog in the big machine That killed the God who created heaven and earth. Longinus was a one small part of a much bigger system.

We too are small cogs in a big system that is destroying the world through sin and suffering. Someone else has hurt me and made me angry. t’s not my fault. What am I supposed to do?

I want nice things and I have the opportunity to have them. Everyone that I know else has them. There are poor people who could use my help, but I did not make them poor. It’s not my fault.

There are many demands on my time. Church and God and prayer are difficult to squeeze in. It’s not my fault.

We play our small part in a big huge mess and in the midst of all the factors we do not control and all the factors we do control we meet the God who loves us enough that he invites us to carry our crosses and die with him. We encounter the love of God as the one who so loved the world that he calls the world to be holy as his son is holy. And whosoever follows his son and carries their cross and sells all they have and visits those in prison and clothes the naked; whosoever is living the life of Jesus is already living Eternal Life. That is the love of the God that we encounter today.

And that is a crisis for us each and every day. It is not a one-off moment of crisis. Meeting the crucified Lord is a crisis when I decide whether or not to lash out in my anger. It is a crisis when I decide whether or not to indulge my shallow materialistic desires. It is a crisis when I have to decide what to spend my time on. Why is it a crisis?

When I am angry I think I need a God who will smite my enemies. I think I need a God who tells me that I am right, that I have the answers, that I am on the right side of the debate. I think I need a God like that.

When materialism and the pleasures of the world entice me, I think I need a God who gives me money when I do what he wants. I think I need a God who will take care of the poor for me. So that I don’t have to. I think I need a God who just wants me to enjoy life and be happy. I need a God who will sit in church and wait for me whenever I have time to come. That is the kind of God I think I need; accommodating, generous to me, not too demanding.

I think I need this God because as a sinful person the only other God can imagine is a God who is not generous but stingy. If God is not the guy who does what I want he must be the guy who does what I do not want. That would mean he is a God who does not smite my enemies when I get mad. Maybe he doesn’t even care. Perhaps he is a God who punishes me and threatens me.

The make-believe Santa Claus God we hope for is the jolly and happy opposite of the tyrant and monster we secretly fear that God is. This is the pagan notion of God. Pagans must control God. Pagans must placate God and make him happy so he doesn’t get mad and kill us.

This is the childish and selfish way of understanding God, and it is the religious mindset behind the culture that Longinus belonged to. The Romans had many gods, but the message was basically the same. The army had a god of war who they believed helped them win battles. The Romans had the gods of Rome who helped them conquer and get rich. But none of these gods could tell Longinus who he was meant to be. None of them could show him how he too could become a son of God. A God who is like a vending machine, where we deposit our prayer or our piety, in order to get our request granted – this is not a God who can tell us who we are, not someone who can calm the existential anxiety and emptiness that we feel inside. Neither can the tyrant God we fear. Only the crucified Son of God can reveal to us the Father who runs out to meet the prodigal son on the road. Only the crucified Son of God can teach us to call God our father.

And now Longinus is standing at the foot of the cross and seeing the stark contrast between the loving and humble crucified Lord Jesus and the callous and heartless and shameless people who killed him. And Longinus is confronted with a picture of a God who is not Santa Claus and is not a tyrant who will smite us if we provoke him. Longinus is seeing a God who became like us in our weakness and suffering in order to show us how to be like him in his divine holiness. Longinus is seeing pure love. Longinus is seeing a God who does not want something from us but rather wants to recreate us in his own image.

It is not fitting to ask this God what he can do for me. Instead it is fitting to ask what this God wants to do through me. God does not make the earth quake in order to win a battle against an army. Rather, Jesus is conquering death by death. He is not tearing the temple curtain in two because he has defeated anyone in the temple. Jesus is tearing the temple curtain in two because he has defeated sin. Jesus is not a God who is demanding that we bring blood into the temple so that he can stop being angry. Jesus is a God who brings his own blood as an offering so that we may join him by offering our lives as well. Jesus is inviting all human beings to enter in and offer bloodless sacrifices of praise and worship and he is inviting us into communion with him.

Will we accept this God? Do we want to know this God? If I accept Jesus Christ as my God I can no longer have a magic fairy godmother of a God. Instead I will see God’s providence and generosity when he provides me with people to care for and nurture.

Longinus quit the army and moved back to Cappadocia (in current-day eastern Turkey) where he became a missionary. He founded a fast-growing Christian community. He converted so many people that it got the attention of the authorities.

The soldiers came to arrest Longinus, but when they arrived at the village they did not realize that the person who greeted them was the man they were looking for. Longinus gave them a meal and treated them with hospitality. Just like Jesus shared his meal with Judas. Longinus told the soldiers who he was. The soldiers told him to run away and escape. But he refused to run away just as Jesus refused to plead with Pilot to let him go; just as Jesus accepted the will of the father.

Longinus truly understood and embraced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Longinus stopped being a cog in the machine of sin that is killing the world. He used his life and his death to bring healing to the world.

Will you also follow Jesus Christ by changing the way you understand who God is and what the nature of your life is, this life that God has given you? Will you also use the time you have in your life to bless and to minister and to serve and to pray? Will you follow Jesus?

Lord Jesus Christ, our God, help us to follow you.