Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
St. Luke, who was a gentile convert to the Christian faith and friendly with St. Paul, said at the beginning of his Gospel that he wanted to write an orderly account of the story of Christ. He did a lot of research, and since he wasn’t present at many of the events he wrote about, he talked to many eye witnesses. Some experts think he even interviewed the centurion who led the Roman soldiers at the crucifixion, the one who came to believe that Jesus was a righteous man.
We’ll use our imaginations and try to picture what a conversation between Luke and the Roman officer might have been like. Luke was a physician, we remember, and he notices from the expression on his face that the centurion isn’t feeling well. So as not to burden him, Luke comes to the point quickly. What inspired you to say that Jesus was a righteous man?”
“I wasn’t the only one,” the centurion replies. “Some of my men, too. The way Jesus behaved impressed them. The fear of God was in them. They said he really must have been God’s Son.”
“Can you recall what convinced you to think that way?” Luke asked.
The centurion said he’d been to many crucifixions. “A cruel way to take someone’s life. A man can hang on the Cross for days before he dies. This crucifixion was different. There’s usually a time of waiting between the sentence and the execution. This time, the officials were in a hurry to be done with it, as if they were afraid there was something special about Jesus. The bystanders mocked and scorned him in a way we hadn’t seen before. There was nothing righteous at all in their behavior, while Jesus suffered this abuse with great dignity and a heart full of forgiveness. And I’d never heard anyone in the situation he was in cry out to God the way he did just before he died. I can still hear his voice calling out to his Father. Jesus was at peace when he died, as if he knew he was leaving the troubles of this world for a better life. And other things took place – an earthquake and the splitting of rocks. Some of his followers later told me that the curtain in the temple, which separated worshipers from the most holy place, was torn in two as a sign that now there was no barrier between God and the human race. I knew even at the time that the death of Jesus I’d helped to bring about had been arranged by the hand of God and was full of meaning. I’ve told the story many times.”
“I must be sure to thank you for details for my gospel,” Luke said. “I know you’re not feeling well, so we can stop now if you like.”
“In a minute,” the centurion replied. “Just something I ate yesterday. I haven’t said anything about the word ‘righteous’ yet. The terrible strain he was under didn’t break Jesus’ spirit. I know one thing: if you call a person names and revile him and show him that the power of authority is against him, because he is a criminal, he’ll fight back and you’ll have to subdue him or else he’ll try to persuade you that you’re wrong or else his soul will be crushed and he won’t see good in anything. Jesus never lost his perfect assurance that he was right with God and that he didn’t do anything to hurt his neighbors. The opposite, in fact. He’d served God and worked to lift up everyone who came to him. He was calm and patient throughout his ordeal. He didn’t bear a grudge against the people who tormented him. He wanted them to know that they were sinners and to receive the pardon he offered them.
“I learned later on that in God’s eyes the whole world – and even the proud, mighty Roman Empire – is full of sin. Most of the people don’t strive to know God or trust what he does for us or strive to live by his commands. The empire is orderly, to be sure. Who wouldn’t follow the rules when law-breakers are punished so severely? But lots of people are afraid and full of sadness. Jesus came to bring joy. By giving and dying and rising again, he put the possibility of happiness within anyone’s reach. By faith in Jesus, everyone can know the love of God and find a purpose for his life and live righteously. The best compliment anyone can pay to God is to trust his goodness toward us. He shows us a new way in Christ. If you want a goal in life, you won’t find it by worshiping the emperor or trying to fit yourself into the ways of the empire but by following a man who willingly became an outcast and died on a cross for us.”
“Then he rose from the grave,” Luke says, “and ascended to heaven. God raised him up, as my friend Paul said, and gave him the name that is above every other name. Jesus is Lord. Maybe we could talk about it another time when you’re feeling better.”
“Please wait if you don’t mind,” the centurion says. “I still haven’t got to the bottom of the word ‘righteousness’. There are two different kinds. One is outward righteousness that the empire builds in us. Live by the rules. Obey the authorities. Pay your taxes. Everyone can carry out this kind of righteousness to a certain extent by his or her own power. It’s never perfect, as my travels around the empire have taught me, but it exists. God demands it and he rewards it with material blessings. But in God’s eyes, this kind of righteousness is never enough and it’s not the most important. He also demands that we fear him and love him and believe in him. You can’t be righteous in God’s eyes if you have another way of thinking. He put righteousness into Adam and Eve when he created the human race. He made us in his image. But we lost righteousness pretty quickly, so now our weak, human nature can’t fear and love God. We love earthly things instead – power, glory, pleasure, money, and so on. The empire has lots of that, and the longer you live, the more of it you see. What counts with God is what’s in our hearts, and the human heart by nature is weak and corrupt and there’s nothing we can do on our own to improve the situation. If anyone thinks he’s succeeded in conquering the evil in his or her heart is deceiving himself and is in a worse spiritual condition than someone who’s convinced of his unrighteousness. We need a Savior to rescue us from eternal death by dying in our place, which Jesus did. He intercedes for us now. His righteousness covers us like a garment. The apostle Paul said that Jesus didn’t die for righteous people, because in God’s eyes there aren’t any. He died for sinners – the helpless and the corrupt. He saved us from the wrath of God. His death brought reconciliation between God and the human race.
“Jesus passes his righteousness to us as a gift,” the centurion goes on. “He doesn’t make us righteous so that we may enter his presence. He declares that we’re righteous already – through our faith in Christ. We live by faith. Because God blesses us and places his trust in us, we trust him in return and do the good works he expects of us, the most important of which is faith in him, and then come the works of love, large and small, that we do for him and our neighbors – picking up around the house, taking care of someone in need, helping out at the church. We go about our business in confidence that God is pleased.
“Now, it could be that a terrible time will come to us, as if did for Jesus, when all good things desert us, including our friends, and people criticize us for this reason or that. We do not despair or give up. We cling to Jesus who walked along the path before us. We trust in faith that we are righteous in heart and deed and pleasing to him. We believe that he’ll empower us to keep on serving in faith.”
“I can see that the Lord has touched your heart,” Luke says. “You’ve told me a lot more than I’ll ever be able to use in my Gospel. Maybe you’d like to stop now, on account of the way you’re feeling.”
“No, no,” the centurion protests. “I need to tell you something about myself. The Crucifixion happened a long time ago, and I haven’t always been as faithful to the Lord as I may seem to you today. It isn’t that I ever lost faith completely, but there were times when my heart was cold. I used to think I was special because I had been part of the Crucifixion and because I personally heard Jesus speak words of forgiveness. I believed he had an important assignment for me and that other believers would honor me. But nothing like that ever happened. I stayed in the Roman army and moved about on the fringes of empire. I went to a different place every year or so. Instead of finding people who were interested in my story of the Crucifixion, I learned again how rough and unfeeling some people can be. I served in one unit where my fellow officers taunted me if I ever mentioned the Lord. Sometimes six months went by during which I never saw another Christian. I wondered why God had put me in such a predicament. Had he forgotten me? I was angry with him; my standards slipped. I gambled and caroused and acted in an unfeeling way toward my soldiers. I didn’t pray as often as before and I stopped reading the Scripture passages I’d copied onto pieces of parchment. If God could abandon me in the wilderness, then I could abandon him. I let myself go, and after I lost all my savings at dice games, I finally remembered the word I used to describe Jesus – “righteous”, and I realized I hadn’t been living righteously. I’d turned into a common sinner in my thoughts, words, and deeds. I dug out the parchment I’d written my favorite Scripture verses on and looked for places to worship. Jesus was gracious to me; he pardoned my sinful heart and I was convinced again that he understood me and that he’d been on my side all during my spiritual crisis, keeping things from getting worse. I wasn’t angry at him any more and resolved to be patient and wait for what he would send. As it turned out, along with other things, he sent you to me on your information-gathering trip. It’s good to know there are other Christians out there you can talk things over with. I know you’ll be gone soon – after you have lunch with me and the other officers, of course, but I want to tell you about a new idea that has come to me just while we were talking. Instead of hiding in a corner with my faith for fear that people will make fun of me, I’m going to speak out about sin and pardon and the righteousness Jesus gives as a gift to all his people and that empowers us to serve him joyfully and fruitfully. I’m only one Christian, but I can do a lot of good, don’t you think?”
Luke went on his way soon afterwards, but he didn’t forget the centurion or how God acted in his life. He gave thanks to Jesus for the gift of righteousness by which the Lord claims us as his strong, sturdy, and faithful children. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.