There’s a person that is easy to miss in the drama of the first week we call “holy” today. In the the roller coaster ride of emotions that took Jesus from the acclaim of those welcoming Him to their city as “King” (19:38) to the condemnation of those who shook their heads ruefully at him as he hung on the cross, it is easy to overlook the one who quietly witnessed the death of Jesus. He’s not what you expect. This man was never called a disciple of Jesus. He was not a member of Jesus’ family…in fact, he was not even a Jew. He was a centurion…a soldier. He enters the stage at its most climactic. And before he disappears from our view he utters a single sentence: “This man was innocent, indeed!”
The focus on innocence and guilt is an important one, not only for the people in the story recorded by St. Luke, but for you and me as well. You don’t have to be a condemned criminal hanging on a cross next to Jesus to feel resentment at the consequences you may have to endure for a bad decision made or a wrong action committed. You don’t have to be one of the Roman soldiers who mocked and tortured Jesus to act out hate on a person of a different faith, social background, or nationality. You need not be a religious leader to revel in your shadenfreude when a person who hasn’t listened to your righteous correction gets what you feel is coming to him. The centurion knew what everyone knows: Jesus would have been justified in hating back…a righteous God would be doing what we expect were He to mete out judgement on those who surely deserved it. Instead, the centurion witnessed Jesus offering a prayer: “Father, forgive them…” (23:34). The centurion saw the innocent King answer hate with forgiveness. God loves justice and does not condone evil. But the cross of Jesus is where the tit-for-tat, give-as-good-as-you-get brand of justice stops. The cross of Jesus is where sin that deserves retribution is answered with mercy.
On Easter Sunday we will all greet one another in a manner reminiscent of the Emmaus disciples when they first greeted others on that first Easter morning: Christ is risen! “[He] is risen, indeed!" (24:34). Perhaps on Good Friday, the news that the crucified Son of God willingly received the punishment for sin that we deserved…yet was the innocent and blameless sacrifice that brings us the gift of forgiveness…warrants a similar greeting. We could align ourselves with the lonely centurion and say, as an echo to what he said, “Jesus was innocent. [He] was innocent, indeed!” Such a greeting would shine the light of truth on our own wrongdoing, but would highlight the love of our Lord for us all the more!
Forgiveness offered with no strings attached is the epitome of love; forgiveness received by those who know they are guilty means life will never be the same again. How will God’s forgiveness in Christ change you or the life of someone you love, this week?