By the Reverend Trevor Jamison Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
Reflections on three readings from Luke 23. Each reflection focuses upon one individual. We know two by name, one by the office that he occupied.
Luke 23:1-25 Grace and Salvation
Salvation, being saved, depends upon God’s grace; God’s generosity. Our salvation, thank God, depends upon God, not upon our own gifts or abilities. We all like to think that we have done something to justify good things when they happen to us, but, in reality, we cannot do something that will justify ourselves before God. That’s good news as far as I am concerned because I know that if my salvation depended upon me then I would be lost.
If you want to see how that works out in even the most unpromising of circumstances, then consider one of the people who features in these verses from Luke’s Gospel: Barabbas.
Barabbas gets saved. At least he gets saved from a gruesome death on a Roman cross, and it’s pretty clear that he had done nothing to deserve his good fortune. In fact, he was in prison for ‘an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.’ (23:18) From the points of view of Roman imperial self-interest and the Jewish law of the time, Barabbas deserved to die. He did not deserve to be released, but released he was: ‘So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder.’ (23:24)
I wonder, did Barabbas see or hear of the fate of Jesus and think to himself, “there but for the grace of God go I.” I’d like to think so but there absolutely no evidence either way; maybe he did or maybe he did not. We’ll never know. What we do know is that is that Barabbas is saved because it is God’s gracious will and that God achieves this through the life and action of Jesus. It’s because Jesus is there to take his place that Barabbas goes free. It’s because Jesus, declines to speak out in his own defence before Pilate or Herod, and suffers the punishment that Barabbas would otherwise have received, that Barabbas lives.
In fact, as far as you and I and our dependence upon God’s grace are concerned, we are not at all different from Barabbas. And thanks be to God for that.
Luke 23: 26-34 Exploitation and Service
Simon arrived into Jerusalem from Cyrene, which is in east Libya. It was a place with a large Jewish population – they even had their own Cyrenian synagogue in Jerusalem, for those who visited during Passover. Within a few years it also had a substantial Christian community. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells us that Christian Cyrenians were among the first missionaries (11:20). Simon was from out of town, and maybe he looked it, because he was picked out to carry the cross of Jesus to his place of execution.
How often visitors and newcomers get exploited by the unscrupulous. In today’s Britain those who are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and those trapped in domestic and working servitude – in modern slavery – are all too often the ones newly arrived or brought in from overseas. Simon of Cyrene would empathise with their plight if he could foresee it, but all his time and effort is taken up with carrying this heavy piece of wood, hoping that when his job is done he will be set free; that’s up to those who are making use of him.
Of course, if Simon’s situation is bad that of Jesus is a lot, lot worse. He too is in the hands of those able to exploit and abuse him, but at the end of this journey there will be no release. Simon is helping out someone who is right at the bottom of the pile, someone for whom things cannot get any worse. Perhaps that is why the Simon Community and the Cyrenians chose their names, working with people who are homeless, those for who things could not get much worse.
Concerning Barabbas, we have no idea what effect his encounter with Jesus had upon him. With Simon there are some intriguing possibilities. Mark’s Gospel adds the little piece of information that Simon was ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (15:21), suggesting that Mark thought his first readers in the early church might know them as members of the church. When Paul writes his letter to Christians in Rome, in the final chapter, in his series of “hellos” to everyone in the congregation, he includes, ‘Rufus, chosen of the Lord.’ (16:13) The same Rufus, son of Simon? We can’t know, but we can wonder.
And while I’m wondering, I wonder, what would be the impact upon me if I found myself doing something for Jesus, even if it was not my first or only choice?
Luke 23:35-49 Witnessing to Jesus
My problem is I always picture John Wayne as the centurion at the cross. In that 1965 Hollywood epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, it is John Wayne who utters the line, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’ (Mark 15:39; Matthew 27:54 KJV) I can’t get John Wayne, with his American accent and his King James Version vocabulary out of my mind but these verses provide the remedy. That’s because in Luke’s Gospel the centurion never says these words. He says something different, something that John Wayne never said.
According to Luke, ‘when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “certainly this man was innocent” (NRSV). It’s not a question of either/or: either he said that Jesus was God’s Son or that he said that Jesus was an innocent man. He could have said both, and different witnesses remembered different sayings. And there were witnesses: ‘all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things’ (23:49); maybe they were straining to hear.
But in Luke’s Gospel the centurion’s witness statement is, ‘certainly this man was innocent.’ And a centurion might well have witnessed a lot. A centurion could have been there when Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate. As part of the Governor’s military staff he might also have been in charge of shuttling Jesus to and from King Herod. A centurion could have been in the room with the rest of the soldiers when Jesus was being mocked. The centurion overseeing the grisly details of crucifying Jesus was probably in charge of taking Jesus from the Governor’s palace to the execution hill. Maybe he also unlocked Barabbas’s jailhouse door as well as picking out Simon from Cyrene for a spot of forced labour.
He might have witnessed the whole Roman judicial procedure from start to finish. If so, who better to make a judgment about Jesus’s status: ‘certainly this man was innocent.’ How unexpected. Here is a representative figure from the imperial institution which condemned and executed Jesus, declaring him to be innocent. Such unexpectedness, though, is a sign of things to come.
It was a sign of unexpected things to come in three days’ time. When the tomb is empty, the first witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection are not men but women – very unexpected in those days. On the other hand, Luke has just told us that women had been followers of Jesus from the time of his early ministry in Galilee and are still around, albeit at a distance from the cross. They are first witnesses to the resurrection that we should have expected all along.
Such unexpectedness if also a sign of things to come for Rome. The city that is the centre if the empire which executes Jesus later becomes a centre of Christ’s Church, one which endures long after that Empire has faded away.
A Roman centurion as the witness in the know and a sign of unexpected things to come. Thanks be to God.