Some time before Lent our pastor, Al Van Dellen, announced the theme of his Lenten messages: “Crucified—by My Hand.” The topics were Judas, Nicodemus, Peter, and the Centurion. I immediately thought of the wonderful readings from the drama “We Were There” by Marla Ehlers (see RW 58). We used Ehlers’s portrayals of Judas and Peter on the appropriate Sundays, and I wrote readings for Nicodemus and the Centurion, along with a service plan for the Centurion. I’m hoping others may find these useful!
Joseph, I’m such a coward! I really didn’t know what to believe. I was confused right from the beginning, when I heard how he changed water into wine at that wedding, and when Isaac was made to walk after all those years of paralysis. I wondered, Could this be the Christ?
I wanted to talk with him, Joseph, to find out for myself. But I was afraid. How could I tell the other Pharisees that I thought he might be the one, God’s Messiah? They were angrier every day, especially after he drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip.
But I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind: What if . . . what if the miraculous signs Jesus did were really from God? I had to talk to him.
I went secretly, at night, so no one would see me. I’ve never told a single soul, not until now. The more the crowds followed him, the more determined they were to kill him. They hated him, so how could I share my thoughts with them?
In some ways I left that meeting more confused than when I came. Jesus said that I had to be born again—born of the spirit. What’s that supposed to mean? You know I’ve done my best to follow the law, every letter of it. Isn’t that good enough for entering the kingdom of God?
I still don’t really get it. Yet when he talked about God loving the world so much that he sent his one and only Son, I wanted to say, “I believe! I believe you are that Son!” But I couldn’t say it. I was afraid to commit to something so radical, so fanatic. What would the other rulers on the council say? Surely they would have expelled me. No, Joseph, I couldn’t bring myself to say what I knew in my heart was right.
But I did try to stick up for Jesus once. It was when the priests and Pharisee leaders sent the temple guards to arrest him. I almost laughed out loud when they came back without him, totally awed by the authority with which he spoke. The Pharisees ridiculed those poor guards unmercifully, of course. They said, “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in him?” I wanted to say, “I do! Don’t you see? He really is the Christ! His miracles are signs from God!” But I didn’t dare say it. They would have mocked me too. They believe that the common people know nothing of the law and that there is a curse on them.
That’s when I feebly tried to speak up in his defense: “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” Of course they insulted me then. They said I should know a prophet could never come from Galilee. I know the law and I know the prophets, Joseph, but I wonder—couldn’t Jesus be the one we’re waiting for? Is there a curse on me for not standing up for what I know in my heart is the truth?
What more could I have done?
He’s dead now, Joseph. Like he predicted that night, he was lifted up on a cross. He said it would be like the snake that Moses lifted up in the desert. He said that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
Is it too late for me, Joseph? Do you think I could still believe and have eternal life? I do believe it’s true, but I’m so afraid of being exposed. What will my friends do to me if they find out?
No matter. Let’s go, Joseph. I have seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe. That should take care of a proper burial. Let’s get it done quickly. The Sabbath is coming, and I don’t want them to find out. I’m such a coward. . . . Will God forgive me, Joseph? I do believe!
What a day I’ve had, Priscilla! Absolutely incredible. I had to take my regiment to oversee another crucifixion. We were at the Praetorium very early this morning. Pilate was presiding over the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. You could hardly call it a trial, really. The Jewish religious leaders were half-crazed in their determination that this man should be crucified.
I’d heard of Jesus before. I think I told you about one of my colleagues, a centurion from Capernaum who claimed his servant was healed by Jesus—from some distance, mind you. I didn’t put much stock in it.
But today, the Jews were determined that Jesus should be put to death because they said he claimed to be a king. Everyone knew that he had done nothing wrong, but the mob was in a frenzy, yelling, “Crucify him, crucify him!” There was nothing Pilate could do to get rid of them. So he washed his hands of the affair and had my men flog Jesus.
Jesus bore the flogging in silence. Then my soldiers stripped him and dressed him in a purple robe. They found a thorn bush and twisted its branches to make a crown, which they pressed into his head. They gave him a staff and knelt in front of him, shouting, “Hail, king of the Jews!” They spit on him and struck him on the head and face again and again. . . .
I let them do it, Priscilla. I let them have their fun with this condemned man. What did I care? He was only one of those arrogant Jews, I thought.
But he had no arrogance whatsoever. It was as though he already knew the outcome, and he was at peace with it. How I wish now that I’d put an end to their cruelty, Priscilla!
My men took charge of him on the walk to the Place of the Skull. He could hardly carry his cross, so they enlisted a passerby to help him. It was about nine o’clock in the morning when we got there. Four of my soldiers pounded the nails into his hands and feet. They put a sign that Pilate had given them on the cross. In three languages it read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
Then they set up the cross and began to mock him again. The men divided his clothes, but the undergarment was seamless, so they cast lots for it. Gaeus was happy to get it. All quite routine, until suddenly Jesus spoke: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” How could he say that, Priscilla? He should have been too mad with pain to speak, but instead he said, “Forgive them.”
My soldiers kept right on mocking him, of course. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” they shouted at him. Instead of rage or bitterness, Jesus had only kind words for others. He told one of the criminals on the crosses beside him that he would go to Paradise with him today. How could he say that, unless he was a god himself? Then he spoke to his mother and a friend with deep love and concern. He was thinking about others, not himself.
Wasn’t it frightful when it became dark at noon, Priscilla? God sent the darkness, I’m sure of it! During those three long hours, we watched as he suffered. Jesus cried out in anguish only twice, and then not with swearing and bitter cries of anger. Once he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I’ve never heard or seen anything like it in all of the crucifixions I’ve supervised! What does this all mean?
Just before it became light again, about three o’clock—you felt the earthquake, didn’t you? Do you see that I’m still trembling, Priscilla? At that moment, when the earth was shaking, he cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He was talking to God, his Father. I know it without a doubt. . . . And then he said, “It is finished!”
It was as if he had accomplished a task that only he could do. His death on the cross was something he had to go through for a special purpose.
I don’t understand it, Priscilla, but one thing I know for sure: this man was truly the Son of God. Only God could die like that. Only God could forgive his killers.
Do you think he could forgive me for allowing my men to be so cruel—do you think he could forgive me for murdering him? Did he pray for me, Priscilla, even me?
Service Plan for the Centurion
Gathering song: “Come, All Who Fear the Lord God” PsH 240
Call to Worship: from Psalm 22
Leader: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
All: Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
Leader: All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him.”
Men: I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
Women: You who fear the Lord, praise him!
Leader: A pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
Men: From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly.
Women: Those who seek the Lord will praise him.
Leader: All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
Men: All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord.
Women: All the families of the nations will bow down before him,
All: for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.
Leader: They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
Men: Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.
Women: They proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn:
All: He has done it!
Song of Praise: “In the Presence of Your People” PsH 160
Call to Confession: Psalm 130:1-6
Prayer of Confession
God of compassion,
in Jesus Christ you did not disdain the company of sinners
but welcomed them with love.
Look upon us in mercy, we pray.
Our sins are more than we can bear;
Our pasts enslave us; our misdeeds are beyond correcting.
Forgive the wrongs we cannot undo;
free us from a past we cannot change;
Heal what we can no longer fix.
Grace our lives with your love and turn the tears of our past
into the joys of new life with you. Amen.
—John Paarlberg, RW 34, p. 8
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130:7-8
Song of Praise and Thanksgiving
“You Are My King (Amazing Love)” CSW 12
“Christ, the Life of All the Living” PsH 371
Prayer for Illumination
Reader’s Theater: The Centurion
Scripture Reading: Luke 23:26-49
Sermon: Father, Forgive Them
Sung Response: “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” CH 347, PsH 267, WR 366
Prayers of the People
Song of Offering: “I Offer My Life” SNC 218
Lord’s Supper: Great Prayer of Thanksgiving SNC 250
Profession of Faith
God remembered his promise to reconcile the world to himself; he has come among us in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word made flesh.
He is the long awaited Savior, fully human and fully divine.
As our substitute he suffered all his years on earth, especially in the torture of the cross. He carried God’s judgment on our sin; his sacrifice removes our guilt. He walked out of the grave, the Lord of life!
We are set right with God, we are given new life, and called to walk with him in freedom from sin’s dominion.
Being both God and man, Jesus is the only Mediator between God and his people.
He alone paid the debt of our sin; there is no other Savior!
Jesus ascended in triumph to his heavenly throne. There he hears our prayers, pleads our cause before the Father, and rules the world.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
—adapted from Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony, Faith Alive, 2008
Hymn of Response: “O Jesus, We Adore You” PsH 472
Doxology: “Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow”