The weakness of the cross

abcdz2000 / freeimages.com
abcdz2000 / freeimages.com

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
— Mark 15:39, NRSV

Power in weakness.

In several recent posts, we’ve seen how Paul returned repeatedly in Second Corinthians to the theme of power in weakness. He had been accused repeatedly by his detractors of being weak and unimpressive, lacking the “wow factor” that should go with the title of Apostle. But Paul knew better, for the Lord he served was one whose own power was often veiled in weakness.

In the days leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples must have been anticipating a great victory. On the surface, the arrest and execution of their friend and leader must have seemed a crushing defeat, even though he had tried to tell them it was coming, and had reassured them that he would rise again.

The chief priests and those who delivered him up to Pilate must have reveled in their own cleverness and power — finally, they had found a way to rid themselves of this thorn in their side, who had dared to make them look foolish in public. They knew their business, inciting the crowd to a frenzy that not even Pilate dared oppose.

The soldiers who flogged Jesus so mercilessly certainly didn’t see him as having any power. And it wasn’t enough to simply beat him until he was nearly unconscious. Like bullies having their way on the playground, they made sport of Jesus, mocking and humiliating him for daring to claim royalty. This is the Roman Empire, buddy, they seemed to say. Who do you think you are?

Ironically, Mark tells us, one person saw through the weakness to the power beneath. It wasn’t any of Jesus’ disciples. It was a Roman centurion. We are told nothing else about the man. His only role in the story was to bear witness to the truth that no one else seemed to notice — that there was something else going on here, something other than a failed bid for power, something other than victimhood. How is it that a duly sworn representative of the might of the Empire would be the one to say it? Was he a secret admirer of Jesus?

Perhaps. Or maybe we just need a reminder that things aren’t always what they seem.

For Jesus’ disciples, Friday was not good. For Jesus’ enemies, it was a day for celebration and then getting back to the power-brokering business. But they shared a common understanding of what counted as power and what as weakness.

If we are able to call Good Friday “good,” it’s because we stand on this side of Easter. But the question is whether the two days together have transformed our understanding of weakness, of the power of self-emptying humility (Phil 2:5-8). Post-Easter, Paul could stand with the centurion, looking to the cross, and say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” And he patterned his life accordingly.

Who would refuse the power of resurrection? But perhaps the question today is, who will accept the kind of veiled power found in the weakness of the cross?