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  • Ross Moughtin

What did the centurion see?


On this grim day, three powerful statistics: * Now 100 doctors in Italy have died of COVID-19. * In the UK the 10 doctors who have died from the virus were all immigrants. * Nine London bus drivers have died from the coronavirus along with five other transport workers. What holds these disparate people together is a strong sense of duty. Certainly medics know the risk. Sadly Abdul Chowdhury, the latest doctor to die, warned the prime minister directly to provide NHS workers with adequate PPE. Even so they showed up, some out of retirement. But the vulnerability of bus drivers, certainly in London, was not given media attention until they started to die. Similarly for many minimum-wage staff: cleaners, checkout staff, delivery drivers. We are beginning to appreciate their heroism. The temptation to taking a sickie for so many people must be huge. It just takes one cough in the household to allow an exit pass. The pressure on care home staffs in particular must be intense given that many do not have the protection they need. I'm not sure how I would cope, not that I am allowed to find out. I was due to take one funeral but then the Bishop pulled the plug on any ministry of those over the wrong side of 70. Even so, as is discussed at length in this morning’s Times, clergy are not allowed to visit even the dying. As it happens duty is often downplayed, especially when it cuts across our own personal interests when we ask the question “What’s in it for me?” Here American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton speaks for many when she declares that “Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.” And yet this morning, many of our fellow citizens are just turning up, not just because it is their job but because it is their duty. They are needed. In doing so, whether they realise it or not, they are walking the way of the cross. For today of all days we reflect on the cross of Jesus. This was no accident, no plan going terribly awry. The very opposite: Jesus chose to do his Father’s will, his vocation. So when at Caesarea Philippi his disciples begin to realise who he is, that he is the long-promised Messiah, Jesus turns their expectations on their head. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31). The cross is at the very heart of Jesus’ ministry and yet his decision to do his Father’s will and drink the cup of suffering was tested to the uttermost in the winepress of Gethsemane: “‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’” (Mark 14:36). “Yet cheerful he to suffering goes,” we sing. No way, the very opposite. Luke in particular tells us of the agony of Gethsemane. “Sweat, wrung from him like drops of blood, poured off his face.” (Luke 22:44). Jesus’ life was not wrestled from him; he gave it, freely. On entering Jerusalem to fulfil his destiny he explains to his status-seeking disciples “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”(Mark 10:45) Today we stay at the cross. Easter is still future. Golgotha, the place of the skull, was a horrendous scene. I’ve just been reading the account in Matthew – entirely bleak. Jesus entirely alone, jeered and abused. No mention of the penitent thief. Just one piercing question: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” We may even join in with the ridicule “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” (Matthew 27:43). This is what happens when you resolve to do what God wants you to do whatever it may cost. For how is it that this man who could – unlike anyone else – could address God as Abba could be abandoned by the God who promises never to abandon his children? And yet those who mocked him bore witness to his status without knowing the truth of their words uttered in irony, culminating in the centurion’s testimony “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54). This Roman officer had, of course, no idea what he was saying. Or did he? He may well have been present from the time the Jewish leaders brought Jesus in chains to the Praetorium; it was his men who beat and abused this Jewish rebel. He would have commandeered the man from Cyrene named Simon to carry the cross for his broken prisoner. The Roman legions were feared for their ruthless cruelty as well as their discipline. Certainly this centurion was used to crucifixions: it was his job. His testimony, recorded in three of the four gospel accounts, however, was no throw-away remark. He had glimpsed something. Today we may glimpse something of God’s purposes in the quiet resolve of so many people on this Good Friday just turning up for work. In this they bear witness, however falteringly, to the God who is as meshed in the sadnesses and anxieties of life far more than we ever could imagine on this blackest of days. #cross #obedience #witness

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