Centurion: From Glory to Glory

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Unexpected

Our duty as philosophers requires us to honor truth above our friends – Aristotle.

A knock sounded on Gaius’ door. “Sorry to wake you, sir. Centurion Cornelius is here to see you.” Gaius motioned to let him enter.

“I am sorry to intrude at this late hour. I have been in Jerusalem since Tuesday helping with the Passover Festival.” Cornelius sat in the chair Gaius had offered. Cornelius didn’t know him very well, but what he had heard about Gaius and the time he had spent with him made him believe he could be trusted. “I understand that you have been attending to Pilate’s commands? And that you were involved with the rabbi, Jesus?” Gaius nodded assent to each question. “Because of my close relationship with the Jews, I was attached to the priests and give assistance as needed. Well, they requested soldiers to stand guard over the rabbi’s tomb, and I promptly dispatched two men.”

Gaius interrupted, “Cornelius, you didn’t come here to give me a report of your century’s responsibilities. You look agitated. How can I help you?” This meeting was a little disconcerting. Cornelius was known as a strong officer. His emotional display and break down of military decorum was embarrassing.

“I am sorry, my friend. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.” He had stood and began pacing. “I have come to believe in this rabbi.” Looking at Gaius he continued, “He has spoken truth, peace, and life. His words were intoxicating. Gaius, he even spoke of his death. He said it was necessary for our salvation. No one believed it would really happen. These unexpected events have caused fear in a lot of the Jews.”

“Cornelius, I understand your interest in this man, but you are a soldier of Rome. Your loyalty is to the Emperor. Why do you worry so much about these people? Take what you can from this rabbi’s teaching and incorporate what is true into your family’s beliefs.” Gaius remembered Jesus telling Pilate that the truth would set him free. “But what is truth?” Pilate had responded.

“It’s not that simple. Jesus said he was the truth. He didn’t give room for other people’s truth. All truth revolved around him, and now he is dead.” Sweat began to glisten on Cornelius’ forehead. “I question everything it means to be Roman because of this man, and now I am questioning everything about him.” He put his head in his hands. “I am at a loss to know what to do.”

Gaius was feeling very uncomfortable. He, too, had found the young rabbi charismatic, but he hadn’t been caught up in his religious cult. He was Roman, and the glory of Rome gave context to all he believed. Cornelius had been enchanted by the rabbi’s call to a higher morality, but other philosophers had done the same. “Cornelius, you need to pull yourself together. I know this rabbi, or philosopher, has said some good things, but all of this has been said before. Rome was built on strong moral virtues. I, myself, have tried to live by them.”

“No, you don’t understand. He didn’t teach that we should be more virtuous. He taught that we couldn’t, that our attempts at righteousness were vain, and God’s judgment was on us all. Only through a perfect sacrifice could we be totally forgiven.” His expression changed with a flash of enlightenment. “That’s what the Baptist meant when he said, ‘The perfect lamb that takes away the sins of the world!’”

Gaius only understood bits and pieces of Cornelius’ ranting. He let him continue his tirade. Hopefully he would get it out of his system. He knew that his friend’s new faith wouldn’t go over well with his superiors. It was one thing to believe in the Jew’s god, but it was another to fall to pieces over a teacher’s death, especially a death at the hands of Rome. Gaius’ interest in the rabbi ended at his death, and though he believed him more than just another instigator, there was nothing more of the matter. He was about to encourage Cornelius in the same direction when the cup on the table began to rattle. The ground was shaking, and its intensity was growing.

“It’s an earthquake!” soldiers cried out in the barracks. “Get into the open before the walls fall in on you!”

The two centurions stood quickly and made their way to the fort’s courtyard. It was hard to keep steady with the constant rumbling, but just as the sunlight split the morning sky it stopped. Earthquakes were not uncommon in Israel, but two in three days? This one made Gaius’ heart pump a little faster.

Cornelius left Gaius at the fort, made his way out the north gate, and to the garden tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. It was in his grave that Jesus was buried. He had a feeling something was happening there, and since his soldiers were keeping guard, he felt it prudent to make haste. When he arrived he was not pleased, at all. His guards had abandoned their post, the stone on the tomb rolled away, and the body of Jesus was gone! His soldiers knew the penalty of their actions; he couldn’t believe that they would have run away. They were either paid to leave their post, or so frightened that they acted as cowards. Whichever, they would be executed.

He was furious when he walked into the barracks. “Where are they?” he shouted, and everyone knew about whom he was talking. “Bring them out to me, now!” His face was red hot, but still there was no movement. He glared at them perplexed at their silence when a soldier stepped forward.

“Sir, the men in question were seen heading toward the palace. They looked afraid, and were moving quickly.”

An hour had passed by the time he arrived at the Herod’s palace. “I am here to see the governor.” Cornelius paced back and forth as he waited at the entrance. He wasn’t even invited into the palace’s main reception hall. After another 25 minutes, the guard finally returned. With no explanation he simply handed the Centurion a note.

To Centurion Cornelius, by order of the governor, Pontus Pilate:

It has come to my attention that his disciples stole the rabbi’s body. In the event of such actions the soldiers guarding the tomb were instructed not to interfere. They are released of any culpability in this matter.

Cornelius seethed. How could his authority over his men be summarily dismissed? He might not be able to punish these men, but he would get to the bottom of the matter. When he walked into the barracks the room fell silent, and all eyes turned to the two guards. Cornelius heard the jingle of money pouches as one of the men stuffed something into his gear bag. “What is that you have hidden?” he asked.

The guard knew better than to lie. He was told that the matter was taken care of, but his century could still execute judgment for something else if he wasn't careful. The soldier pulled out the moneybag and explained, “I know it is unusual, but the priests were generous, and paid us for keeping watch over the tomb.” Straightening to attention he added, “I would be glad to share it with you, Centurion.”

“That is not necessary. What is necessary is an explanation.” By this time the other soldiers had positioned themselves at a safe distance, but close enough to hear the conversation.

The two soldiers looked at one another. “When we took our positions at the tomb we were approached by some priests who had a communiqué from the governor ordering non-interference. When the disciples came for the body we stepped back and let them take it. We knew this didn’t seem right, but we were under orders.”

“Under orders. So why didn’t you come to me instead of running to the priests?” Cornelius was an apt prosecutor.

“We knew how you felt about this rabbi, and were afraid you wouldn’t understand,” the other soldier offered. “Knowing that our lives could be forfeited we wanted some assurance to the contrary.”

“Where did they take the body?”

The soldiers shook their heads.

Cornelius turned and walked out of the barracks. He was familiar with the disciples and where they often stayed in Jerusalem. They met in a number of houses in the lower-city. He also knew they were in hiding after last week’s events, especially if they had stolen the body. He decided to dress in local attire, so as not to add to their distress. Yet, even in casual dress he was recognized as a Roman soldier, and since he was out of uniform they felt less obliged to answer his questions. Finally, a woman said, “They aren’t here. They were from Galilee, and I believe they went back.” He thanked the woman, gave her three denarii, and returned disappointed to the barracks.

Passover was over, and Jerusalem was thinning as travelers made their way back to their homes. Pilate took his household and went back to Caesarea, and the reinforced military presence decreased to its previous levels. Before Pilate left he called Cornelius to the palace.

“Centurion, I have good reports of your faithful service to Rome, and your deep knowledge of the Jewish people. I am promoting you to Centurion Princeps Posterior of the Second Cohort. Your new post will be in Caesarea, and your knowledge and experience will be beneficial to me. You have two weeks to settle your affairs in Capernaum.” Pilate waved his dismissal, and Cornelius headed for home.

He was going to miss Capernaum. It had been his post since his arrival in Israel, and he had grown fond of the area and its people. The city was a fishing village at the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and during the hot summers a southern wind blew across the sea and cooled the residents. It was also a favorite area of the rabbi, Jesus. He would miss the stories of his compassion and power. It was best that he was relocating. He had become emotionally involved and his ability to be an unbiased judge was compromised.

One evening, as Cornelius was reclining with his family, a sentry banged on his door. “Centurion, all of Capernaum is talking. He is back! The rabbi is back!”

“They are just rumors. I’ve heard them ever since returning.” Cornelius was skeptical. He knew his disciples were spreading rumors. Hadn’t they stolen his body? What better way to deceive the people into believing that he had risen from the dead?

“No, my lord. I have seen him, and a large crowd is gathering by the sea as we speak. They say he is going to come and speak to this disciples.” This man certainly believed his story, whatever the real truth, and Cornelius had to find out for himself.

Outside of Capernaum was a sloping hill that rose from the sea to the mountains. It was an ideal spot for large crowds and this one was growing as the day wore on. By the time he arrived it had swelled to over 500 people, all waiting anxiously for the rabbi to appear. They had heard the rumors too, and wanted to see if they were true. The crowd began to separate as the disciples of Jesus walked toward the sea. Jesus wasn’t with them, but they didn’t seem to worry. They were confident that he would appear.

“Good citizens of Capernaum, and those who have heard the voice of the master. We testify to you today that we have seen, heard, and touched the risen Lord Jesus, just as he prophesied. There has been speculation and rumors that his body was stolen and that we, his disciples, spread false rumors of his resurrection. We are here today to state that the rumors are false. Not only did we not steal his body, but he lives!” And the crowd erupted in cheers. Cornelius didn’t respond. They were cheering words, they were cheering hope, but they weren’t seeing anything. A hush began to fall over the crowd, beginning in the rear and working its way to the edge of the sea. When Jesus walked through and stepped into the boat, Cornelius felt as though he might pass out. When the haze cleared Jesus was speaking, and his eyes had fallen on Cornelius. He was speaking directly to the Centurion, but he couldn’t hear a word. He was too overcome by his presence, and the mystery that surrounded the event.

The time with Jesus seemed both forever and too short. Before he knew it, the rabbi had disappeared. At first he thought maybe he had been dreaming or hallucinating, but as he listened to people’s stories he realized that it was real. Cornelius didn’t know what to believe, and there wasn’t time to ask questions. His two weeks were up and he was leaving for his new post in the morning.

________________________

Friends are as companions on a journey, who ought to aid each other to persevere in the road to a happier life – Pythagoras.

Zohar felt sorry for Shlomit. She hadn’t spoken a word since the night of her rape, and Yochanan exacerbated the situation by avoiding her. His inability to protect his wife embarrassed him, and instead of reaching out to her, he isolated himself. The more he avoided her the more she withdrew, and the more she withdrew…the cycle was endless.

She questioned Chaim about the matter. “Why won’t your brother just sit next to Shlomit and put his arm around her?”

“He is conflicted, Zohar. She has been defiled…”

“But it wasn’t her fault!” she interrupted. “Why does she have to suffer because of those brutes?”

“Let me finish. She has been defiled and he feels guilty. He has taken the shame on himself and it pains him to look at her because it reminds him of his weakness.” Chaim was having difficulty explaining this to Zohar.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s not about him, it’s about her. His wound will heal, hers are deep and she needs him. I’m going to say something to him.”

Chaim put his hand on Zohar’s shoulder. “No! It is not your place to interfere.”

“Well then it is your place, and if you won’t do it someone needs to. She will whither and die if he doesn’t show her some compassion.” Zohar looked into her husband’s eyes. “I know. I have told you a lot about my life as a slave. Men can be cruel, and if it weren’t for the compassion of a man who loved me, I would have spent my life feeling worthless, and eventually would have killed myself.” She buried her head in his shoulders. “Please, Chaim, he will listen to you. For your sister’s sake talk to Yochanan.”

Chaim could never win an argument with his wife. She was passionate and logical. She could argue whitewash off a wall. Most of all, he knew she cared. Zohar had become an integral part of the family. She loved them all deeply and they loved her. “I will talk to him in the morning. But I won’t guarantee that he will listen, or that it will make a difference.” Her eyes met his and she reached up and kissed him. He drew her closer and returned the passion.

The next day Chaim found his brother-in-law crushing plants to make dye for the fabric. Since coming to Palestine they had to do the work that had been left to servants before, but as Eitan said, “Hard work is good work, and good work is God’s work.” He was very nervous. He didn’t like prying into his brother’s marriage, but Zohar was right. He had to say something. Clearing his throat he began, “Yochanan, my brother, can I talk with you?”

“Sure, Chaim, what is it you have to say to me?” He didn’t stop what he was doing, because he really didn’t want to talk.

“I am concerned for you and my sister.” He hoped that referring to Shlomit as his sister would give reason for his inquiry.

“Thank you, Chaim, but we are fine.” He turned his back.

“You are not fine Yochanan. Look at me.” He put his hand on his brother-in-law’s shoulder.

Shrugging him off Yochanan said, “It is none of your business…” He couldn’t finish. He turned slightly and sat on the edge of the mill. Sitting next to him, Chaim silently encouraged him to continue. “I’m sorry, Chaim, I feel so helpless. I want to talk to her, but the words get stuck in my throat, and then I feel guilty for not saying anything. Now it is too late. At night, in bed, I have reached over to her, but when I touch her the muscles in her body tighten, as if I were the one who raped her.” Gritting his teeth he continued, “It makes me mad, mad at those men, mad at myself, mad at Shlomit, and mad at God. We were such a happy family, and now tears soak my pillow, and grief has stolen my heart.”

“You need to tell her these things. Maybe she will listen and maybe she won’t, but what you are doing now isn’t working. If you want I will sit with you, and Zohar will sit with you, and together we can help her to listen.” They sat in silence. Chaim wasn’t sure Yochanan could move past his own pain to help his wife.

“You will come with me?”

Chaim nodded in assent.

“Then I will try.”

It was decided that they would all sit down after the evening meal. Shlomit often took her meals in her room saying she didn’t feel well, and the family allowed it even though Eitan and Ariella encouraged her to join them. It was no different tonight, and as usual small talk and silence punctuated the meal.

Zohar was impatient, she was ready to talk as soon as they walked in the door, but she held her tongue and waited for Chaim. “Yochanan are you ready?” They stood up and the three of them entered the bedroom. The next three hours were difficult. It started with Zohar sitting next to Shlomit, and Chaim talking gently to his sister. He explained why they were there and how Yochanan wanted to speak to her. At first she lay in her bed with her back toward them, but with their encouragement she rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed. She wouldn’t look at Yochanan, but she did listen. He told her how he felt, how he loved her, and how he wished he were more of a man who could protect her. He knelt beside her and held her hand and spoke of the dreams they had for a family, how he longed for her to be a part of his life again. In the end tears filled her eyes and the walls she had erected began to crumble. It was going to take time but by the end of the evening Zohar and Chaim left Yochanan and Shlomit embracing one another.

“Thank you Chaim,” Zohar said as they walked across the courtyard.

“For what?” he asked.

“For loving me, and looking beyond my past to see the worth that God has given me. Thank you for bearing with my headstrong nature and patiently leading me in the way of faith.” Taking his hand in hers she continued, “Thank you for being the father of my children.” Chaim at first didn’t understand, but he realized her meaning and a smile spread across his face from ear to ear. He picked up his wife and swung her around as if it were the first time a man had ever fathered a child.

It was a time of rejoicing, not just because there would be a baby in the house, but also because it was the time of Passover. Eitan announced that they would be going to Jerusalem and celebrating Passover in the great Temple. There was even lilt in Shlomit’s step as she helped in the preparations. Coming alongside her daughter Ariella asked, “How are you today?”

“It is a better day,” she replied. “Some days are more difficult than others. Yochanan has been so good and patient, and we have been able to talk. That has helped.”

Moving in a little closer Ariella whispered, “Have you been intimate?” Shlomit’s face turned red. “I’m sorry, I have embarrassed you.”

“No, mama, it’s alright.” She hesitated before speaking. “We have. It has been difficult for me, but each time gets better. I know he loves me, and I have prayed that God would allow me the pleasure of my husband and the joy of a child.”

“What are you women talking about?” Eitan asked brashly as he entered the room, but the quick cautious look of his wife changed the nature of his probe. “We will be leaving at first light, so I hope you will be ready.” He quickly left the room and the women laughed. Ariella thought it was good to hear her daughter laugh again.

Eitan was right; he had the family up and on the move. He wasn’t wasting any time to get on the road. It was a ten-day journey and he wanted to get as far as he could before setting up camp for the night. The primary purpose of the excursion was to worship in the Temple during Passover, but it would also be a good opportunity to display some of his wares. They would stay through the Feast of Weeks celebration. Chaim explained to Zohar that the Festival of Weeks was a celebration of God’s giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai after he led Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness for seven weeks.

The trip was rather uneventful until they came closer to Jerusalem. They were not the only travelers, as pilgrims converged on the main roads leading into the city. Eitan was insistent on traveling the road through Bethany. It took them a little further around Jerusalem, but he wanted to enter through the Golden Gate that lay across from the Mount of Olives; it was a spectacular sight. They arrived a day before Passover and spent the night in the groves.

There was quiet a commotion as people talked about a young rabbi who had been upsetting the religious leaders. Yochanan had heard stories of his miraculous deeds and hoped to see him during the festival. It was to their surprise when they found themselves almost in the middle of a feud between the rabbi’s disciples and the temple guards. He must have upset someone terribly to be hauled away in the middle of the night. When the shouting started, Chaim carefully made his way behind some trees, just out of sight, to watch the commotion. When he returned the family was hesitant to believe his story of the servant’s cut-off ear and Jesus healing it. They gave into his insistence but held their skepticism in reserve.

During the day of Passover there were rumblings concerning the young rabbi. Some had followed him to watch the spectacle; most, however, spent the day around the Temple buying doves or lambs, and standing in line to have them blessed and sacrificed. It was a long, hot, smelly day, and when the earthquake shook the Temple, and priests ran out screaming something about the torn curtain, the whole area erupted in bedlam. Eitan and the family ran back to their camp to secure their belongings. He feared that looters would steal their things when the sun went dark.

“Papa, what is happening? Why has the sky gone black? Is God’s judgment falling on Israel today?” Shlomit was frightened and clung tightly to her husband.

“I don’t know… I don’t know,” is all he could say. For three long hours the sun remained hidden, and when it came out the campers in the grove broke out in praise to God for His deliverance, though they weren’t sure from what they had been delivered. The rest of the weekend was relatively calm, and as people began to filter out and go home, Eitan decided they would rent a room in the lower part of the city. It would be more comfortable and closer to the markets, and he was sure he would be able to sell some cloth.

Seven weeks was a long time to be away from home, but they had settled well into life in Jerusalem. There were more majestic cities in the Roman Empire, but there was something about being in the city of David, the great King of Israel. The Temple was magnificent and the feeling of God’s presence was evident. Eitan was glad they had stayed. Jerusalem was an enigma, a city of unity and diversity. As people walked past his stand he could tell they were Jews, but their accents were of Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. He could tell by their cloths they had travelled from places like Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, and as far away as Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, and Rome. They came together from all corners of the Empire and were united by their common faith.

Yochanan was helping a customer, while Shlomit tended the stacks of fabric, straightening them after patrons rummaged through them. It was an endless task, but necessary to keep the fabrics looking fresh for the customers. Chaim poked his head around the back of the stall and said, “Yochanan, did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” he replied.

“Shhh … that, it sounds like the wind is picking up, but there is no breeze. It’s strange.” Zohar joined Chaim as they moved to the center of the street. They weren’t the only ones who had heard the sound. Others were joining them trying to determine its source. It seemed to be coming from a house down the street, and the closer they approached the louder it became. They were no more than a hundred feet away when the door flew open and men poured out. They were singing and praising God, and speaking of His great deeds. They stopped and spoke to whoever was next to them. What bewildered the crowd was that each of them was hearing the message in the own language. Some felt it was a miracle from God, others accused them of being drunk. Finally when one of the men stood in the center and called for everyone’s attention the mocking stopped.

“I am Peter,” he said. “Heed my words, these men are not drunk. What you hear today was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘and it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth of my spirit on all mankind, I will grant wonders in the sky, and it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs was delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed him to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”

Chaim had heard the stories about this man, but he was uncomfortable about being accused of complicity in his death.

Peter continued, “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.”

There was authority in this man’s words. He was calling them to repentance and faith that Jesus was the promised Messiah and his crucifixion and resurrection were God’s way of dealing with sin and death. As Chaim looked around he could see the awe in their eyes. He mesmerized them, and when he called them to believe and be baptized there was a large number who followed him.

Yochanan looked over at Zohar and to his surprise her gaze was transfixed somewhere else. She wasn’t listening the preacher. “Zohar, what are you looking at?”

“I am not sure. There are some soldiers standing at the end of the street.” Yochanan turned and looked, and sure enough four Roman soldiers were keeping a watch on the crowd. He didn’t understand her perplexity since gatherings always drew the attention of the Romans.

“Do you want to go inside, or follow the preacher and hear more of what he has to say?” He was trying to steer her attention in another direction. Attracting the attention of soldiers was never a good idea. But seeing the soldiers stirred something inside of Zohar. There was something different about them … no, about one of them. Then it dawned on her: it was Gaius!

A crowd of people separated them, and Gaius’ attention was centered on the men who poured into the streets. Just like the Jews, Peter amazed Gaius. If not for his conversations with Cornelius, their words would be meaningless to him, but now they rang with truth. These men didn’t look like they had plotted to deceive people with false stories of a man rising from the dead. Their passion proved that they truly believed it had happened. He wasn’t ready to be baptized, but Gaius’ heart was teetering on accepting the message of the followers of Jesus.

He wound his way past the crowd standing on the edges. He ordered his men not to get involved, but to stay alert in case something mischievous happened. They were not in the least bit interested in the preacher’s ramblings. They would have rather gone back to the barracks and played a game of chance. But it was their duty rotation and they were stuck listening to the ramblings of some religious zealots.

Yet, even they couldn’t help but notice the number of people coming to be baptized. Gaius’ estimated that close to 3,000 men and women stood in line to be immersed. Why, seven weeks after Jesus’ death would people respond with such zeal? He didn’t realize he had uttered that aloud.

“I see that you are an observant soldier. Can I answer your question?” John, a young man, was standing next to Gaius. He was eager to share with anyone who would listen.

Gaius gave him a puzzled look. “No … well, yes. I don’t understand what the big deal is about this man Jesus and why people would follow him. I was there when they crucified him, and he was dead.”

“Deep in your heart have you done anything that you know was wrong?” John was probing.

“I guess so, but what does that have to do with anything?” Gaius questioned.

“God is perfect and he judges all sin, big ones and little ones. When we pass from this life we will stand before him and be held accountable for our sin. But God’s love provided a way through his son Jesus. Instead of punishing us, Jesus took God’s wrath. If we believe in his act of grace then God will grant us forgiveness.” John could see that Gaius was mulling over his words. “Jesus rose from the dead to prove that God has the power to accomplish what he promised. I, as well as my brothers, have seen him. Even some soldiers were there; I believe a centurion named Cornelius.” John had seen him in Galilee. Soldiers always stuck out in a crowd. “Do you believe?”

Gaius wanted to believe. His heart raced at the possibility of having all the wrong he had done washed away, and he had done a lot of wrong. He had stood at the foot of Jesus’ cross and saw how the earth wept at his death. There was something about Jesus’ life and death that defied human explanation, but how could one man’s death accomplish all this? How could he, a soldier of Rome, submit himself to the subjugated? Yet here he was, and he did believe. Something stirred from within him, and he said, almost inaudibly, “Yes, I do believe.”

John encouraged his new friend to walk down to the water and be baptized. Gaius was cautious; he looked around to see who was there. He didn’t know how this was going to play out with his men or with his superiors, but he didn’t care. What he was about to do didn’t conflict with being a soldier¾Cornelius had proven that¾so he took off the buckle that held his sword and handed it to the soldier next to him. Without looking at the astounded expression on his subordinates’ faces, Gaius walked with John into the water and was immersed in the name of Jesus. When he came out the world looked like a different place.



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