“When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” Matthew 27:54
Surely: alethos, truly certainly, really. It is not a question, it is a statement; confronted with the experience that afternoon, they are certain.
Ourselves? Less so. We might read those words as though they were followed by a question mark, “surely, he was the son of God?” It becomes a suggestion that people might think about what they have heard rather than a statement of faith.
Good Friday asks questions of us. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” ask the words of Lamentations Chapter 1 Verse 12. To most people in 2017, it is nothing. To share the words of the centurion and declare, “surely he was the Son of God” demands that we make a leap of faith, that we see this awful scene as a cosmic event, that we see this death as a moment that changes everything forever.
Surely. But being sure runs against being reasonable and our whole upbringing, our whole education is about being reasonable. Being reasonable means trying to rationalize the story of Jesus, but being sure is about being unreasonable, being sure is about making a decision to commit one’s life to this man “Jesus.” We can be reasonable and rational, we can have many arguments for the existence of God, we can develop wonderfully complex theologies, but there comes a point when we have to make a leap of faith; when we have to decide whether the centurion and his companions were right, to decide whether we are sure.
It was the Belfast writer CS Lewis who suggested that Jesus was “mad” or he is “bad” or he is “God.” We must decide on Jesus’ claims for ourselves. We come to church each Sunday and we read the story of Jesus in church each week and sooner or later, if we are thinking at all, we have to say to ourselves, “what is this story about? Do I believe this?” It is not possible to read the Gospel story and not to have these questions. Jesus is a great teacher, he is a marvellous philosopher, he is an excellent psychologist, but he is not primarily any of these. He comes among us as one claiming to be the Son of God, he comes among us as one who performs miracles, he comes among us as one whose life is presented to us as a series of miracles. So is he mad or is he bad or is he God? We need to be sure.
There are many parts of Jesus’ life where no rational, scientific, material explanation is possible. The virgin birth, the miracles in the course of his ministry, the resurrection, the ascension – no explanation is possible for those who do not believe these things; they are true, or they are not true: the five thousand were fed or they were not fed; Jesus walked or the water or he did not walk on the water. To remain in the church, but not to believe is illogical. “Surely he was the Son of God” asks us the question of what, in our hearts, we believe about this man hanging on a cross in the darkness of that Friday afternoon. If these things are not true, then Jesus was mad or he was bad, and the whole of the Christian faith is built on the sad delusions of a wandering Galilean preacher, or the deceitful tricks of the worst charlatan in history.
Surely. But if it is not sure, if it is not certain, if it is not real, if these things are not true: then that Friday afternoon was the end. If all that went before was just the product of imaginative minds, then it would be right to turn our backs and to walk away. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” asks the lamentation and we would reply, “yes, it is nothing, for this man is dead and gone”.
Christianity is not a religion of compromise or fudging, the claims made are too radical. At its very heart the Christian faith is about the supernatural and the miraculous. Christianity is not reasonable: it challenges us to be sure, or to reject it. The dying man upon the cross confronts us with the fact that here is a man being executed in a hideous manner and asks us how we respond to what we see.
When we listen to the Scriptures being read, when we sing the hymns, it is all too easy to pass by. We know the story so well, we have followed the events of this Holy Week so often, that we no longer think about what it is that we are hearing.
Surely. But, if we are to be sure, we need to understand. We need to understand what it is that we believe. Faith does not fit into the limits of human reason. Faith by its very nature means a leap into the unknown. No matter how long you think, there is no rational way of explaining how God takes on human flesh, of how Jesus performs miracles, of how Jesus rises from the dead. These are not things you can explain in human, rational terms.
The moments on that Friday afternoon defy reasonable explanation; there are things happening that are beyond words; there is a battle taking place in a realm beyond our physical, material world. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” but for it to be something we have to believe in the miraculous, we have to believe the unreasonable.
Surely. To be sure demands a belief in miracles, and, if we believe that God does things beyond all human understanding, then all things become possible. And, if we believe all things are possible for God, then what does that ask of us? If we really, in our heart of hearts, believe these things to be true, what difference does that make to our daily lives?
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” and of course it is something to us, we would not be here if it was nothing, but if is something, then what? What does being a Christian mean to us?
“Surely he was the Son of God!” The words come to us down through the centuries; a statement of faith in the darkest of moments. “Surely”. The word asks us to think. Each time we come to church, each time we say our prayers, each time we sing our hymns, each time we say the Creed, each time we share the bread and the wine, we are asked to think: are we sure?