Looking Ahead

I trust that as we (this Sunday) end this series on “The Other Side of the Tracks” that you have been challenged anew to consider looking beyond ourselves to those who may be different from us in one of a variety of ways. Be they people who know the Lord, or be they others who are yet to meet Christ, the expression of the heart of God would be to reach out in warm compassion and welcome.

The series also leads well into the next theme: studies and applications from the book of James for our second annual “For Our City” series. The first sermon will be on October 22nd.

You may have already seen an article in today’s Herald Mail about the approaching series and about some service events happening this weekend. You can link to it HERE. Many of our partner churches are involved in this effort, though we chose to focus our energies on assisting with the Kingdom United Faith Conference last weekend. Regarding that, let me thank so many of you who participated with food provisions. It was a great weekend for them that culminated in the joint worship gathering of nine churches on Sunday; and the leaders of those churches were so thankful for our partnership and blessing upon them.

So our devotionals associated with the coming series will begin on Monday, October 23rd.  Along with themes and passages from the book of James, I’m going to mix in five days of topics that memorialize the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So check back in just over a week.

I Have a Dream Today

It probably will not take much imagination for any of you who have read through these devotionals and travelled along with us on the theme of this series to anticipate where I am going with this title “I Have a Dream Today.”  Of course, this is from the repeated phrase used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his famous 1963 March on Washington speech. I was going to re-write it with my own applications for our own context, but many segments of it were too far afield for even my biggest literary shoehorn.

But I do have a dream today for Tri-State Fellowship. And it is a dream of us becoming like the increasingly expansive fabric of America, multi-culturally. The phrase from the speech that I especially recall – beyond the repeated title – is this one:  “ … that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

It is not like this never happens at TSF. We have seen the beginnings of this and been already enriched by it. Yet I think there is substantial ground for us to cover as we would embrace an intentional outreach beyond merely ourselves.

It does happen in other places in our community. I’ve referenced our nearest elementary school as an example. And one of my grandchildren attends a Montessori school in Hagerstown that is extraordinarily diverse. My son tells me that his children have had so many natural interactions with multi-ethnic children that racial difference is simply not even a category on their radar … they’re just other kids. (Yet another instance where much can be learned from children.)

Yet I have a dream today of a time when my grandchildren and all our TSF kids will hold hands with children of a dozen different ethnic backgrounds, much like the report last Sunday of our partner Kazakh church that has 25 different people groups worshipping together under one roof.

Am I crazy? Am I off on a side road of ministry? Not if I read and hear the national and district leadership of our own fellowship, the Evangelical Free Church of America. The purpose statement of the EFCA is that “We exist to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.”  Among all people!  Our national fellowship that was originally and historically an immigrant Scandinavian denomination now has over 20% of all churches that are either minority-majority or vastly multi-cultural. I have a dream today that we could be in that latter category, even in the foothills of Appalachia. That might be a God-sized vision, but so was escaping Egypt across the Red Sea – getting to “the other side of the tracks” so to speak!

There’s another MLK speech reference that has been hanging in my brain, and upon some research I find that it is actually from a much later speech near the end of this life. Alluding to the end of the life of Moses, who would not enter the land of promise with the people but would see it from a distance … “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

So I have a dream today for TSF, and I might not get there with you. But I have seen and look forward to a day when all of God’s people at TSF from the varied shades and cultures of God’s creative hand will join together and sing the old gospel song, “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love!”

Common Denominators

You have likely quite often heard some version of the phrase that “what we have in common is much more than that which divides us.”  Often it has been uttered in political dialogue, for example in the 1952 concession speech of Adlai Stevenson in his loss to Dwight Eisenhower… “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties.”

But if ever this phrase had any meaning it is in the realm of theology, especially as it regards the human condition of imputed sin.

Many social commentators of our day bemoan the ethnic and racial divides that continue to plague the American landscape. Here now 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, one would expect the country to be further down the road of racial reconciliation. Surely there have been multiple gains and successes that can be delineated, yet at the same time the old wounds continue to fester and feelings of disenfranchisement remain raw in many segments of our society. The immigration debate looms large in national discourse; and Christian people rightly find themselves conflicted by national security concerns on one hand, while having a heart of compassion for the plight of people who are risking everything to find some way toward a safe, sustainable and productive life for their families.

In 1971 John Lennon released the popular song “Imagine” … striking a chord upon the hearts of people who would like to imagine a world of peace and tranquility, where all the varied peoples of the world would live in brotherhood and harmony. Sadly, his prescription involved the denial of heaven, hell, God or religion. If answers for true brotherhood could be found in irreligious harmony, surely that would have been discovered by now! But the natural condition of man apart from spiritual renewal in Christ tends very heavily toward self-centeredness, not brotherly affection. Remember Cain and Abel?

What we need is a common denominator that is bigger than the uncommon numerators that divide us. And in fact, we all begin with and possess a common denominator – the issue of inherited and imputed sin that comes down to us, landing in our personal account as a debt at the moment of our conception. It does not matter if we are white, black, green or purple, we all are born with a debt of sin. That is common denominator #1.  And it expresses itself in all sorts of divides between people and people groups.

But the wonderful truth is that Jesus came and took upon himself our common denominator, yet did so in a way that he did not inherit the debt of sin. Paying that debt by his death on the cross, he offers to us a new common denominator of a family relationship with him through faith in what he has done. If you are white, black, green or purple, it does not matter. Trust in him and you now possess a common denominator that is indeed bigger than that which divides and is massively and categorically superior to any “alleged” denominator the world can ever provide, no matter how well-intentioned and altruistic it is.

And having that second denominator also guarantees a third for those of faith in Christ, and that is the assurance of eternal life together with the Son in heaven, forever … with peoples of every tribe and nation. That is pretty amazing! And just as we should rightly realize that, as the Scriptures say, “Now we are the children of God,” indeed we even now possess eternal life. Death is a comma, not a period. We then move on to a new dimension of eternal life in God’s presence.

So, why should we only live in community with the different tribes and nations over there? If we have life both there AND here, why don’t we choose to also live in the here and now with those who are ethnically different than us? Again, why do we have to wait for eternity to see this transpire? Why don’t we do it here? Why don’t we model for the world what the world claims it wants to see?  If we did that, they wouldn’t have to “imagine” what it would be like, all they’d have to do is look at the church of Jesus Christ. Come on! Let’s do that at TSF!

To the Central Point of Difficulty

It was about 11-12 years ago that I invested some time in research and writing of a Civil War biography that featured the life of Abner Doubleday. Varied life circumstances caused me to put it aside, even though it is about 90% finished. Someday (maybe) I’m going to pull it out and finish it (maybe).

In the process of that research I came across a writer who could put words together as well as most anyone I’ve ever read. His name was George Freeman Noyes, a lawyer from Maine who served on the staff of Abner Doubleday that included the time of the Battle of Antietam. As a lawyer and highly educated man, his writing is always colorful – filled as well with abolitionist fervor and emotional Unionist sentiments. After his time of service in the Army of the Potomac was finished, he published a book in 1863 (so during the middle of the entire war) entitled The Bivouac and the Battlefield: Campaign Sketches in Virginia and Maryland.

The Union Army remained here in Washington County for about six weeks after the Battle. Noyes wrote about how he would get on his horse and ride around the fields and woods of the recent conflict. Here is a quote from these experiences …

One thing quite impressed me, and that was the rapidity with which the more marked traces of the battle disappeared. The roar of the last cannon had not ceased to reverberate among her leafy aisles before Nature, silent but ever active, had commenced to purify herself from the soil and stain of battle, and cover up the bloody footprints of War. In two weeks’ time, only the broken-down fences, the shattered and ruined buildings, the torn-up cornfields, and the frequent clusters of graves reminded the traveler of the late struggle. A year or two, and even these evidences will disappear. These bullet-marks in the trees will be overgrown with fresh bark. Fences, fields, and farmhouses will resume their wonted appearance, and over the graves and trenches, where lie the buried thousands, will once more wave a thick green mantle of bearded grain. Would that thus might disappear from every Northern and Southern home the sad memories of this battle; that Time the Comforter might thus heal the wounded hearts and dry up the bitter tears in every Northern and Southern family! Would that thus speedily every reminder of this rebellion might disappear from the national memory, every rankle from the national consciousness; that our present national wound might be healed to the central point of difficulty, never to break forth afresh, and leaving no ineffaceable scar!

What was the “present national wound” that he speaks of?  Though the reasons and causes of the Civil War are many, the slavery issue was surely near the top. And certainly it remains essentially at the top in the memory of that conflict and era of our history. And like an internal infection that only seems to be gone, this internal national wound has never been truly healed to the central point of difficulty. And the reason is that it cannot be healed apart from a divine healer, where the perspective is that we are truly all of the same descent, possessing the same spiritual problem. Finding that there is one spiritual answer, one medication that heals the problem (by His stripes we are healed), we have the opportunity to be one new people together. The divisions are all gone, and we can celebrate this healing grace in communion with one another in the new family of the church of Jesus Christ.

As a church we are going to need to intentionally own this effort. It is unlikely to ever just happen naturally. We are commanded to love one another, serve one another, prefer one another … all the “one anothers” of Scripture. How many of those things happen naturally?  It takes intentional effort to live out these admonitions.

This vision of church life is too big to be accomplished quickly and easily. We planted the first contemporary church in this region. We modelled small groups and grace ministries in ground-breaking fashion in this church community. We intentionally became a multi-generational fellowship, fulfilling that vision. Over two decades we partnered to make a multi-cultural church thrive halfway around the world! Here is another vision – to display the healing Christ provides for even the most difficult subject we have seen in modern times, causing the tracks that divide to become obsolete.

But I cannot be here with you long enough to see this vision entirely fulfilled – there’s not enough time for that. Will you capture this vision as a people and intentionally move it forward over time – a multi-year, multi-generational, multi-cultural church that begins to look like the composition of heaven?

On Earth as in Heaven (Revelation 22:1-5)

It is easy to be completely forgotten on earth, even by your own family. Apart from extensive family research, most folks cannot state even the most basic facts about their own flesh and blood who lived more than about four generations in the past.

I have gone to a number of the Williamsport High School football games this year because of our church boys who are star players there. It has really struck me what a difference my experience is from just five years ago. Then, at the end of my coaching stint of 13 years, I could not have gone to the game and been able to even watch it. Many people would have been talking to me about a whole host of topics – school sports and academics, student relationships, etc.  Now, I can walk in and simply exchange polite greetings with a few people I know, looking to see if there is anybody in the stands with whom I can sit and converse.

To some extent I think we all wonder (especially as we age) about our careers of choice and lifetime interests and investments. What did it all amount to?  Will anyone miss us when we’re gone, or did we merely leave a dent no more permanent that what remains when we pull our hand out of a bucket of water?

It is a wonderful truth that God remembers us and what we’ve done. We are more than a memory on a gravestone. He gives us eternal life through our faith and membership in the Family because of the work of Christ. And, as the Scriptures say, God remembers our labor for Him … Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

These thoughts are both comforting truths and sobering realities. Between Easter and next summer I plan to do a series of messages on the book of Ecclesiastes, where Solomon supports the idea of joy in this life and in the work of one’s hands. Yet at the same time, it makes sense for us to also think about how we may apply our lives and energies toward large-segment investments in stuff that has eternal value and consequences. We should labor for things that God has a passion for and that are a part of the true reality – not this world, but the world to come.

Matthew 6:9-10 – 9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

So the things that count for eternity, the things that define and comprise the eternal state … these things would seem to me to be definitional about formulating our values systems and energies here – on earth as it is in heaven.

The Scriptures do not actually talk in great detail about eternity and all about heaven. We get some basic ideas about it; and it surely includes a focus upon worship around the throne. But also among those details we see about the after-life are a couple of statements about the diversities of people who are there.

Revelation 7:9 – After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

A further reading of this passage through the end of the chapter reveals that this particular group of saints are those who came out of the Great Tribulation period (after the rapture of the church) and who were martyred for their faith. To fully understand this passage involves a great deal of information about the topic of eschatology (the doctrine of future things). Yet it does not take that detailed theological knowledge to see that in the presence of Christ are people from all the nations and ethnicities. God didn’t have to include that detail for our understanding of this passage, but it is included because it represents the heart of God.

Again in Revelation we read of the very final, eternal state …

Revelation 22:1 –Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

The passage contains both picturesque and literal images. But note that there is a tree of life, just as in the original Garden of Eden. The picture is that of life – with the words added, “for the healing of the nations.”  Again, God could have simply had John write more generally about all those who were there upon the reward of their faith in Christ. But rather, the idea of the diversity of “the nations” reveals once more the heart of God for all peoples.

So we should want to invest in all peoples. For many of us who grew up decades ago in very homogeneous neighborhoods (and therefore churches) with few minorities, our inclination for doing something to care about the nations was to have a passion for the work of missions around the world. And this is appropriate. But now at a time of human history with migrations of people groups and multi-cultural communities, it behooves us to have God’s passion for what He has already revealed it is going to look like at the end of it all: the coming together of all the nations and peoples of the world. We in the evangelical church would never say about world missions, “Well, we’ll be involved in that if it naturally develops somehow, perhaps through our own people being called.”  No, we have a philosophy about it, and we put together a missions committee to oversee it. So why would we not be intentional in the local context?

Let’s be intentional. Let’s think about how to become increasingly more on earth, as it will be in heaven.

Fellow Citizens (Ephesians 2:11-22)

On some of the occasions when you have heard me speak about my childhood, you will surely recall how I have mentioned growing up on a golf course. My home was not exactly “on” the course but was rather on a higher ground across a country road from the first fairway, though I don’t think there was another house anywhere around the country club so well-positioned to get such a beautiful view of the entire layout. This consisted of a sloping valley with a creek running through the bottom, with more of the course rising beyond and stretched out on the side of a mountain. Totally gorgeous countryside.

The country club was a private membership operation that accepted only the wealthiest and professional elements of our area. It was rather quite exclusive. Everything about it said, “Stay away!”  Of course, I didn’t always pay attention to that. Some of the other local fellows and I would find ways to sneak on the course at various spots, always on the lookout for this guy called “Statts” … who would see us from the clubhouse and come roaring across the fairways in a service vehicle to catch us. He never did. We would run into the woods and escape every time. A humorous eventuality is that one of my neighborhood friends grew up to be a golf professional – not on the tour, but as a “club professional” … even landing the job later at this course.

As a member of the high school golf team, I actually got to occasionally play at the country club (our home course) legally for the first time ever. But even then, I always had an uneasy feeling. I knew I didn’t measure up and was not of the class of people who were TRUE members. I was an alien, an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger. I was NOT a part of the club. True membership remained forbidden and beyond my ability to obtain.

And that is how it was for Gentiles prior to the coming of Christ. The truth as to how to be connected rightly to God was resident in membership and citizenship in Israel. There, one could be a part of the covenants of promise from God as to how sin could be sufficiently dealt with through the vast sacrificial system.

This is the essence of a wonderfully rich passage in Ephesians chapter 2. There are three sections …

  1. The Way Things Used to Be …

Eph. 2:11 — Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.

  1. The Way Things Changed …

Eph. 13 – But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

  1. The Way Things are Moving Forward …

Eph. 2:19 – Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

It would have been great as a kid where I grew up to have someone come along who paid the membership fee for me and anyone else to be a part of the country club. All I had to do was accept the payment, the result being that I could have access with those who had been there all along – they too now having their dues paid by the same sponsor. And because we were now both members, not because of what we had done or contributed but because of the same gracious benefactor, there was no need for us to be separated or have any sort of class division.

The essence of our “Other Side of the Tracks” series is to call the church to a new initiative to truly be a diverse and cross-cultural community (as the tri-state area is increasingly becoming), seeing the message of the cross of Christ as the crossroads of reconciliation between not only God and man, but man and man.

Paul pictures the idea of a living building, a spiritual house or temple with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. And just as Jews and Gentiles came together into a new and beautiful organism called the church, so also can the church in our culture and generation be the model of reconciliation of all the diversities of peoples and backgrounds that increasingly make up the fabric of American society.

This is not natural or easy. The quickest and most efficient way to build a big church is to have everyone be rather homogeneous by markers of age, race, or social strata. Church growth experts over the years have taught us that the wise church will maximize these natural affinities and thereby be the most efficient in reaching masses of people with the Gospel. Their central phrase was, “You can’t be everything to everybody” … with the inference then being to just accept that you can only reach people who are just like you already are.

But I’m weary of that mere American pragmatism. I want us to increasingly look like the church in heaven, comprised of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. The gospel of Christ is most vividly seen when outsiders observe the CROSS-shaped and cross-cultural love and unity that believers from varying backgrounds share with one another. A pragmatic desire for rapid and strategic church growth of a single affinity group will never have the beauty and health of a diverse congregation.

So let us work with all of the diversities of people who God will send through our doors to be His fellow citizens of the Kingdom of Light – not just of the future in eternity, but today also in our era and culture.

The Ethnic Spread of the Gospel

As with the ripples that emanate outward from a stone dropped into a calm pond of water, so also the gospel message of the work of Jesus Christ spread out from Jerusalem and across the ancient world. The ripples have continued throughout the earth over the centuries and millennia and down to our time and to our ears and hearts. Jesus said this would and should happen. His final words before ascending into heaven were (Acts 1:8) “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The very first believers were folks with a strong Hebrew Jewish background, centered in Jerusalem, Judea and surrounding areas. At the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, there were Jews from all over the diaspora who heard the preaching of Peter and received the gospel message unto salvation. We soon see that there are Hellenistic Jews in the early company of Christians – these being ethnically Jewish people who had adopted the Greek culture and language of the Roman world.

The mixing Hebraic Jews and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem was bound to have come complication. There were language difficulties – one group predominantly speaking Aramaic, whereas the others primarily conversed in Greek. The issue came to a head in Acts chapter 6 …

Acts 6:1 – In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

The Apostles wisely chose to focus upon spiritual matters, and the appointment of seven men largely from Greek backgrounds (as their names would indicate) brought the “newer, outer group” and the “traditional, inner group” together. The result was a success for the spread of the gospel. Notice also that one of the seven selected was such a proselyte – Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.

The early Scriptural record in Acts particularly focuses upon the evangelistic work of Philip, who went to Samaria to preach the gospel. You’ll recall that that these were sort of half-breeds of Jews and Gentiles, dating back to the Assyrian captivity. The gospel again finds great success…

Acts 8:4 – Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

Philip is also used miraculously to extend the ripples further to include a near-proselyte – the Ethiopian eunuch, who would be a Gentile, government official from Africa. This man had a belief in the one true God of Israel and was interested in the Holy Scriptures. Likely reading them aloud, Philip offers to explain the meaning of the text, and the man becomes a convert…

Acts 8:27 – This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.  …

35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

Next we see the ripples extending further to a total Gentile – one who would be called a God-fearer … meaning someone who accepted the truths of the God of Israel, though had not formally converted. It is the story of Cornelius the centurion – one that we covered in detail in recent writings and the previous sermon.

Nobody at the time of the resurrection of Christ would have been anticipating this expanse of the gospel message, but it is just beginning. Next it will go to all-out Gentiles…

Acts 11:19 – Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

All of this ministry is happening in Asia, and on a missionary journey … Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:9-10)  Soon, over in the continent of Europe, Lydia becomes the first convert there with many thousands to follow.

As Jesus commissioned the disciples, they were to have a worldwide vision for the expanse of the gospel. Matthew ends his account with these words of Jesus (28:19-20) … “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

So obviously this refers to missionaries that we send out to do the work for us!  Thank God we can delegate that difficult work!  We can just throw money at it through a portion of our budget, having these ministry mercenaries report back to us about the varied multi-cultural people being reached, all of which makes us feel good. Yes, send them across those tracks that we look across! We can meet and sing our Caucasian-styled worship songs.

But what if the nations of the world move to our town?

Centurions in our World Today

The reason for dropping this analysis of centurions into the middle of a five-week series on outreach to people beyond ourselves is to say that there are folks out there in the world who are willing to hear and respond to a vibrant testimony of the truth of Christ and the Scriptures. They are an illustration of “other side of the tracks” sorts of people who were historically reached with the gospel. It has always been true that a majority of people are going to reject the gospel and any prospect of being accountable to God rather than themselves. But at the same time, many folks are open to hearing and even responding, even those who are very different than ourselves.

Who are the centurions in our world today?

People who are thoughtful and analytical – who seek something more that better defines real and true life

It really is true that this material world alone does not satisfy. If it did, not so many Hollywood people would take their own lives. Drugs would not be what they are today. So many relationships would not be broken. Many people are regularly thinking – albeit quietly to themselves – that there must be more to life than meets the pleasure sensors of material self.

People with a work of God going on in their lives – simply needing more definition

There are a lot of reasonably thoughtful people in the world. They know in their heart of hearts that God exists and they are responsible to him. And when they see the gospel truth alive in the life of a follower of Christ, they find it appealing and desirous to know and follow also.

We live in a time that is less biblically literate than a century ago, as basic teaching is less prominent in the broader culture and not as known to many people.

Often the evangelical church is stereo-typically characterized in wrong ways; and a loving, diverse community flies in the face of that wrongful depiction.

People who feel somewhat culturally estranged, being a bit different than the defining segment of the community around them

Many who have come to our area are leaving places where they may have been in the cultural majority, or at least in a highly-diverse culture as compared to Washington County today. I even experienced this 23 years ago when moving here from a different sort of place. This region is not always an easy place to break into and be accepted as a local until you’ve got some generations buried in the ground. So a genuinely warm church welcome and outreach can go a long way.

People who are culturally different than us and maybe not often in our natural paths of association

This is similar to the previous point, which spoke of feeling. This speaks of the natural ebb and flow of life in a community. The “tracks” may often make it such that we don’t cross paths without intentional energy and outreach.

People who are open to a loving, intentional outreach … one that communicates answers to the big questions of life

It is simply true that the gospel message embodied in the church community has the answers to the big questions of life, and we should also build the environment to welcome diverse people – be they mature Christians, new Christians, almost Christians, or seekers.

People who would enrich a diverse church community as growing disciples, and who could reach out to others beyond themselves

This is the look of a healthy church and an attractive faith family – doing what the world can’t figure out how to make happen. We can make it happen. And I believe it is the cutting edge of calling from God for his church family to intentionally function in this way in this generation.

Positive Press Centurions

One of the interesting features about the Bible is that it does not hold back on telling the whole story about various characters. Even some of the greatest biblical heroes have many dark chapters written about their lives for everyone to see and know and recount for millennia to come. Abraham had the failure of faith where he went to Egypt and told Sarah to tell everyone she was his sister. David had the Bathsheba affair. Moses whacked the rock in a fit of anger.

By comparison to these accounts, the various stories we reviewed yesterday about the 25 occurrences of Centurions in the New Testament could actually be said to be more positively presented. So why do Centurions get positive press in the Scripture, and why are they open to the gospel in the accounts where they are mentioned?

Ultimately the answer has to include the fact that it was because God was doing a work in their hearts. But let’s consider some other contributing factors …

Centurions would be men who were very predisposed to the value of truth. They were people who understood authority structures … people who were thoughtful about the bigger picture and not just caught up in the emotions of the moment.

The Centurion with the sick servant – He had become convinced that the monotheistic teachings of Israel contained truth rather than the craziness of the Greek gods. He was quick to see Jesus as the Christ of the Old Testament, recognizing the miracles as authenticating him. Therefore he was well ahead of most Israelites in appropriating this understanding.

The Centurion at the cross – He saw more than darkness and an earthquake. His observations, along with hearing the words of Christ from the cross, led him to believe in the true, divine nature of Jesus. He saw the bigger picture.

Cornelius – Like the first centurion above, he was following the Jewish faith as embodying the truth about God, and God worked to bring the full gospel truth to him.

Julius – This rugged centurion saw Paul as more than a prisoner or religious zealot “on the outs” with Rome. He could see something unique in his life – recognizing a connection beyond the mere physical world.

But the biggest reason for the positive press for centurions has to do with the master plan of God. Centurions were among the diverse people who were called by God in the early post-resurrection era of the church to expand the gospel and the church across the tracks that divided Jews and Gentiles. God was using them as prominent displays of his expansive grace to bring the merits of salvation to all who would believe and trust: Jew AND Gentile … this side of the tracks, and the other side of the tracks.

Centurions Here, There, and Everywhere

As you read the New Testament, it is rather amazing to see how many times centurions are talked about. The word appears on 25 occasions, whereas “emperor” appears only four times. And “Caesar” only gets a few more mentions in the biblical record.

We’re going to spend the first three days of this week talking about centurions and why they were featured in the Scriptures, while also making application as to who in our everyday spheres of influence might be a category of people like them.

But first, we need to recall to mind some of the passages and stories that involve centurions, while also defining this workhorse category of Roman military leadership and activity.

A centurion was a Roman military officer that command a “century” – averaging about 80 men, ranging in size from 60-100 soldiers. Five or six combined centuries of soldiers would make up a “cohort” with the most senior of the centurions in command. And 10 cohorts, or about 5,000 men, would comprise a Roman “legion.”

Centurions were the most called-upon Roman officers to make things happen and get things done. And we see them in a number of stories in the gospels and Acts. Around the time of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, there are a number of mentions of centurions interacting with Paul – one being stopped from flogging him, and others involved with guarding him and transporting him to Caesarea.

But there are four particular stories about specific centurions that we should bring to mind and review.

  1. An unnamed centurion who had a sick servant whom he sought to have healed by Jesus.

This story is presented both in Luke 7 and Matthew 8. Here is the latter account …

Matthew 8:5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

The emphasis of this story is upon the faith of the centurion that was greater than found by the people of Israel.

  1. The centurion at the cross of Jesus.

This same essential account is recorded in the all of the first three gospels …

Mark 15:37-39 — With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

This Roman soldier – who had likely seen a lot in his day (battles / executions / the political and religious climate in Israel) – could tell that this experience was very unique, even other-worldly.

  1. Cornelius – Acts 10

This is an extended account that is a part of our week four theme about the way the church grew ethnically and culturally. And here we see how God used a Roman centurion – who was a God-fearer – to push the gospel message beyond merely the Jewish community …

Acts 10:1 – At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

10:4 … Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

10:7 – When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

The next day after all of this is happening, Peter is praying and gets a repeated vision about being free to eat animals previously seen as unclean. God is revealing that He is doing a more expansive work of grace beyond the Jewish people.  Just then, the servants of Cornelius arrive, and Peter goes with them to the home of Cornelius …

10:34 – Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.

Peter rehearses the content of the gospel and the work of Christ, with the result being …

10:44 – While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.

  1. Julius – Acts 27

This is the extended and detailed account of Paul’s travels under Roman guard from Judea to his final ventures in Rome. A centurion named Julius is in charge in the midst of all of the crazy events that happen … shipwreck, etc. Clearly this man saw Paul to be something more than an ordinary prisoner or criminal.

So again, we see that centurions are spoken of throughout these passages and presented in a rather positive light. We might not expect that. One would think that these Roman military men would be rugged individualists who would scoff at most any religion or faith. And we’ll make some additional observations about these men tomorrow.

But, you know, it’s not like this is the only time in Scripture where God takes unexpected people to use and work for his glory and as a part of his master plan. Was there really that much special about Noah, or Abram? And how about Jacob the deceiver? Moses was called out of the wilderness where he was hiding. David was a shepherd boy. Jonah had anger issues and a propensity to run in the wrong direction. Peter couldn’t keep his mouth shut and probably abused his Twitter account. Matthew was an evil tax collector. Paul was persecuting Christians actively.

And the reality is that God has done a transformation with most of us. For example, the pastor of TSF is the illegitimate child of a teenage mom. This is God’s business and way of working. As it says in 1 Corinthians 1:27 … But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. We sure can be thankful for that!