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August 27, 2017

Acts 10:1-8 . . . “People to meet in heaven:  Cornelius”

“People to meet in heaven:  Cornelius”

Acts 10:1-8

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Rima Fakih is a Lebanese-American actress, model, professional wrestler (!), and a former Miss USA 2010.  She also once supported an Islamic terrorist group.

Now she’s Christian.

She was born in southern Lebanon to a Shi’a Muslim family, the second-youngest of five children.  And when war threatened their lives and their home, they moved to Queens, New York, to run a restaurant in Manhattan.  Then when business dropped off after the September 11th attacks, they moved once more to Dearborn, Michigan.

And while she was a student at a local community college, she began to compete in beauty pageants.  And after she won the Miss Michigan pageant in September of 2009, she went on to win Miss USA in 2010, the first Muslim woman ever.  Upon her win, she said, “I’d like to say I’m American first, and I am an Arab-American, I am a Lebanese-American, and I am Muslim-American.”

But six years later, in April of this past year, just before her marriage to Wassim Salibi, she gave her life to Christ.

She quoted the words of Philippians chapter 4, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”  And she said, “Only God can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony, a trial into a triumph, and a victim into a victory.”

We find Christians in the most surprising places.

Or think of David Berkowitz, also known as, “Son of Sam” and “The .44 caliber killer.”  In the late 70s, he killed six and wounded seven more.  When a fellow inmate cut his throat in 1979, he got fifty-six stitches and an eight-inch scar.  But ten years later, in 1989, he left Satanism to follow Christ.

He said, “I want you to taste the goodness of God in my life, a man who was once a devil worshipper and a murderer, to show you that Jesus Christ is about forgiveness, hope and change.”  He even wrote a book, called not, Son of Sam, but, Son of Hope.

We find Christians in the most surprising places.

So it was in the words of Acts chapter 10.

If you would, please turn in your Bible to page 1168, as I read the words of our text.  I’ll start where it says, “Peter and Cornelius,” Acts chapter 10, verse 1:  “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.  About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, ‘Cornelius.’  And he stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’  And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.  And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter.  He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.’  When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.”

Let’s take a moment to unpackage that, because there’s a lot going on.

“At Caesarea,” Luke wrote in verse 1.  Why is that important?  Because Caesarea was the Roman capital of the province of Judea, the former home of Pontius Pilate, and the current home of Marcellus, Procurator of Judea, Samaria and Galilee, built by none other than Herod the Great.  At festival times, governors stayed in a fortress in Jerusalem.  The rest of the year, they preferred their palace home on the coast of the Mediterranean.  It was a place of power, prestige and politics, of the rich and famous.

And since it was such an important city, an imperial city, a city of Rome, it’s no surprise that soldiers were stationed there.  As Luke wrote, “There was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort.”  They were there, in part, to ensure the Roman governor’s security.

After all, they were the enemy in occupied territory.  Rome cared nothing for the Jews and the Jews cared nothing for Rome.

And you should also note that Cornelius was a centurion, a commander of a hundred men.

What does that tell us?  It tells us quite a lot.  First, it tells us he was more than thirty years old, since it took some twelve to sixteen years of service to become a centurion.  It also tells us that he was a literate man.  He could read and write.  He was a man of administrative skills as well as a man of combat.

Four hundred years after Christ, Roman historian Vegetius wrote:  “The centurion in the infantry is known for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short for his expertness in all the exercises.  He is to be vigilant, temperate, active and more ready to execute the orders he receives than to talk; strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their arms constantly rubbed and bright.”

Another historian, Polybius, wrote:  “They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit.  They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts.”

You could tell a centurion by the crest on his helmet and the staff in his hand, a symbol of power, authority, and discipline.  They were the backbone of the Roman army, chosen by Caesar himself.

Now look at verse 2.  He was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

Now if we had lived in that time and place, I’d have to give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor.  The Bible said he was a centurion, in Caesarea, a member of the Italian Cohort.  So far, so good.  Then it says, “A devout man who feared God”?  That doesn’t make any sense.

You see, the Romans had many gods, including Mars, the god of war.  And it was his responsibility, his duty as a centurion, to see that he was rightly worshipped and adored.  To do any less could mean defeat in battle.  It was tantamount to treason.

Imagine the risk he took to turn his back on Rome with its many gods and goddesses, and fear God instead.

Even more, not only did he fear God, Luke wrote, he “gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

He was a feared commander of a hundred men, but he was a man who loved God.

But there was a problem.  He couldn’t worship God, at least not in the temple or the synagogue.  He was an uncircumcised Gentile.  He wasn’t welcome.  

So he worshipped as he could.  As it says in verse 2.  He “gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

And by the grace of God, at 3:00 one afternoon, an angel came to say, in verse 4:  “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.  And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter.  He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

So off they went, two servants and a soldier, to find Peter and bring him all the way to Caesarea, to the palace by the sea.

And from that moment on, Cornelius’ life was never the same.

His name was Bill.  He was in his early twenties and had wild hair.  He wore a T-shirt with holes in it, blue jeans, and no shoes.  It was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college.  He was a brilliant student, just a little different.  

And across the street from the campus was a well-dressed, very conservative congregation.  They wanted to develop a ministry to the students, but just didn’t know how to do it.

Until one Sunday, Bill decided to go there.  He walked in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.  The service had already started.  The sanctuary was full.

As you can imagine, people grew just a bit uncomfortable as they watched this unclean, wild-looking young man start down the aisle, looking for a seat.

Then, when he got to the front and saw there were no more empty seats, he sat down on the floor, right in front of the pastor.  No one had ever done that before.  Everyone was uptight.  The tension was thick.

Just then, the minister saw that, from way at the back of the church, a respected old elder was slowly making his way down the aisle towards Bill.

Now that elder was in his eighties, with silver-gray hair, and was wearing a three-piece suit—elegant, distinguished, dignified.  He walked with a cane.

And as he started walking down the aisle, everyone thought to themselves that no one would blame him for what he was about to do.  How could you expect a man of his age and his background to understand some hippie college kid sitting on the floor in church?

It took a long time for the man to reach the boy.  The church was silent except for the clicking of the man’s cane.  All eyes were focused on him.

No one dared to breathe.  The minister couldn’t even begin his sermon until the elder did what he had to do.

Then to everyone’s surprise, the old man dropped his cane, sat down on the floor beside him, reached out his hand and said, “Welcome to church.”

And as the minister looked out across the congregation, he said, “What I am about to preach to you today, you may not remember.  But what you have just seen, you will never forget.”

So what do these words from Acts chapter 10 mean to teach us?  Really, just one thing.  It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you’ve done.  Your occupation doesn’t matter, what you wear doesn’t matter, and neither does the color of your skin.  There’s room at the cross for you.

As one author put it:  “Isn’t it just like God, that when He is pleased to open the gospel to the Gentiles, He picks a Gentile who represents something that every loyal Jew hated—a military commander from the occupying Roman forces!  And Cornelius would have had to overcome any prejudice that he may have had against contacting an uneducated Jew to explain spiritual truth to him.  And while he might rather have had a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin come, he would have missed the way of salvation.”

One more thing before we leave this text.  You know what Cornelius did while he sent two servants and a soldier to find Peter?  Look at chapter 10, verse 24.  It says, “And on the following day they entered Caesarea.  Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.”  

So you see, when Peter arrived in Caesarea and stepped into that room, an entire congregation was already waiting for him!

And when his sermon was done, not only did the people believe, but he baptized them all in the name of the Lord Jesus.  And they asked him to stay with them for some days.

As Paul once wrote to the Ephesians:  “For Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that He might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross…for He Himself is our peace.”

 

Dear Father, You once called Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to believe in You.  Grant that, by Your grace, we too may faithfully follow You, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen

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