Serving the Lord and the local church through puppets, ventriloquism, chalk art, vocal and instrumental music and old fashioned Bible preaching. The Centurion
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The Centurion

The parchment scroll lay unrolled upon the table. It's message had been read a hundred times by the burning unbelieving eyes of the centurion, Vespatian. The massive mountains of Germania hemming in the frozen lake on three sides only heightened his sense of impending doom. With a resolution born of years of faithful military service, he halted the mad tumble of his traitor thoughts. He paused by his table and read again and again the message:

"Vespatian, captain of Nero's prize century, The Emperor's Wrestlers,

Be it known to you that your emperor has decreed that all under your command who profess to be Christians, are traitors to the Empire and must die by execution from the swords of their fellow soldiers who are faithful to me and to Rome."

Nero, Emperor, Rome.

The Emperor's Wrestlers, with what pride Vespatian recalled that he and his men, one hundred picked specimens of physical prowess and mental agility, had served in the Emperor's palace. Each week, at the coliseum games, there parade around the amphitheater had climaxed the festivities. The song they sang as they halted in formation before Nero's balcony had always brought a roar of approval from the thousands of voices. "We are the Emperor's Wrestlers wrestling for thee, O Emperor, to win for thee the victory, and from thee the Victor's Crown."

What sad days indeed were these that had forced the fear-hounded Nero to dispatch his favored wrestlers into the front line fighting duty in the wilderness above Gaul. And now, after a highly successful campaign, this diabolical order had come! Through the night Vespatian turned and tossed. He rose early and walked wearily to the edge of the ice-bound lake. A few minutes later, he watch with pride as his one hundred men stood in rank outside their tents. After the usual roll call and the inspection, the command to be at ease was given. Vespatian unrolled the scroll and read the message.

"You have heard the order of the Emperor. You realize no doubt the reasons behind the decree. It is high treason to give allegiance to another King other than Caesar. This Christ must be renounced and loyalty to our great and good Emperor be affirmed. All who are Christians step forward two paces."

And then Vespatian stood aghast. He counted slowly, one, two, three, four, and on....thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty! Forty men as close as flesh and blood to him! Did they understand? Had he interpreted the Emperor's decree aright?

"Step back in rank!" he stormed. "You realize the full impact of this decree! My men, I speak to you as a brother. We have risked our lives for one another a thousand times. What means this Christ to you? Deny him now, and when Nero's anger has cooled, return again to your faith if you will! And now, attention! Those who refuse to recant of their faith in Christ step forward two paces!"

The numbness crept over the centurion, for despite his fervent entreaty, the forty men had again stepped to the front! You will have until dusk to reconsider! We will gather in our ranks after the evening meal. Think it over! Reconsider!"

The next twelve hours were filled with torment. Vespatian thought, as he had thought before of Christ, who unseen and unheard had captured the hearts of his men. He remembered again the fire in his own soul the first time he heard the story of Christ's Crucifixion.

When the evening meal was over at last, the command for formation of ranks was sounded. Again the edict was read. Again the command for Christians to step forward was given, and again the forty men responded. Vespatian faced them squarely.

" I command you forty men to strip yourselves of clothing. And now I am going to give the command for you men to march out to the center of the frozen lake. The cliffs seal you in. The only escape is through our camp. You will stay out on the lake until you are frozen to death, or until you come to your senses and return to the fire we shall keep blazing by the bank for you. Now, March!"

The men turned, in single file they made their way to the lake. Suddenly their voices rose in the wrestler's chant, but the words were changed! "Forty wrestlers wrestling for thee O Christ, to win for thee the victory, and from thee the Victor's Crown!"

As the minutes lengthened, the song diminished in volume. The relentless cold was creeping into their very veins and voices, wearing them down, drawing them toward their zero hour. Midnight came. Vespatian sat forlorn. The voices were a whisper now. Suddenly they stopped altogether. Then the song began again, with a little resurgence of its first power. The words were changed! "Thirty-nine wrestlers wrestling for thee, O Christ!"

Only thirty-nine? Had one already died? As the centurion watched, out of the black night crept a solitary, stiff and almost frozen figure, puffed and blue, so distorted by the cold as to be unrecognizable. Vespatian gazed at the miserable man by the fire. Suddenly, in the bright flash of awakening decision, Vespatian tore off his helmet, and stripped himself of his clothing before the startled gaze of his men. He could deny this Christ no longer. This Christ was not a dream, but a reality, one for whom and man could live or die!

Across the impenetrable darkness of the star-less night came the chorus once again, this time led by the full rich baritone of Vespatian, the Christian. "Forty wrestlers wrestling for thee, O Christ, to win for thee the victory, and from thee the Victor's Crown."