There are so many stories of people who fallen into a downward spiral of crime only to found themselves with a Bible in their hands. In the pages of that remarkable handbook for living, we find the love of a father who sent his son into the world to carry out the greatest rescue mission of all time. This is the story of three gangland converts, one here in London, one in New York and one in the Jerusalem.
The Blind Beggar pub, just a mile from here, was the loca of notorious underworld killing carried out by one of the Kray twins on March 9th 1966. Just as an aside, it’s also the where William Booth preached his first sermon before starting the Salvation Army. Ronnie and Reggie Kray, ruled the East End of London with their unique brand of fear and intimidation. George Cornell was shot and killed in cold blood inside the Blind Beggar in front of a bar full of regulars. Chris Lambrianou was a trusted henchman of the Krays who was handed a life sentence at the Old Bailey for his crimes.
He tells the story of the day his life changed when he saw a vision of Jesus in his prison cell. He placed his future in God’s hands and his hope in the great salvage plan for humanity that was carried out by Jesus on the cross. Lambrianou now lives a life in stark contrast to the violence he left behind, devoting his time to communicating and demonstrating the love of God. We leave this famous London skyline for an equally famous one in New York and the life story of a Puerto Rican gang leader who met a preacher on the streets of Brooklyn in the 1950’s. David Wilkerson had been moved to tears by the stories of young lives being snuffed out in the wastelands of addiction and organised crime.
So much so, that he turned his back on the comfort of his home and his church, travelled to New York and set up a base in the heart of the no go areas of the city. Wilkerson was not exactly your average candidate to meet someone with such a terrifying reputation as Nicky Cruz, who one psychiatrist ominously predicted that he was destined for prison and the electric chair. The story of their encounter has been the subject of several books and a movie called ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’. Nicky’s dramatic conversion became the catalyst for many others from similar backgrounds to walk the same journey of forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ.
David Wilkerson went on to found a global movement called ‘Teen Challenge’ that has rescued multitudes of young people from the pit of addiction into a new start in relationship with God. He was also the founding pastor of Time Square Church in the heart of Manhattan that continues to reach out to the broken and forgotten of New York City. The life story of Nicky Cruz mirrors that of man in the Bible called the Apostle Paul, another dangerous individual who met with God. It does seem to be the case that these brutal guys have extreme conversion experiences. In the case of Paul, it involved being temporarily blinded by God so that his eyes could be opened to a whole new understanding of his life and purpose.
Paul’s previous existence had been defined by a life of radicalised religious hatred towards those who followed Jesus. He wreaked havoc on the early expressions of the church in Jerusalem and was a vicious opponent of everything Jesus spoke about and demonstrated. He turned violence into a sport by entering the homes of known Jesus followers, throwing them into prison where many of them died. Following his conversion Christ, Paul travelled much of the known world at that time, declaring the Gospel on the streets, starting churches under the nose of the Roman Empire and breaking down religious systems that kept ordinary people away from knowing God as a Father. He would go on to write nearly half of the books that would form the New Testament of the Bible.
Through Paul’s life, multitudes became Jesus followers, whole cities were impacted and the Christian church was established on European soil as a direct result of what he achieved in 35 years. But it all came at a tremendous cost as ‘Paul the persecutor’ became ‘Paul the persecuted’. He was arrested, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked and ultimately executed for preaching the Gospel. Even in the face of such extreme opposition, Paul said he considered his old life to be rubbish compared to his subsequent life as a follower of Jesus, filled with his love and power. Actually the word he used which appears in the original Greek language of the Bible was a little more graphic than ‘rubbish’ but you get the point.
Throughout the centuries, men and women have carried this message of new life that is revealed in the pages of the Bible, the world’s bestselling book. Nearly 50 million copies change hands every year and it has been translated into two thousand languages. The Bible has been banned and burned like no other book in history and it’s very survival is a miracle. The God of the Bible continues to reach out to lost humanity with this great invitation of acceptance, forgiveness and fresh hope. It’s possible because Jesus died on the cross in our place and then rose to life on the third day destroying the power of death itself. He then returned to Heaven to prepare a place for us with the promise that he would come again in power and glory. That is the Gospel.