Sunday Services at 10:00am
1155 Silas Deane Highway, Wethersfield
Date: November 5, 2006
Speaker: Eric Stillman
Series: The Life of Paul
Scripture: Acts 9:1–9:20
I shouldn’t be here. If you had asked the 18 year old Eric Stillman about his chances of ending up as the pastor of a church, I’m sure he would have laughed at you. Back when the things I was most concerned about were getting good grades, scoring goals on the soccer field and girls, I did not give much thought to God, and certainly was not considering the ministry as a profession. There really is no good earthly reason why someone like me would end up here today.
You see, in high school, I was the kid who had everything. If there was ever someone who did not need God, it was me. In my senior year English class, our teacher had us give “word gifts” to each other at the end of the year as a way of expressing our affection for each other. My friend Mike wrote me one that said, “Eric, I wish you a smart brain and athletic ability. No wait, you already have that. Okay, I wish you a full scholarship to the college of your choice. Nope – you’ve got that too. Okay… I wish you a beautiful and smart girlfriend who adores you. No – you’ve got that one too. Well, for the man who has everything, I wish you an episode of the Simpsons, every night of the week.” And wouldn’t you know it – that summer the Simpsons went into syndication, running on Fox every night of the week. Like I said, I was the kid who had everything. If anyone had no need for God, it was me.
I grew up believing that God was a remote being up in heaven, a sort of Mr. Rogers in the sky who wanted me to be nice to my neighbors, and that all that mattered to him was that I would be a good person. And, since I was a good kid, I never worried much about God. The summer after my senior year of high school, however, everything changed. Three college kids came back to South Windsor for the summer and decided to run a youth group for the summer and invited everyone they knew. They invited my girlfriend, and she invited me. I don’t remember anything that was taught at that group, but I remember knowing that there was something real there, something that was unexplainable and different than anything else I had experienced. I was beginning to realize that it was possible to actually have a relationship with God.
So, I began to pray, to talk to God in the car on the way to and from work. I would talk about my day, ask him for things – nothing major. That summer, I worked as a custodian in the high school, and during every break I played rummy with my two student co-workers. We were adding up the points over the whole summer, and the losers would have to buy lunch for the winner. Now, I always won at games. I was constantly playing games with my family and friends – basketball, ping-pong, pool, cards – and I almost always won. Well, I had been down in this game of rummy most of the summer, but on the next to last day I came back and had a huge lead. As I drove home from work that day, I prayed to God and said, “Thank you God that I always win at everything. Help me to know how to handle it when things don’t go my way.”
Be careful what you wish for…
The next day, I watched my lead evaporate until I lost on the last hand of the summer. I went home, and that night I proceeded to lose in everything I played. For the next three days, I lost at every game I played. I remember playing my brother in pool, watching as the cue ball I struck would bounce off at an eerie angle into a pocket. I remembered what I had prayed, and was feeling a little scared at what might be happening. Finally, on the third day, I was playing rummy with my girlfriend. Even though I only needed one card to go out, I could not get anything, and she kept getting points after points. Finally, I had had enough, and I threw my card down and said, “I can’t take it anymore!!!” My girlfriend looked at me stunned and said, “what are you talking about?” I proceeded to explain to her what had been going on, and how I was afraid that something really bad was going to happen, like one of my family members dying, and I was completely unprepared to take it. As you can imagine, she was a little confused.
Anyway, life went back to normal after that. I went back to my winning ways and got ready to go off to college. But I never forgot what had happened, although I had no clue what it meant. When I went off to college, I went around to all the parties the first week of school, but for some reason they all seemed fake to me now. It was as if I had experienced something real that summer at that youth group, and now the party scene just seemed fake and lifeless. I went back to my dorm room that second day of college, got on my knees, and told God, “I know where I belong, and it’s with you.” Nothing miraculous, nothing spectacular. I just climbed into bed and went to sleep.
A couple weeks later, as I was reading the Bible, I found Matthew 7:24-27. In that passage, Jesus explains that anyone who hears his words and lives his life by them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock, while anyone who hears his words and does not live his life by them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand, so that when the storm comes, the house collapses. As I read that passage, I understood what had happened to me that summer. God had shown me that my life was built on sand. As long as everything went well for me, I had no need for God. But when the “storm” came, I collapsed. God in the gentlest way had shown me how fragile I really was. I knew now that the only secure place to build my life would be on God.
Since that summer, life was never the same. I began to have a thirst for knowing the Bible that had never been there before, and I began to understand what it meant to truly worship God. One of the clearest proofs for me that God had changed me was that behaviors that had seemed fine to me before that summer now felt wrong inside of me, like they were leading me into to pain instead of life. I began to realize that the Holy Spirit was living inside of me, and that He was showing me a better way to live. My life became about God – I got involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship while I was in college, and sought out ways to use my gifts in ministry in that fellowship and other youth ministry opportunities. I had gone to college thinking that I would try for a degree in counseling or psychology. However, it became clearer and clearer to me that I wanted to live my life doing ministry, serving God as much as I could with my life.
Acts 9:1-20 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. 6 "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. 10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered. 11 The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." 13 "Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord-- Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here-- has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
Saul, otherwise known as Paul, should not be here. He should not be in the Bible, and he definitely should not have been the most influential Christian in history. You see, if you had told the Pharisee named Saul that he would end up as the biggest supporter of Jesus, he probably would have laughed at you. You see, Saul writes in Philippians that he was one of the best Jews you could have found - circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (named after the most illustrious Benjamite, King Saul), a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. If there was ever someone who did not need salvation, it was him. He was so zealous for God’s honor that the book of Acts tells us that he was seeking out Christians in order to have them put in prison.
But then in Acts 9, God got a hold of him. As he was on his way to defend God’s name against the followers of Jesus, He was blinded by a light from heaven, and a voice asks him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And it’s Jesus, revealing supernaturally to him that he has been sincere in his desire to know God, but he’s been sincerely wrong. And he blinds Paul and tells him to head into the town, where eventually a man named Ananias is directed by God to pray over him to regain his sight. Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized and begins his ministry as an apostle of Jesus Christ.
Over the next two months, we’re going to look at Paul’s life as recorded in the book of Acts, and watch as a man who did not deserve to be counted among the apostles of Jesus became the most influential follower of Christ this world has ever know. Saul shouldn’t be here. But by God’s grace, he is here.
You should not be here today. Some of you know that. Some of you know where you once were, where you were headed, and what God saved you from. Some of you can look back on your life like I can, or like Saul could, and wonder at God’s intervention in your life, that completely changed the course of your life and caused you to become one of His disciples. Some of you may feel like you’ve been a good person your whole life, and never really had a defining moment of conversion. That’s okay. Because you still shouldn’t be here, but by God’s grace, he has kept you from going astray. You shouldn’t be here, but by God’s grace you are.
And if you find yourself agreeing with that statement, then there are a few things you have probably found to be true about the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ, which I found and which Saul found to be true in his Damascus Road experience.
The first thing you know to be true is that salvation is by grace alone. You can not earn it by your good deeds. No one is good enough on their own to deserve eternal life, or a relationship with God. Look at Saul. He had done everything in his name to earn it, right down to being sincere in his zeal for God. But sadly, the truth he learned is that misplaced sincerity is not enough. Some may say that it does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. The story of Saul proves otherwise. Some have given the illustration of two sides of a cliff, and our good works being like trying to jump from one side to another. No matter how good of a jumper you are, you will never make it. Salvation is by grace alone.
Grace is an undeserved gift from an unobligated giver. A deserved gift from an unobligated giver is like a gift for a teacher because she has been a good teacher. An undeserved gift from an obligated giver is like taking care of your one year old even though he’s screaming his head off. He may be doing nothing to deserve your love, but you give because you are obligated as his parent. An undeserved gift from an unobligated giver is praying for the boss who fired you. It’s speaking well of the friend who hurt you. There’s nothing you’ve done to deserve it, and God does not have to give it to you.
Because of the Damascus Road experience, Saul had one message, and it was grace. Over and over he wrote in his letters that the salvation from God does not come from observing the laws found in the Bible, as he had previously thought, but by a supernatural gift of God. After all, his conversion was only possible because of intervention of God, blinding him and speaking to him from heaven. For this reason, as v. 15 says, Saul becomes God’s chosen instrument to bring the gospel, the good news of eternal life found in Jesus, to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He tells them that they do not have to convert to Judaism in order to experience salvation, because salvation can not be earned. It is by grace alone.
What does this mean? It means that that I am not here because I am smarter than those outside the church. I did not figure this out. I can not look down on those who do not believe, as if I understand and they don’t. My salvation was by grace alone, not by my wisdom. I am not better; I am only forgiven. There is incredible humility in knowing that.
The second thing you know, and that Saul learned, is that salvation includes repentance and faith. Salvation includes turning from the life you once lived to follow Jesus. Many of Saul’s personality characteristics stayed the same. For example, he was still incredibly zealous for God’s honor after his conversion. But he gave up his life of persecuting those who disagreed with him, because that was not the way of Jesus. And if you know Jesus today, you know that coming to him involves repentance, turning away from sin, disobedience, and self-sufficiency to a life dedicated to following Him.
Some, like Saul, move from hatred to piety, some from indifference. Either way, part of salvation, and the hardest part for many, is saying “I was wrong.” Essentially repentance is realizing that you were wrong. For as wise as you thought you were, or as self-sufficient, or indifferent, you were wrong.
Some go from hate to piety, some from indifference. Either way, it takes humility to admit that you were wrong. There are two Greek words used for repentance – epistrepho means turning to faith, while metanoeo is turning away from sin. Repentance involves a whole change within the core of our being, from self-sufficiency to faith in Jesus. Faith is “believing into” – personal trust. Sitting down in the chair instead of just “believing” it will support you.
The third thing you learn and Saul learned is that nobody is beyond God’s reach. Those who seem farthest from God are often the ones closest to the kingdom and the ones whom God will use the mightiest. Think about C.S. Lewis investigating Christianity and being turned to faith. My friend Ben investigated it to prove it wrong and was convinced and is now a pastor. Nobody is beyond God’s reach. As difficult as this is for some to hear, there are reports that people like Jeffrey Dahmer become Christians in jail. And this offends us, because we don’t believe the first thing I mentioned, that salvation is by grace alone, and is not something we can earn. Whether or not Dahmer is in heaven, the fact is that nobody is beyond God’s reach. And that is an offensive, scandalous, but ultimately extremely hopeful thing.
None are irretrievably lost. In fact, some who seem very lost may the very ones God wants to save to show his power. Nobody is beyond God’s reach – not the one who thinks he’s too good and has no need for God, not the one who is so opposed to God that he hates all things Christian, and not the one who is so indifferent to God after years of exposure. Not New England, not Glastonbury. No one is beyond God’s reach.
I shouldn’t be here today. Saul should not be in the Bible. And you should not be here today. But by God’s grace, we are here. As you respond in worship to that truth, let your heart be filled with humility as you consider the grace that has saved you. May you be filled with faith as you remember that you were wrong and God is right. And may you be filled with hope as you look out at the world and remember that no one is beyond God’s reach.