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Following Jesus with Skeletons in your Closet

Back to all sermons The Life of Paul

Date: November 12, 2006

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: The Life of Paul

Scripture: Acts 9:1–9:22

Acts 9:1-22 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. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to a class reunion. Keep it raised if you count that as one of the more surreal experiences of your life. A couple of years ago I visited my ten year high school reunion, and it was definitely one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It was kind of like being in a dream, seeing people that I had not seen since I was 18 years old, when I was in many ways a different person altogether. In some ways, it was like picking up right where I left off with people – we felt like we knew each other, we could reminisce about old times, and we knew how to talk to each other even though it had been 10 years. Some of the cliques seemed like they hadn’t aged at all, but were still doing the same stuff they had been doing 10 years ago. But on the other hand, even as I was talking with people who had been my best friends in high school, I couldn’t help but think – you don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve been through these past 10 years, how I’ve grown, and especially how God has transformed my life. I am not the same person I was in high school. But when people saw me, that’s who they saw – the 18 year old Eric Stillman.

Jesus did not go to high school, and never had a ten year reunion, but he also experienced what it was like to return to his hometown after some time away. Now, I think we’d all agree that Jesus was a pretty decent guy, and he seemed to do incredible healings and miracles and teach profound things wherever he went. But when he returned to Nazareth, we find that the people took offense at him. Matthew records in his story of Jesus’ life in chapter 13 verse 55 that the people said "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?" 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor." 58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

Jesus could not do many miracles because the people could not see past his past – and it wasn’t even a bad past! They just couldn’t see how a carpenter’s son could suddenly become a miracle worker. Now, my situation is very different than Jesus’ situation, but the similarity is that when people know your past, know where you’ve come from, they are more likely to reject you or discount what God is doing in your life. The people of Nazareth knew Jesus’ past, and so they didn’t believe he was capable of miracles. The people of South Windsor knew me from high school, and had a hard time seeing me any other way than how I was in high school.

Now, my past was not that bad, and certainly Jesus’ past was not bad. But there was another man who experienced the same rejection and suspicion because of a worse past, and that was Saul. We began last week looking at the life of Saul, or Paul as he is more commonly known, as recorded in the book of Acts, which is Luke’s sequel to his first book (called Luke), and records much of how the early church was formed. Saul was one of the most devoted Jews around, completely sincere in his devotion to God, and so devoted that he had dedicated his life to stopping the breakaway sect that was following this Jesus character. Earlier in the story, he is pictured at the stoning of Stephen, one of the early Christians and the first martyr for the faith, giving approval to his death. And in the beginning of this story, he is getting letters from the high priest that would give him permission to seize any Christians and have them carried off and imprisoned. But then suddenly his life is turned around, as Jesus blinds him on the road to Damascus and reveals that not only has he not been honoring God with his actions, but he’s been persecuting God himself by persecuting the Christians. As a result, Saul is led into town, where a man named Ananias prays for him to receive his sight. Saul spends some time with the disciples in Damascus, and before long the story says that he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the son of God.

Now, I don’t know exactly how much time elapsed between Saul the persecutor of Christians and Saul the preacher of Christ, but I can understand the reaction of his listeners, as Luke records: "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" 2Paul’s listeners were probably familiar with the expression “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, and I can’t blame them for being very skeptical about this Saul guy. It is quite possible that Saul had been a part of the imprisonment or murder of some of the very people he was now ministering among. But the fact is that Saul had been genuinely changed, that Jesus had shown him that he was wrong, and that Saul had repented and put his faith in Jesus. Even though the people were skeptical and many rejected him because of his past, Saul truly had been called by God to preach about Jesus.

It’s not easy to follow Jesus with skeletons in your closet. It’s not easy to call yourself a Christian when people know your past, know your sins, know your failings. It must have been incredibly difficult for Saul even to gain a hearing from people when many of them could not see past the fact that he had been instrumental in the imprisonment and murder of many of their friends and fellow believers. This is probably why Paul began many of his letters, “Paul, called to be an apostle by the will of God,” because he needed to convince his readers up front that his apostleship was a divine appointment.

It’s not easy to call yourself a Christian when there are obvious skeletons in your closet. If even Jesus was rejected by those who knew him as a young man, then there’s a strong likelihood it will happen to you. Often the hardest people to share your faith with is your family, because they have known you your whole life and know your failings, your sins, better than anyone. Often it can be the same with your closest friends, or co-workers, because they know you, and sometimes know the skeletons in your closet. And when people know that you are human, that you are just as full of sin as the next person, they will be skeptical of your faith.

The difficult truth, however, is often the church makes it harder to follow Jesus with skeletons in your closet. Certainly the church should be a place where you are welcome regardless of your past, regardless of your skeletons, your sins, your failings, because this is a fellowship of people who have experienced forgiveness. However, the church can often create a culture where honesty about sin, past or present, is not welcome. This is because the evangelical church rightly sees sin as a bad thing, an evil, something to be avoided. Because sin is bad, those who have sinned or who struggle with sin can often feel like less of a Christian, and can sometimes be seen that way by other Christians. “Oh, did you know Jonny goes to AA? Did you know Mary’s kids are addicted to drugs?” Furthermore, there is no real avenue for confession; the Catholic church has a time of confession to a priest, which at least is something, but the evangelical church does not always have a place for confession between people.

Thirdly, the emphasis on conversion often leads to an embellishment of the positive changes that have happened since one’s salvation, and a downplaying of sin that still remains. Testimonies tend to be of the “I used to be 400 pounds and drunk every night and caught up in sexual sin and then I found Jesus and now I’m trim and eating drinking grapefruit juice for breakfast and faithful to my wife.” This is often true, but sometimes can be more like a sales pitch, extolling the good and hiding the bad. So, if sin is considered bad, and there is no opportunity for confession, and increased holiness is expected of believers, you tend to create people who hide their sins and instead project an air of togetherness and perfection. And when this is the environment, those who know there is obvious sin in their present or skeletons in their past do not feel comfortable opening up about them.

Can anyone relate to this? Have you ever wondered what people would think if they really knew you? Have you ever said to yourself, “I wonder what the pastor would think if he knew I had an abortion in my past?” “I wonder what my small group would think if I admitted that I have on occasion lost control and hit my wife?” “I wonder what the church would think of me if they knew I had been divorced?” “I wonder what my Christian friends would think if they knew that I struggle with homosexual urges?” And if you’ve ever thought something like this, then you probably have thought this as well: “I wonder what God thinks about my abortion, or my temper, or my divorce, or my homosexual urges?” Some of you may wonder if mistakes in your past or struggles in your present have already disqualified you from service in the kingdom of God. How can I teach when I have such sin in my past? How can I even call myself a Christian with what I’ve been through?

I am here this morning to say that you are welcome here. You are welcome in this place, and you are welcome by God. You have not been disqualified, and you will not be disqualified. Listen to God’s word as it speaks to your soul:

1 Peter 3:18 or Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

Psalm 103:12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Romans 8:1-2 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

2 Corinthians 5:17 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

The story of Saul and Ananias and the believers in this chapter in Acts is essential for this church. You need to grasp the importance of this first of all for yourself and secondly for how we relate to those we encounter, whether in this building or outside in our world. This is absolutely essential. When you create a culture that puts people on pedestals, that is afraid to talk about sin, that thinks that having it together is the mark of a real disciple, then you end up with what happened in Colorado Springs last week. You end up with a pastor who gives in to his dark side, because he has no outlet for confession and honesty. You end up with a Christian who continues to struggle with sin because he is afraid what people will think if he reveals the true him. And in the process you miss out on an experience of the grace of God. You miss out on the powerful freedom that happens when you confess to another believer and that believer says to you, “you are forgiven. Jesus paid the penalty for your sins. There is no condemnation over you. Your sins have been removed, as far as the east is from the west. You are a new creation.”

You may fear what someone might think if you were honest with them. I know that I have felt that fear. But I can also tell you that when someone confesses to me, when someone is honest with me about their struggles, the last thing I want to do is condemn them or ridicule them. First of all, I feel honored that they trusted me enough to share with me. Secondly, I feel committed to praying for them, holding them accountable, and helping them carry that burden. That is what the church should be about. As Paul wrote in a later letter:

Galatians 6:1-2 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

This church must work to cultivate a culture of honesty. Someone once said that the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. It’s a place where people who have been broken and hurt and have broken and hurt others can find rest and healing and forgiveness for their souls. And this takes work and courage, to be honest before each other. Now, one caveat – this honesty and confession is usually best done with someone you trust, unless it is a public sin that needs to be confessed publicly. One of my seminary professors shared a story of a time of confession that happened at the Christian college where he taught, and how one young woman confessed a crush on one of her teachers. Now that was awkward, and not an appropriate venue to confess that sin. Confess your sins to someone you trust, and in public resist the urge to put on the air of togetherness, and our church will be a better, more welcoming, more grace filled place for it. And when sin is out in the open, others can come alongside you and help you leave those behaviors and attitudes and walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Sin is still an evil, but for that reason we commit to carry each other’s burdens and help each other find freedom in Christ.

You are welcome here, no matter what your past, no matter what you struggle with in the present.
And now, as you have been welcomed, you must welcome others. Can you imagine what Ananias was feeling when God spoke to him and told him to go find Saul and pray for him to receive his sight back? Do you think perhaps Ananias doubted the voice? After all, this was a man who had been persecuting the church, and God was asking him to go pray for him and give him his sight back. Perhaps Ananias was thinking, “okay, maybe he really did convert, but maybe we should keep him blind, just in case he goes back to his old ways.” Ananias’ situation reminds me of Jonah, where God asked him to go preach to the Ninevites, the sworn enemies of the Israelites, and warn them to repent before God destroyed them. Jonah of course famously refused, and tried to run away as far as possible. And even when he finally went to Ninevah, he gave the worst call to turn to the Lord possible: “Forty more days and Ninevah will be destroyed.” No mention of repentance, or of the possibility of grace. And when Ninevah repented, Jonah sulked at God’s mercy and asked to die. Even the godliest of people sometimes have a hard time with the mercy of God.

We can all be like Ananias sometimes, drawing fences where God does not, doubting that God might want to show mercy to people the church might condemn or fear. Who is like Ninevah for you? Who is like Saul for you? Are there people or types of people that you would have a hard time extending mercy to, the way Ananias had a hard time extending mercy to Saul and Jonah had a hard time extending mercy to the Ninevites? What if someone that had really hurt you came to the church? Could you show them mercy? What if a member of the KKK came to our church? What if a homosexual couple started coming to our church? Would you be able to show them the same grace that was shown to you, or put up a fence where God would extend open arms?

It can be hard to follow Jesus with skeletons in your past, or with sins in your present. It’s hard because people outside the church may see you as a hypocrite, and it’s hard because people inside the church may not extend grace to you as Jesus extended grace to them. Maybe you’ve experienced that rejection in the past from churches. If that is the case, let me be the first to say, “I’m sorry we rejected you. I’m sorry that the way to Jesus’ grace was blocked by graceless Christians. Please accept our apology, and forgive us. That is not the way Jesus is.” Maybe you haven’t experienced rejection, but you are afraid to be honest about who you are because you fear possible rejection. Let me say to you, “I’m sorry that we have created a culture where you do not feel comfortable being honest. I’m sorry that the way to Jesus’ grace is being blocked by graceless Christians. That’s not the way Jesus is. Let me encourage you that if you are honest, you will experience the freedom that comes from God’s grace and forgiveness, extended through this body of believers, so that you might move on from your sin and live in the freedom, peace, and joy of Jesus.”

This church is a collection of sinful people with skeletons in their past who have experienced the forgiveness of Jesus and are trying to live in the freedom that comes from that grace. May we be a church that extends that grace to all we encounter, so that they might experience their sin being separated from them as the east is from the west, that they might experience the lack of condemnation that is over them, and that they might know the forgiveness and love of Jesus. You are welcome here.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11- Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

It doesn’t matter what your sin is – no one who sins will inherit the kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter if you were sexually immoral, an idolator, a homosexual offender, a thief, a drunkard, a slanderer. It doesn’t matter if you had an abortion, if you’re divorced, if you struggle with violence or anything else. If you have come to Jesus, you will be washed clean and justified, counted as holy and righteous by God the father. Your closet has been cleaned out, and you are welcomed by God. And you are welcome here.