Leave Room in Your Life for Mystery

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – July 8, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 34:1-10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10


     This morning we are going to consider a number of issues in the life of the Apostle Paul and what we might learn from the way he presented himself to a public that was initially threatened by him.

     One of the interesting struggles that Paul experienced was his inability to leave a little mystery in his life.  His later experiences were so out-of-this-world that he found it difficult to hold back from writing about these spiritual adventures in his letters to various churches. 

     On several occasion he wrote about how he met Jesus while on the road to Damascus.  His accounts of this experience were not always the same.  Think of how he sounded to his listeners who knew that Jesus had stopped making appearances when he ascended into Heaven. 

    His encounter with Jesus was so earth-shaking that watching it happen made Saul of Tarsus blind.  Ananias, who was a native of Damascus, had a vision from God to go to Saul and heal his blindness.  While Saul had been totally transformed by the experience, publicly, however, the attitude of most followers of Jesus had not changed.  Saul was both feared and hated. 

     Ananias was among this group and confessed to God that he had doubts about his vision.  He said:

Lord, many people have told me about this man.  He has done terrible things to your people in Jerusalem.  He has come to Damascus with the authority of the chief priest to arrest all who worship you.  (Acts 9:13)

    God somehow let Ananias know that larger plans were ahead for Saul and that he should heal him in spite of his doubts.  Ananias did as he had been inspired to do.  He laid his hands on Saul's eyes and said, "God has sent me to you so that you might regain your sight and also to become filled with The Holy Spirit."  At once Saul regained his sight and after eating, Saul's full strength returned to him. (Acts 9:18)

    These stories were repeated again and again by Paul.  Following his encounter with Jesus, Saul of Tarsus had a lot of explaining to do. The need to clean up his past is probably what motivated Saul to talk about himself in a manner that Jesus never did. 

     What we know about Jesus is what others wrote about him.  We seldom, if ever, find Jesus talking about his past experiences that had become his stepping stones away from his craft as a carpenter.  The circulating mysteries of Jesus surfaced when he taught with an authority that other teachers lacked.  No one heard from Jesus about the source of his miracles and his wisdom.  In fact, Jesus often warned people not to tell what they had just witnessed.

    Paul had to demonstrate a lot of support for the Jesus-movement before anyone would believe any of his stories.  Once his name was changed from Saul to Paul, he had to continue reviewing his accomplishments and the price he was paying as a new follower of Jesus. (Philippians 3:5f)

     In his letter to the Christians in Corinth, he revealed the numerous times he suffered following his transformation;

Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews, three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned.   I have been in three ship wrecks and once I sent twenty-four hours in the water. In my travels I have been in danger from floods, and from robbers, in danger of my own people and the Gentiles; there have been dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas and dangers from false friends.  I have experienced hard work and toil; often I have gone without sleep. I have been hungry and thirsty.  I have often been without enough food, shelter or clothing.  (2 Corinthians 11:23f)

     After discussing the number of Jesus' resurrection experiences, he wrote:

Last of all Jesus appeared to me, even though I was like someone whose birth was abnormal. I am the least among all of the apostles. I do not deserve to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church.  (I Corinthians 15:8)

     Paul found it difficult to stop talking about how special he felt he was.  He said, "I have worked harder than any of the other apostles, although it was not really my own doing but God's graced working through me."  (I Corinthians 15:9)

     Paul is one fascinating character.  He had to work hard on cleaning up his reputation.  Many scholars believe that it was Paul who actually saved the-way-of-Jesus movement from reverting back into becoming a reformed pocket of Judaism. 

    There is something very unique about people who keep their journey a mystery.  Have we ever noticed how little we know about people with whom we have played golf, or meet adults who were once students that we taught many years ago, or met men and women that became fast friends where we work? What we enjoy about our friends is what their journey has helped them to become when they are with us.  What we see is an up-to-date version of their personality and spirit.

    Have we ever read someone's obituary and were surprised by what we never knew about them?  Most of us have had life-experiences that few people would believe. Some of them are very painful to recall and others make us smile.

     The mystery of our past is what has formed our present values, qualities, and attitudes. When politicians are campaigning for public office, they have to surrender their sacred past. The opposition makes every attempt to dig up everything and anything in their opponent's background that might convince the public that he or she is not fit for office. 

    We are often led to judge a person's present character by deeds and attitudes that surfaced from their past. So many people fall prey to such information that it is like judging a beautiful rose bush by the early stages of its development.

     When I learned that Leo Mills was on a search committee for Wesley Methodist Church, I sent him a letter from a person that was seeking to become the pastor of a local church. 

     Dear members of the Search Committee:

Understanding that your pulpit is vacant, I felt led by God to apply for the position.  I have many qualifications.  I am a successful preacher and writer.  Some people say that I am an excellent organizer.  I have been a leader in most of the places I've been.   I am over 50 years of age.  I have never preached in one place for more than three years.  In certain instances, I have had to leave some towns in a hurry because my preaching God's Word offended a number of my listeners.  Occasionally, my sermons have even incited riots. 


I have to admit that I have been in jail three or four times, but I assure you that I am innocent of all the exaggerated charges.  My health has not been good, particularly my eye sight, although I am still able to perform most tasks quite efficiently.  The churches where I have preached have been small, even though most of them were located in large communities. 


To be perfectly honest with you, I have not always gotten along with other religious leaders.  In fact, some of them have threatened and even attacked me physically. I must also confess that I am not too good at keeping records.  I cannot recall the names of all the people I have baptized.  But, I have been in direct contact with Jesus.  I am confident that God will enable me to do my best as your new pastor.

    After this reading, the search committee chairman said, "Thank you, Harold, for your bit of humor.  Please sit down.   By the way, did this candidate of yours have the courage to sign his name?    "Yes, he did.  His letter was signed, "The Apostle Paul."  Every detail in the letter I just read is accurate and come from Paul's past.

      A quality people have is that negative information often attracts us. Information that may reflect a person's growing pains is frequently misunderstood as character-flaws. Everyone experiences going through their own personalized growing pains.  The process of moving toward maturity is also why people should not be haunted by issues that remain alive for them as regrets during their present lives.

    Once, while visiting a patient in the hospital who did not have much longer to live, I sat at the foot of her bed massaging her feet with some of the lotion she had available.  As she was relaxing she began telling me how frightened she was of dying.  I asked, "Why are you afraid?  Sooner or later all of us have to go through the process of leaving this life."  She said, "I haven't always been a good girl."  I said, "Do you think God is going to hold that against you?" She answered, "I don't know."  I responded, "You don't know?"

    I reminded her that she had reared five beautiful children and all of them had become lovely men and women. I asked her if their mistakes in judgment, their adolescent passions and their sibling rivalry caused her to withhold her love from any of them.  She said, "No. I still love them and have remained proud of each of them." I said, "God loves you more than you realize, warts and all.  Give your fears to God in trust that God will understand your growing pains."  Later that week, I learned that she had slipped away from this life while she slept.

    Life is a process that is filled many fond and heart-warming memories alongside the challenges, detours, failures, mishaps, words that we once spoke in haste, documents that we wrote years before that were filled with values and thoughts from which we have long since graduated, and immaturities that have been refined out of existence.

    We should actually thank God for all of these experiences. They were symbolic of our stepping stones that helped us to cross the rapids of human experience, molding and shaping us in preparation for our futures.  Keeping a little mystery about ourselves has helped us to demonstrate who we are today.  

    Regardless of what the Apostle Paul did in his past, he lived a remarkable life as he spread The Good News of God's love for everyone throughout the ancient world during his three missionary journeys.  He established little congregations wherever he went as he became the pioneer of what today we now enjoy.

    The quality and destination of our lives will never be determined by the court of public opinion.  We need to remain at peace with who we are and allow the final outcome of our lives to be totally up to God's merciful love and understanding. 

    By enjoying life just as it is, our experiences polish us so that even our imperfections become assets that God can use.  This is why all the recovered letters of Paul make up a good portion of the New Testament. This is why God can use any of us to have an extraordinary influence over the lives of others.  Be at peace with where we came from and be at peace with who we are right now.


Loving God, we thank you for creating us with the potential to radiate the qualities of your spirit.  We admit that there are moments in life that cause us to question the strength of our faith. The challenges of life often cause us to hide your gifts of spirit under the basket of our fears.  This morning, lead us apart from the world that is constantly changing.  Help us to find peace that comes from knowing that we live in your Kingdom now. Encourage us to hunger for an even deeper understanding of our lives. Inspire us to look at all of life's challenges as our personal trainers for growth.  Amen.



Merciful and always loving God, we thank you for the abundance of your presence each time we gather as a community of faith.  There are times when life overwhelms us.  There are moments when our spiritual cups need filling. Yet, there are other times when our lives are filled with gratitude for our families, our relationships, for the abundance of our personal freedoms and the smiles of children. 

Open our eyes to how truth was slowly dawning in human history through a baby born in a stable and by verbal seeds sown by the carpenter that baby grew up to be.  Even though many of his listeners were mystified by what they saw and heard, they knew enough to pass on the stories of the Master until the moment they reached our ears and helped to shape our lives. We may never see your creative brush stokes as they are taking place.  We can only view them through hindsight with the eyes of faith.   Help us to understand, O God, that we only keep what we give away.  Help us to stand forth confidently during the darkest periods of our lives knowing that you created us to be the light that illuminates not only our darkness, but also the paths of others.

Thank you for guiding us to be at Centenary during this time of our lives.  Together and individually, enable our fellowship to become like a magnet that attracts others who want more out of life than what they now understand.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .