Tag Archives: Salvation

Jesus: Unwanted

Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him.
Mark 5:17-18 (NIV)

Wendy and I have a recurring conversation about life. There is no doubt in either of our minds that we were supposed to walk this journey together. It’s a story that I should write someday. Our relationship has been such a good thing that we often wonder: “What if we had experienced our younger adult years together?”

While the hypothetical question is a natural one, we both agree in this recurring conversation that the younger versions of ourselves (me the religious rule keeper and good little preacher boy, she the rebellious wild-child) would likely not have hitten it off. My personal journey, walking through my “Prodigal” years, the failure of my first marriage, becoming a father to Taylor and Madison, were all part of what prepared me for the waypoint in which our story could begin.

Yesterday I wrote about the fact that every follower of Jesus has a unique story. Some follow in one season of life, while it takes others until a later season and waypoint further down the road before they are at the right place to follow. Some don’t reach that waypoint until their final moments on this earth. There is a mystery to the flow of it.

As I read today’s chapter, I found a connected truth. Mark’s version of the Jesus Story continues. While Mark has previously alluded to the miracles Jesus is performing, in today’s chapter he gives three major illustrations: a man possessed by a legion of demons, a woman who is miraculously healed by Jesus without His conscious decision to do so, and a twelve-year-old girl raised from the dead. I feel like Mark is telling me “Look, Jesus wasn’t just healing people from a runny nose or a tummy ache. We’re talking dead people being raised back to life kind of stuff!”

In the midst of these three episodes is a curious event. The people in the towns where Jesus cast the demons out of the man begged him to leave their region. The very next sentence has Jesus getting into the boat to shove off. I am reminded that when Jesus sends out His disciples to do their own internship practicum (coming up in the next chapter) He tells them if they are not welcomed by the people in a town to “shake the dust off your feet” and leave. In today’s chapter, Jesus exemplifies what He will command His followers to do in the next chapter.

In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the notion that Jesus does not force His way in. Tell Him to stay away and He is perfectly willing to move along. To the point of yesterday’s post, it may not have been the right season for the people of that region. Curious that the demon-delivered man asks to follow Jesus and Jesus tells him to stay and tell everyone in the region his story. In doing so, Jesus scatters “the seed” through this man’s story and witness which may take root and bear fruit in a future season.

Through many years of my journey, I observed the institutional church often trying to force itself in where it was not welcome and to manufacture converts via what I would liken to a process of systemic spiritual cloning. As I read through the Jesus story, I find Jesus’ actual example to be far more natural, more organic, more authentic, and more trusting of what God’s Spirit is doing in the Great Story and in the story of individuals within it.

Which brings me back to the journey of Tom and Wendy that began when two very different lives found themselves in the right season and at the right waypoint on life’s road to become one.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Non-Transactional Love

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11 (NIV)

Years ago I was asked to give a message among a weekly gathering of Jesus’ followers. The text above was part of the message that I shared that morning. The observation that I made in that message was the same thing that struck me again this morning as I read the chapter. It’s so subtle that I missed it for many years of my spiritual journey.

The observation is simply this: the Father’s love and pleasure we’re given to Jesus and we’re just ten verses into the story. Jesus’ ministry hadn’t started. He hadn’t preached a sermon. He hadn’t healed anyone, performed miracles, or cast out a demon. So God’s love was there, it had already been there, and it was always going to be there. The Father’s love for the Son was not dependant on His dutiful and obedient carrying out of, and completion, of the mission. Therefore, in the same way, God’s love for me is not dependent on my good works, purity, morality, church attendance, or my upstanding life. It’s always been there.

After my message, I was immediately confronted by an angry person. There was no preamble to the conversation. They immediately dove into an argument to let me know that Jesus was thirty years old when He was baptized, so He obviously had “done stuff” and proven Himself to the Father. In other words, Jesus had to have earned the Father’s love and pleasure.

Along my spiritual journey, I came to realize that quid pro quo theology was so deeply ingrained in me that I was blind to it for many years. While I cognitively agreed with the doctrinal statement that salvation was “by grace through faith,” I functionally lived, acted, and treated others as if God’s love was dependant on my obedience and theirs. I discovered that I was treating it like a transactional relationship, and I liked it that way. If God’s love was earned by my being a “good person” then there was a measuring stick I had understood since I was a child; A measuring stick I could use to decide whether others were worthy of my love. God’s love and grace being transactional made things so simple for me on a human level. Be good: Heaven and acceptance. Be bad: Hell and rejection. It was a religious version of the Santa Claus principle my parents used to get me to behave when I was a child that I could now apply on an adult level.

In His parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told the story of a younger rebellious brother who does all of the wrong and sinful things. When he returns home the poor, penniless, sinful, broken child is greeted by his father who runs to embrace him and forgive him. The father throws a huge homecoming party. The older brother, who has been dutiful and obedient is indignant. The point Jesus was making is this: the father loved both of his sons. His love belonged to both of them, had always been there from the beginning, and had remained with both even when the younger one was lost and the elder was obedient.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on my own life journey. You can look back at my life and find me playing both roles in my own life’s production of the Prodigal Son. I have been the wasteful, wandering, rebellious child squandering what I’d been graciously given. I have also spent years being the indignant, dutiful son projecting my miserly, transactional world-view onto a loving and gracious Father.

I’m older now. The reality for any actor is that as you get older you find yourself cast in very different roles than when you were young. C’est la vie. It strikes me this morning that I’d like to think I’m ready to play the role of the father with everyone in my circles of influence, extending grace and love freely, regardless of a person’s actions.

And so, I find myself coming back to that argumentative, angry “older brother” who conversationally accosted me after my message those years ago. I get where that person was coming from. I pray that they experience the fullness of God’s love that has always belonged to them and has nothing to do with their goodness.

Have a great week, my friend.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Execution Lessons

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Luke 23:42 (NIV)

Just last week I read a news blurb of a convict who was executed. It was your typical news flash on such stories in which just the basic facts were starkly recounted with little embellishment. Years ago, he was convicted of murdering his own wife. Before he died he expressed regret for what he’d done. He apologized to his loved ones, acknowledging the he understood why they couldn’t forgive him, but expressing the hope that they might someday be able to do so. He then said that he couldn’t wait to meet Jesus. He was given a lethal injection and died a few minutes later.

Fascinating. For some reason, I’ve found those few lines of news unusually coming to mind in the days since I read it. There’s more to that story.

Today’s chapter is Dr. Luke’s account of Jesus’ execution. Much like the news blurb, it recounts many facts with little embellishment. What embellishments Luke adds create more questions in me than answers.

With the eye of a playwright and storyteller, I find myself making a mental list of the characters in the story and how they contribute to the narrative.

Jesus, the lamb led to slaughter, refusing to speak or offer a defense.

Pilate, Herod, and the Jewish religious leaders are the power brokers playing their own chess matches of personal power, public opinion, and political intrigue.

Jesus twelve appointed male disciples and heirs to His earthly ministry are the key characters not present (John was there, according to his own account, but Luke does not record this).

The oft forgotten women who have traveled with Jesus, supported Jesus, and provided for Jesus and his disciples are there at a distance, witnessing the execution. This includes Jesus’ mother. One of the women is, ironically, the wife of the head of Herod’s household.

The Roman soldiers are carrying out their duty and having their sport with the victims. As an added perk they get their choice of the victims’ spoils.

The presiding military officer, a Centurion, is observing.

Then there are the three executed convicts.

What struck me was the convict who was crucified next to Jesus and came to Jesus’ defense. The only character in the entire saga of the passion who comes to Jesus’ defense is a convicted, guilty (by his own confession) death-row inmate. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he said.

How did he know about Jesus’ kingdom?

There’s more to this story.

Had he been among the crowds in Galilee, or in the temple courts, who heard Jesus teach? Had he and Jesus spent time talking in a holding cell as they waited to hear the Roman soldier announce “Dead man walking.”

I find so much intriguing about this man. Jesus didn’t explain the Four Spiritual Laws and lead the man in the sinner’s prayer. Jesus only defense was to one of the weakest and least powerful characters in the story, an executed criminal by another executed criminal. The only act in this man’s “death-bed conversion” was simply to acknowledge Jesus before another convict, and humbly ask to be remembered.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the spoken faith of two guilty, convicted, executed criminals. I find myself thinking about my own guilt. I find myself thinking about Jesus’ repeated teachings about simple, small faith being all that is required. It is indicated from the story that this is true no matter the moral standing of the one expressing such simple faith.

Sometimes I think that we religious humans complicate things that Jesus presented as very simple.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Featured photo on today’s post courtesy of PWBaker via Flickr.

The Fateful Knocking

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NIV)

He knew he was going to die. I don’t know how he knew. He had been struggling with his health for some time. Nevertheless, he knew. He heard fate knocking like the opening measure of Beethoven’s fifth. He asked his caregivers to call me, and I went to his bedside. He was restless, agitated, and there was fear in his eyes.

I had pleasant conversations with him and his wife before. They were very sweet people who lived in a little house on top of a hill with a gorgeous view. They were both humble individuals with gentle spirits. He loved to tell stories. They had no desire to talk about spiritual matters. So, we didn’t. I visited and we swapped stories. We talked about many other things and enjoyed the view together. It really was spectacular.

Now, things were different. He needed to get some things out. He needed to take care of some matters of Spirit. He’d always avoided this conversation so he had no idea how to have it. I took his hand and began to ask him questions. He wept. He talked. I listened. I gently asked more questions. At his request, I helped him pray. I believe it may well have been his first and only time.

When I left he was quiet and resting peacefully. He died a few hours later.

It was what many people call a “deathbed confession.” My experience is that when that phrase is used in conversation it has typically been uttered cynically or sarcastically as if a dying person is trying to rig the system. I liken it to taking on the mantel of the prodigal’s older brother who gets pissed that little brother squandered his life and partied like it’s 1999, and then dad just welcomes him home with feasting and homecoming gifts. Where’s the justice in that? Perhaps I should have told the man, “Too bad, old man. You had your chances and now it’s too late. Good luck. You might want to take a fan with you.”

Everyone has their own journey. Everyone has their own story. Who’s to say that his story wasn’t a great story? Who am I to judge? The fear in his eyes was genuine. The words, the tears, and the prayer were humble and sincere. I am honored to have played a bit part in his final chapter.

Speaking of chapters, today’s is the last surviving words that Paul wrote. He, too, hears fate knocking. His story is very different. He welcomes the journey’s end. He looks forward to what lies beyond. His earthly journey is a sojourn. He is the prodigal heading home and looking forward to being welcomed.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about life and death and resurrection. I’ve recently been walking with a friend whose father has heard the fateful knocking and, along with his family, is making preparations. It’s a strange time when it comes – however it comes.

Everyone has their own stories in both life and death. Paul’s journey had prepared him in mind and spirit for the journey’s end. My friend, who asked his caregivers to call me, had never allowed himself to think much about it. I certainly identify with Paul as we share a common faith and a common hope. I find myself saying a quiet prayer for those who, like my friend who made his deathbed confession, have not thought much about it – and have no one to call.

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

(No Need to) “Wait for It”

 For [God] says,

“In the time of my favor I heard you,
    and in the day of salvation I helped you.”

I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
2 Corinthians 6:2 (NIV)

I  hate waiting. I especially abhor needless and unnecessary waiting.

I confess. I’m convinced this particular disdain and impatience is rooted in being the youngest of four. Growing up I spent years watching my older siblings get to do things before I did. In most cases I can look back from a place of maturity and understand requisite age and size restrictions. Still, there were times when I rightfully argued that capability should have outweighed arbitrary age limits for certain activities. I’m sure of it. At least, that’s the whine of my inner child.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much our childhoods continue to subconsciously affect us in our adult years. Just this past year Wendy came to a sudden revelation about some inner thoughts she had, and their subsequent emotional reactions they created within. She realized that her thoughts weren’t actually her thoughts, but the voice of her mother playing on an endless loop in her brain. Fascinating.

I digress. Back to waiting.

As our local gathering of Jesus followers has been journeying through the book of Acts this year I have been reminded of two major paradigm shifts that happened when God moved humanity from the religious legalism of the Judaic system to the outpouring of Holy Spirit in the first century.

The first paradigm shift was the decentralization of power. Gone was a rigid system in which a human high priest and other humans, simply on the basis of their heredity, have spiritual power and irrevocable spiritual authority over everyone else. By the middle of the story of Acts we’re reading about common, everyday individuals we’ve never heard of, three or four social circles away from the twelve apostles, who God is using to move the Great Story forward. “Wait a minute. Who is this lady, Tabitha? Who is she and where did she come from?”

The second paradigm shift is the lifting of restrictions to experience salvation through Christ and participate fully in the organism Paul refers to as “the body of Christ.” Any and all who choose to follow Jesus have immediate and full spiritual access to all that God has to offer regardless of background, previous record, heredity, socio-economic status, race, gender, politics, education, or age. Any and all who follow Christ receive the indwelling of Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and a calling to use those gifts, in love, for Jesus’ good will and purpose.

This is a radical, transformative spiritual shift (that human organizations and institutions have continually found ways to reverse for two millennia).

In today’s chapter Paul quotes a verse from Isaiah 49. It’s a great messianic prophecy. I get why it would have been one of Paul’s favorite references. All of Paul’s readers who were raised in Judaism would have been raised waiting for the Messiah. It had been 400 years since the last prophet, Malachi, and since then they’d been waiting for what God was going to do. Paul writes to those in Corinth that there is no longer any need to wait for God. All that God has to offer is immediately available to anyone, anywhere, in this very moment.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about my level of patience. I’ve gotten better at waiting along my journey. “Patience” is a fruit of the Spirit that gets developed over time, and I can see how it has developed in me along the way. I’ve also come to embrace that while all that God has to offer is immediately available, this is still a journey. There’s still a story being revealed. I still have to wait for some things to be fully revealed and realized in this finite, time-laden existence. I’m reminded, once again, of the words of the wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

As for following Jesus, Paul writes to the Corinthians, there’s no time like the present moment.

The “Divine Right” (to Be Equal)

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
1 Corinthians 1:26-29 (NIV)

Wendy and I have a guest room that we’ve been decorating with a UK theme. We’ve loved our trips to the UK and thought it would be kind of fun (“cheeky,” even) to channel that into our home. On one of the walls we’ve hung portraits of royalty as well as some of our favorite British writers and actors. Of course, we felt the need to separate the portraits with the royals (and a couple of Prime Ministers) on one side and the those low-life, “commoner” artist types on the other 😉

Having grown up in a representative republic like America, the notion of royalty is a bit of romantic idea and the stuff of nostalgia for us. For most of human history, however, the idea of people being better than others simply because of the blood in their veins and the family into which they were born was part of the fabric of every day life. And, going all the way back to ancient rulers, it was commonly believed that there was some sort of divinity that marked the distinction. Rulers often claimed to be gods themselves. The idea of monarchs ruling by “divine right” was popularly held (mostly by the royals themselves) until recently.

Even in the times of Jesus and the early Jesus Movement, the notion of “divine” rulers was popular. One of the reasons the early believers were executed or thrown into the Roman circus to be eaten by lions for the sake of entertainment was that they refused to swear that Caesar was god.

In today’s chapter Paul is quick to reference that the believers in Corinth were not people of wealth and influence. For the most part they had little status in the eyes of the world. He reminds them, however, that they are highly esteemed by God.

We easily forget that one of the things that made the early Jesus Movement so radical was that everyone could freely accept the gift of salvation offered by Jesus. Everyone was equally a member of the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts were bestowed on every believer by Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit came upon a group of believers everyone manifested the experience regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or social standing. When believers met together for a love feast and to share in the ritual of the Lord’s supper everyone was welcome at the table. If a slave and the slave’s master were both believers, they had equal status at the table of Jesus’ followers.

This morning I find myself meditating on the reality that as the Jesus Movement became the institutional church and gained both power and influence, it quickly abandoned its egalitarian roots and developed rigid systems of hierarchy and status that exist to this day. In personal practice and in my, admittedly small, circles of influence I am consciously trying to lead us back to the egalitarian spiritual roots of the Jesus Movement where everyone is of equal status in the body of Christ and where everyone is welcome at the table. We’ll let the ancient notion of “divine” rulers  or those of higher or more noble “status” be simply a bit of nostalgia on our guest room wall.

Speaking of that. One of the decorative touches we want to make to our guest room is a collage of postcards from the UK. If I have any readers from across the pond who would like to contribute, we would be both humbled and blessed to have you send us a postcard (or two, or three!). Simply drop it in the mail it to:

Tom & Wendy Vander Well
c/o Intelligentics
801 Franklin St. #526
Pella, IA 50219 U.S.A.

Tomorrow begins the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S. Please know that I am truly thankful for you who faithfully, or occasionally, (or even rarely) read my posts. Cheers!