By Rev. Sam Gutierrez
When I was in high school, a friend and I would occasionally drive his 1985 Suburban to an automatic car wash. After the initial soak, suds, and spotless rinse, huge fans with blowers would descend upon the vehicle, sending streaks of water speeding across the windshield. With his finger on the switch, my friend would quickly roll down the windows right when those powerful blowers hit. Hurricane-like winds entered the Suburban, causing papers to fly, wrappers to whirl, and shirts to wildly flap. Nothing could withstand the fury of those gale force winds—our cheeks rippled and our hair twisted and tangled. After it was over, my friend and I would look at each other and say, “that was AWESOME.”
When I read Acts 2, my thoughts wander back to that old ’85 blue Suburban in the car wash. Early in the morning, almost two months after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, 120 people who loved Jesus were gathered in a house in the middle of Jerusalem. The 12 disciples (minus Judas) were among the 120, as well as Jesus’ birth family—his mother Mary and his brothers. These Jesus-followers were sitting in a room when the sound of a heavenly gale force wind filled the whole house. Then, tongues of fire or “little flames” separated and rested on each of them. Next, they began declaring the wonders of God in languages that they did not know or learn.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God sent the Spirit and gave them the power to…share. The beginning of Acts shows that the early church was given the power to share in two specific ways: with words and with actions.
First, they received the power to share with their words. Peter stood up, addressed the crowd and shared about “this Jesus.” Later in Acts 4:33, we see this power to verbally share again – “with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” When the Spirit came, they received the power to witness about Jesus with words.
Second, they received the power to share their lives with each other. Acts 2:44-47 says, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
When given power, the followers of Jesus responded by opening up their lives, hands, tables, doors, houses and wallets to each other. They became a community of persons sharing life together in radical and generous ways (without fear of scarcity). In doing so, the early church became a living audio/visual aid demonstrating and participating in the giving and receiving communal rhythms of the Triune God. When the Spirit came, they received the power to witness about Jesus with actions.
How did people respond to the work of Spirit in the disciples? We know that people were bewildered, amazed, and then perplexed. And we also know that many of those people were eager to join this group of Jesus followers. It seems to me that people today often respond in a similar way when they witness the power of the Spirit moving in and through the life of a community that shares deeply and radically. May the Spirit that was given on Pentecost dwell in us and move in us as it did in the early church community. May others witness our community and want to learn more about this Jesus we follow. May we also receive power from the Spirit--the power to share.
Pastor Sam Gutierrez
“What goes up must come down” is a catchy little phrase that describes a fundamental law of nature—gravity.
However, when it comes to spiritual matters, the exact opposite is true--what comes down must go up (read that 3x and feel your head spin!).
Jesus came down from heaven and took on flesh. He lived, died and rose again from the dead. Forty days later he ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives while his disciples watched him disappear into the clouds. Two angels appeared with the gathered group and asked, “why are you staring up at the clouds, Jesus has been taken from you into heaven…” In other words--what comes down must go up.
One true map that marks the path forward is the life of Jesus. If it’s true of Jesus, it’s true of humanity. Jesus humbled himself and took on human flesh. He also ascended. Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 23:12, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This passage captures this strange spiritual law—what comes down must (or will) go up. If we humble ourselves and bow our knee to Jesus, we’ll ascend too. We’ll rise in the air to meet the Lord Jesus when he comes again in his glory. While we wait for that day, we practice ascension now when we celebrate communion.
Our communion liturgy puts these words before us, “Lift up your hearts… We lift them up to the Lord…” The refrain we say together is more than just a heartfelt expression, it is an acknowledgement that in order to eat and drink the body of Christ, we have to ascend. The Spirit of God will have to lift us up into the heavenly throne room where the body of Christ reigns in glory.
Seminary professor Thomas Boogaart names this reality in his book Heaven Came Down when he says:
"In the Reformed Tradition, communion is ascension. Although very few people realize it, the communion liturgy lifts us up step by step up Jacob’s ladder into the presence of God where Jesus sits on the right hand and the angels and the saints all have their places around the banqueting table… once having passed through the gate of heaven… we add our voices to theirs in singing the song of heaven: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of hosts… having praised the Lord of hosts, we begin the banquet. Jesus is both host and meal. His body and blood are made available to us. During the communion service his Spirit raises us up to heaven, which is the only place where Jesus’ body is available."
This coming Sunday is called Ascension Sunday. Many Christian churches around the world acknowledge and celebrate this important event in the life of Jesus. Jesus had to ascend so that he could take his rightful place at the right hand of God as the exalted King of Heaven and Earth. From there, he will send the promised Spirit to empower the Church to be his hands and feet in the world. As the church does its reconciling work in the world, the Spirit lifts the church into the throne room to be nurtured by the body and the blood of Jesus. We eagerly await the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost, but first, Jesus has to ascend. And, as Jesus ascended, we will too--what comes down must go up!
Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885) captures all of this in his hymn See the Conqueror Mounts In Triumph:
Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand:
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
We by faith behold our own.
By Rev. Sam Gutierrez
For two thousand years, theologians and lay people have gazed at the cross while scratching their heads, pondering the question, “what exactly happened when Jesus died on that cross?” Different theories have developed over time—Moral Influence, Ransom, Christus Victor, and Satisfaction—to name a few.
If you’re looking for something to do today, Google “atonement theories.” You’ll see multiple ways that theologians (including John Calvin) have tried to understand and name what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Some like to argue about which one is “right,” but most people understand atonement theories to be a like a multifaceted diamond. They offer unique but connected perspectives on an event too big and too beautiful for any one theory to completely capture.
Some time ago, I was surprised by one of my seminary professors who described salvation as “the fiery embrace of God”. It came at the end of a fascinating lecture about different theories of atonement. After lecturing about some of these different theories, our professor spent the last 20 minutes giving us an alternative way to think about the saving work of Jesus: the Fiery Embrace of God. I found this image particularly powerful because of how relational it is. As we are still in the season of Easter, I’d like to spend some time looking at three aspects of God’s Fiery Embrace as a way to understand the salvation that Christ accomplished for us on the cross.
First, we encounter God’s embracing arms. God is a relational being who reaches out to us and draws us close to His heart. Salvation is God’s active choice to embrace people—to love us and accept us in our brokenness and sin. This embrace is not only a personal validation of our incredible God-given worth, but it’s also God’s way of connecting us to his family, which we are adopted into. The first movement of salvation is God reaching out to us in an embrace of acceptance, peace, and self-sacrificial love. The challenge for us is to receive this incredible gesture of God and to believe that God is for us in every way.
Second, the embrace of God is no ordinary embrace because His arms are on fire. This fire represents a refining process that burns away impurity and makes us holy. In God’s fiery arms, we are not only accepted, loved, and adopted into a new family, we are also changed. God loves us as we are, but He’s not content to leave us that way. If the initial embrace of God can be described as “justification,” this refining fire of God has been called “sanctification” and speaks of God’s ongoing work to shape us into the image of his Son, Jesus. God’s saving embrace is not just warm and cozy, it is also burning and purifying. In the first movement, our challenge is to return God’s embrace in gratitude. The second challenge is for us to stay in the embrace and to trust God’s love while He refines us—especially when it’s uncomfortable. God is doing a good work in us, and we allow it to be done. We say “yes” to the fiery arms of God’s embrace.
Third, God sends us into the world as embraced people. We take the fiery embrace of God with us as we are sent into the world to participate in His work of reconciliation and renewal. When God embraces us with his fiery arms, he commissions us and sends us into the world as “embraced” people to witness to this love and to invite others into the fiery arms of God.
The fiery embrace of God is another way to ponder the mystery of what Jesus accomplished on that cross two thousand years ago. Whether you prefer atonement theories, fiery hugs, or some other way of understanding God’s amazing grace, the end result should always be the same—to move us towards profound gratitude for what God has done and is doing to make all things new.
By Sam Gutierrez
An angel was walking down the street carrying a torch in one hand and a pail of water in the other. A woman asked the angel, “What are you going to do with the torch and with the pail?” The angel said, “with the torch I’m going to burn down the mansions of heaven, and with the pail I’m going to put out the fires of hell. Then we shall see who really loves God.”
Richard Rohr - Things Hidden 158
A number of years ago I traveled to India with a group from my seminary. During the ten-day journey, we visited a number of Hindu temples. In one temple, while the group moved on with the tour guide, I stayed behind and watched a young man pay devotion to a god cast in stone. With a coordinated display of ear tugging, hand clasping and multiple dips at the knee, he prayed to the stoic deity. As I hastily joined the group again, I found myself thinking about a person in the Bible named Job.
Although they were separated by thousands of years, Job was something like that young man in the temple - appeasing the gods with rituals in exchange for a shower of good fortune. In fact, poring over the first few pages of the book of Job, we discover that Job is a person who seems to do everything right. He is blameless and upright. He offers sacrifices to God on behalf of his children’s unwitting sins. Everything was going well for him - he was wealthy, healthy and his children were, too. It appears as though the sacrifices were working and as a result, the blessings were pouring down.
But then, something happens…
Job gets sick.
Job is in pain.
Job is confused, frustrated, and angry. He turns toward heaven and hurls questions at God about why his suffering is so great. God hears and answers with a series of his own questions. It’s a chess game of interrogation and, in the end, God’s questions overtake Job’s - checkmate. But it’s not a chess game… it’s a strategic strike. Better yet, it’s precision surgery. God’s questions are a fine-tuned instrument by which He skillfully operates in Job’s superstitious and formulaic heart. By the means of question after question, God attempts a very risky procedure: a heart transplant – a new love for God beyond blessings or punishment. Mysteriously, God attempts to give Job this new kind of love by walking with him into and through suffering.
Throughout the book of Job, Job repeatedly asks why he suffers. Ultimately, Job didn’t need an answer to why his suffering was so great. Rather, he needed to know that God was taking his pain, his protest and his petitions seriously. Job needed to know that he could trust in God’s goodness even though all the current evidence was suggesting otherwise. To get to that kind of trust, Job needed to be reminded, through a series of divine questions, that his wisdom and understanding were severely limited. His newly discovered humility opened the door for trust to walk through.
It’s no surprise then that the Job we see at the end of the book is quite different than the one we saw at the beginning. We no longer find Job demanding answers, asserting his own innocence, or offering superstitious sacrifices. Rather, we find a person who trusts God in the midst of swirling injustices and pain. We find a person who trusts in God rather than in his own righteousness, or in spiritual equations (If I do this and abstain from that, God will bless me).
We find a person who prays for his enemies and shares his inheritance with his daughters (a generous act in those days). We find a person who is free enough to “play” – characterized by giving his daughters enchanted names like: Dove, Cinnamon, and Eye Shadow. We find a person who breaks bread and sits down with his family for dinner.
From what we can observe, suffering and pain have done their difficult and risky but important and necessary work in Job’s heart. At the beginning of the book, the “accuser” asserted that Job loved God only because God blesses him. By the end of the book we learn that Job indeed loves God for God’s own sake and not for the blessings God graciously gives.
Truthfully, there is a vibrancy of love and a quality of trust that can only grow in the fields of pain and suffering. While God leads and walks with us through every dark valley, he quietly plants the “loving God more than blessings” seed that can grow only there.