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01:00:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1805 words  
Categories: Easter 2013

What are we waiting for?

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
May 12, 2013

O Lord, whom do we have in heaven but you? And having you we desire nothing upon earth, nothing but your presence and the communion of your saints. Come to us now through your holy Word. Feed our minds and our spirits. Prepare our souls for your Table. Then send us to be your Kingdom and priests. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53


Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.  --Psalm 27:14

What are we waiting for? That’s as good a question as any for a church to ask itself. Especially today. Because today we’re remembering the Ascension of Jesus. And after Jesus ascends, the church waits. So, what are we waiting for? 

Go back two thousand years, and it’s easy to know what the church was waiting for. Stay here, Jesus said. Stay here and wait. Stay here and wait for the Holy Spirit. Stay here and wait for power. So they stayed. And they waited. They waited for the Spirit. They waited for power.

And while they waited, they prayed. And while they waited, they got themselves organized, filling the empty place of Judas the betrayer.

They waited, and ten days later the waiting was over. On Pentecost the Spirit came and filled the church with power. That’s what they were waiting for.

That’s what they were waiting for. But what are we waiting for? 

Last Thursday was Ascension Day. Did you miss it? Some of you remember when Christian Reformed congregations used to gather for a special worship service on Ascension Day. On a Thursday! That was a long time ago. Since then, in the church-y equivalent of Monday holidays, Ascension Day was moved to Ascension Sunday. That’s why we’re paying attention to the Ascension today.

Which is a strange thing to do, in some ways. Whether on a Thursday or even on a Sunday. It’s strange to focus on the Ascension by itself. Because it really can’t be separated from the Incarnation and from the public actions of Jesus and from his Resurrection. And it’s especially strange to focus on the waiting part of the Ascension. Because only the first disciples had to wait. We don’t. The Spirit has already come. We already have power. So, what are we waiting for?

We’re waiting for the Kingdom. I think that’s the right answer. Waiting for the Kingdom. Which is where the first disciples of Jesus started. There they were, standing next to Jesus. There they were, eager, on tiptoe. There they were, hardly able to contain themselves. Now? they asked him. Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?

But Jesus didn’t give them an answer. He told them, in effect, that the Kingdom would come when the Kingdom would come. That it was above their pay grade to know any more. That they should just get ready for the Spirit and for the work Jesus had planned.

You will be my witnesses, he told them. That was their job. Telling people what they had seen. Telling people everywhere. In Jerusalem. In Samaria. As far as they could go.

So the Kingdom and the coming of the Kingdom was none of their business. That would be up to God. And that would be up to the king, up to King Jesus, who was about to ascend to heaven. There he would take his throne. There he would begin his reign over all creation. The coming of the Kingdom was his business. Not theirs.

Or was it? Do you remember the story of the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness? Remember? The disciples came to Jesus and said, These people are hungry. And Jesus said, You feed them. Which is exactly what happened.

Oh, Jesus took the bread. And he said a prayer of thanks. And then he broke the bread and gave it to the disciples. But it was the disciples themselves who fed the crowd. Fed them, thousands of them, using a few small loaves and a couple of fish.

We give Jesus the credit for a wilderness miracle. And, yes, Jesus does get the credit. But the disciples fed the crowd. Not Jesus.

So when Jesus tells those same disciples that the Kingdom and the coming of the Kingdom is none of their business, don’t be surprised if there’s more to it than that. And, as it turns out, there is more to it than that.

It’s not up to you to know when the Kingdom comes, Jesus said. You just go and be my witnesses. In other words, You just go and announce the Kingdom. You just go and embody the Kingdom.

It’s a Gospel truth that wherever Jesus is, that’s where the Kingdom is. It’s also a Gospel truth that the church is the body of Christ. That the church is the ongoing, physical presence of Jesus in the world.

Some church traditions talk about the physical presence of Jesus in the bread and the cup of the sacrament. In our tradition, we made a big deal out of discerning the body in the sacrament. Which meant that we needed to know and to understand and to recognize that the bread we beak and the cup we bless are divine instruments that unite us to the body and blood of Christ.

Which is true about the bread and the cup. Though it probably isn’t what the Apostle Paul had in mind. When he talked about discerning the body, he meant recognizing the church. Recognizing that the people of God, that all of us gathered together—we are the body of Christ. And we are. I know it hardly seems like it. But we, the church—we are the ongoing, physical presence of Jesus in the world.

And where Jesus is, that’s where the Kingdom is. So where the church is, that’s where the Kingdom is. Which doesn’t mean that the church is the same thing as the Kingdom. Not at all. (That was a medieval mistake that led to all kinds of mischief and misery.) No. To say that where the church is, that’s where the Kingdom is is to say that the church has the God-given task of making the Kingdom visible.

The disciples ask Jesus, Are you going to restore the Kingdom now? And it’s not just the timing that’s at issue. It’s the expectation that restoring the Kingdom is something Jesus will do. Jesus will do it. All we have to do is wait for it and watch for it. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how the thousands were fed in the wilderness. And that’s not how the Kingdom comes. In the wilderness, the bread was passed out little by little, to one person then to another, not to everyone all at once. That’s how the Kingdom comes. Little by little. A little here, a little there.

Years ago I said we sometimes lament that there’s so little evidence of the Kingdom of God in this world. There’s so little we can point to and say, There! That’s the Kingdom! At that time I said that it was up to the church to fabricate evidence for the Kingdom. I put it that way to be provocative. Not that we’re supposed to make up false evidence, but that we’re supposed to create true evidence. True evidence, because the evidence of the Kingdom will be in how we live, in how we love, in how we pray.

We’re waiting for the Kingdom. That’s a big part of what the Ascension of Jesus means for us. We’re waiting. Waiting for the Kingdom. But we have the power to make the Kingdom visible. We already have that power. It’s the power of grace!

When Martin picks up a hitchhiker and looks after his needs, that’s the Kingdom. When we gather on Wednesday evening to pray, that’s the Kingdom. When you apologize to your wife for being a dope who didn’t treat her with respect, that’s the Kingdom. And when she forgives you, that’s the Kingdom too!

When you hold Linda’s hand and tell her a story and pray with her, that’s the Kingdom. When you give money—real money, not just a dollar or two—when you give to a worthy cause without thinking about your economic self-interest, that’s the Kingdom. And when we have a habit of coming aside to this place week after week—when we could be sipping good coffee and devouring a good book, when we could be golfing—when we gather together here and when we lift up the bread and the cup to remember Jesus, to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, that’s the Kingdom, too. 

Here’s another example. Some people down in Virginia made the Kingdom visible a few days ago. Did you hear about it? It happened on Thursday. On Ascension Day. The day we remember Jesus taking his throne.

You probably know that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, the one who was killed, has been persona non grata, even as a corpse. In a drumbeat of anger and resentment, nobody has wanted to welcome his body for burial. Throw him in a landfill! some people said. Send him back to Russia! some others said. He killed Americans on American soil, so he shouldn’t be buried in American soil! Those were the sentiments.

But we know that’s not what the Kingdom looks like. No. The Kingdom looks like what happened in Virginia. A group of people there from different faith traditions got together and said, Let’s bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev here. Not everyone is happy, of course. But the Kingdom is not about making everyone happy. Especially not people who operate from vengeance instead of from grace.

Jesus said, Love your enemies. And he didn’t just say it. He laid down his life not just for his friends, but for his enemies, too. That’s the Kingdom. And we have the power, the power of grace, to behave that way. We have the power of grace to make the Kingdom visible. Which is what those people in Virginia did. (And don’t think that only Christians can exercise the power of grace. We’re not the only ones. We’re just supposed to be better at it. That’s all!)

What are we waiting for? We’re waiting for the Kingdom. The Kingdom that King Jesus brings. While we wait, we have our part to play too. Making the kingdom visible. A little here, a little there. Even in shocking ways that go against the popular drumbeat. Because, as the wonderful, old hymn puts it,

Not with swords’ loud clashing
or roll of stirring drums—
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly Kingdom comes.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


05:51:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1808 words  
Categories: Easter 2013

Everyone Will Know

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
May 5, 2013

Dear God, where would we be right now without your grace? And who would we be without your love? Would we have any hope without your mercy? Would we have any life in us without your Spirit? And would we have any faith without your Word? O God, once again unveil the truth of your Gospel, the truth that crooked hearts reject, but the truth we live by. Disclose yourself to us, O God, then disclose yourself through us. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 55:1-7
Psalm 133
John 13:31-35

Sermon (with thanks to Harry Winters)

To lay down your life for your friends:
no one has greater love than that.  —John 15:13

On Tuesday evening Harry Winters and I went to church together. It took us over eight hours to get there.

Scott and Christina Schnyders used to be members at Harry’s church in Akron. They had invited him to a very special worship service. In the northeast corner of Tennessee. Harry asked me to go along. So we met Tuesday morning in Cambridge and drove the rest of the way together.

First we met up with Scott and Christina. Then with David Butzu, who is the creative force behind the worship service. It’s called Adoration. And David has used his musical gifts and his extensive knowledge of church history and the history of worship to give Adoration its shape. After visiting for a while, we went to a Thai restaurant in Johnson City for supper. David left us early to go and prepare for the Adoration service.

The service began at nine o’clock. When it ended at about ten-thirty, I sent Jan a text message. I said, Stunning, simply stunningly beautiful. And it was. From the music—and almost the entire service was sung—from the music to the reading of the Scriptures, from the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving to the sharing of the Eucharist, the service was simply, stunningly beautiful. And in the middle of it all, Harry delivered the homily.

I was beaming while Harry spoke. Because he’s my friend and the folks in Tennessee had honored him with the invitation to speak. And because what he said was filled with grace, even as it challenged all of us to faithfulness. Sitting there listening, I knew in my heart that we need to hear what Harry had to say. So this morning I intend to draw heavily on his words, and I will to hope to convey some of his heart.

Do any of you remember Out of Africa? One story line in that book—and in the movie, too—is about a boy named Kitau. He shows up one day and asks Isak Dinesen for a job. He wants to work as a servant in her house. Dinesen hires him, and he turns out to be a great worker. But Kitau surprises Dinesen three months later, when he asks for a letter of recommendation. A letter to Sheik Ali bin Salim, who lives in a nearby town. Dinesen doesn’t want Kitau to leave. She offers to raise his pay. But he’s not interested in money. He has something else in mind.

Kitau has decided to become a Christian—or a Muslim. He’s not sure which. Not yet. That’s why he came to work for Dinesen. He wanted to see up close how a Christian lives. And that’s why he wants to work for bin Salim. He wants to see up close how a Muslim lives. Christian or Muslim? Kitau will decide by what he sees.

Dinesen regrets not knowing this beforehand. Had she known, she would have been careful to live a better life when Kitau was with her!

What if someone moved into your house tomorrow? Moved into your house to watch you. What would they see? And what would they decide about your faith? Think about that for a moment.

Think about your good side. Your kindness. Your generosity. Your gentleness. Your joy. Your way of accepting and encouraging people. And all the other good parts about how you live. Think for a minute about all the ways you reflect your Christian character.

Now think about the other parts. The hidden parts. The secret parts. Think about the side of you that your family sees, because you can’t keep it bottled up all the time. Think about your anger. Your harsh words. Your judgments. Your obsession with money. Think about your selfish parts. About your critical and nasty parts. Think for a moment about all the parts of your life that would embarrass you if we all knew about them.

If Kitau lived with you, would he understand who Jesus is by watching you? And would he choose to become a Christian because of how you live? That’s a heavy question, don’t you think?

In today’s Gospel, the end is closing in on Jesus. Judas has just left on his errand of betrayal. But Jesus is getting in a few, final lessons with the other disciples. He’s down to the important stuff. To the essence of what it means to follow him. He tells them, I’ve loved you so that you will love one another. People will know that you’re my disciples because you love one another. That’s the heart of it all.

But isn’t that curious? It’s not: Everyone will know that you’re my disciples by the theological lines you draw. It’s not: Everyone will know that you’re my disciples by the creeds you recite. It’s not: Everyone will know that you’re my disciples by what you think. Instead it’s: Everyone will know that you’re my disciples because you love one another. Because you love one another.

And what’s love? Love is a lot of things. But Jesus touches the molten center of love when he tells the disciples: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends . . . (John 15.13-14a).

Jesus is not talking theory with his disciples. He sees the end coming. He knows he will have to leave them soon. He knows he’s going to be killed. But he also knows that by willingly giving himself up to this death, he is doing the greatest thing he can do for his disciples, the greatest thing he can do for the whole world. And his sacrifice will be his glory. For two thousand years now, Jesus has been glorified because of his sacrifice. That’s why we are here. Because Jesus is the friend who dies for us.

And because Jesus is the friend who dies for us, you are to be the friend and I am to be the friend who dies for others.

Suppose someone did come to live with you. Would she see you following Jesus? Would she see you sacrificing yourself for others? As people watch you, what do they see? As people get to know you, what do they see? Do they know that you follow Jesus? Can they see your love? Can they see how you sacrifice yourself for others?

Jesus teaches that if you want to know if someone is his follower, then don’t listen to their words or read their creeds, instead, look at their life. Is it filled with love? Do they sacrifice themselves for others? If so, then you’ve discovered one of his disciples.

I want to mention three examples of this kind of love. Examples that I have seen lately. Not lay-down-your-life-and-die kind of love. Not that extreme. But get-out-of-yourself kind of love. Get-out-of-yourself love, which is where all love begins.

First of all, a couple of months ago, Ivory England and her band Under the Docks played a set at the Newport. The Newport is on the east edge of the OSU campus. If I had to guess, I would say that most of us have never been to the Newport. Or if we have been, it was a long time ago. So the Newport is not a snug fit within our comfort zone. Nevertheless, about dozen people from this church family were there that evening. There not because they were in the mood for some loud music. There not because they wanted to join a bunch of teens and twenty-somethings in the latest version of dancing. No. Everyone was there because they love Ivory. Because they wanted Ivory to know that. And because they wanted to say, Go, Ivory! We’ve been watching you. And we’re proud of you! That’s love, I’d say.

Then there was last weekend. Tessa Grindle-deGraaf is about to graduate from Calvin College. Last Saturday was her senior recital. More than a half dozen people from this church family were there. At Calvin. In Grand Rapids, Michigan. For a lot of us, Grand Rapids is a comfort zone. So is Calvin. But it’s a long drive to that comfort zone. Yet that didn’t matter. People wanted to be there. Not because they love music, but because they love Tessa. Because they wanted Tessa to know that. Because they wanted to say, Go, Tessa! We’ve been watching you. And we’re proud of you! That too is love, I’d say.

And let me give you a third example. Last Tuesday evening, down there in northeastern Tennessee, at a church, at a service of Adoration, I was overwhelmed by the beauty. I was overcome by the grace of God that was filling that place and those people. As I walked up to receive the bread and the cup, I started to cry. As I walked away with the body and blood of Christ in my mouth, I started to sob. By the time I made it back to my seat, I was bawling. And then something amazing happened. Something wonderful. My friend Harry reached over and put his arm around me. Then he leaned his head against my shoulder. And he comforted me. That’s love, I’d say.

Jesus said, Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. What do people see when they look at you? Do people describe you as loving? As someone who gets out of herself? As someone who sacrifices himself? As someone who imitates Jesus? Is that how people describe you?

Saint Jerome, who died in A.D. 420, tells a little story about Saint John. Apparently, in his old age, John, like some people we know, got into the habit of repeating a phrase over and over again. As is often the case, it was a phrase that he had learned a long time before, when he was still a young man. Now old, he repeated it over and over: My little children, love one another (Ad Galatianos 3.6.10).

My little children, love one another. Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


03:35:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1802 words  
Categories: Easter 2013

A New Heaven and a New Earth

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
April 28, 2013

Jesus, our God, your sacred presence surrounds us. More real and more vital to us than the air we breathe. Sharpen our spiritual senses. Take our dullness away. Be our light, and we will see. Be our hope, and we will work. Be our joy, and we will dance. Be our peace, and we will rest. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.  —Ecclesiastes 1:9

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. I may not remember much from the 60s—I think that’s supposed to prove I was there!—but I do remember a slogan that was everywhere in those days. New and improved. Colgate toothpaste was new and improved. Tide laundry detergent was new and improved. Nuclear missiles were new and improved. Things were getting better, getting better all the time. That was an article of our national faith.

New and improved. The slogan made a simple point. What we’ve seen so far, what we’ve known so far, what we’ve owned so far . . . none of it is good enough. But never fear. The solution is just around the corner. Or even on sale right now. Whether new and improved Kellogg’s Raisin Bran. (Now with more raisins! Two scoops.) Or the new and improved Gillette Trac II razor. (Now with twin blades!)

One of my favorite product lines from those good old days were the brand new, advanced, state-of-the-art, transistorized guitar amplifiers. The companies that made those amplifiers, Fender, Kustom, Alamo . . . the companies promised a better musical day. But you know what? Forty-five years later, we still use these. Vacuum tubes. The amplifier I had up here a couple of weeks ago is full of them.

Most of the time, we don’t need new and improved. Often new and improved is just the same old thing in a new wrapper. (Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!)

But what about this from the Bible? He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5). “I am making everything new!” Is that a marketing slogan? Does God have something to sell? Does God have product to move? And if that’s not the case, are we at least talking about something real, something we can get our hands on? Or is it a dream? Something slippery, like a cloud?

We’ve seen the old. We deal with the old every day. Maybe it’s a creaky old Honda that we’ve nursed along to 300,000 miles. Maybe it’s the creaky joints of these aging bodies of ours as they wear out. Maybe it’s the all-too-familiar stories of corner-cutting and rule-breaking that lead to disaster, whether in Texas or in Bangladesh.

We know the old. It’s the stuff of everyday life. There’s nothing new under the sun. That’s what the proverb says. And it’s true. But we’re tired of the same old same old. We’re ready for the dream. We’re ready for everything new. Especially if that means everything improved! But when is it ever going to happen?

Revelation 21 tells a story we’ve heard before. It’s an old story. It’s not a new and improved story. But it is a story about something new. Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . (Revelation 21:1-2).

That’s the end of the great biblical story. That’s where things are going to wind up. It’s a new creation. A new creation instead of this old creation. This old creation that really needs improvement.

But is Revelation 21 a “some day” story? Some day God will come to us. Some day God will put this mess right. Some day everything will be new. (And improved!) Well, yes. Revelation 21 is a “some day” story. The kind of story that keeps hope alive while we’re stuck here, enduring the old and unimproved. Revelation 21 is a “some day” story. But is that all it is?

No. At its heart, Revelation 21 is a Gospel story. Let me show you what I mean by that. Revelation 21 says: I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them” (v. 3). That’s the hope we connect with the future, with “some day.” It’s also a hope that fit squarely within the tradition of first-century Judaism. A hope that was all about the presence of God with his people.

So here’s the question. When does Revelation 21 happen? When is God fully, wonderfully present to his people? When is God among his people, but in a new way, in a way that makes everything new? Are we waiting for that to happen in some far-off future, still waiting the way we’ve been waiting for two thousand years? Or is there more to it than that? Is there something else to it?

In first-century Judaism, God was present in three main ways. First, the shekinah, which is the dwelling-place of God. Second, the memra, which is the Word of God. And third, the yeqara, which is the glory of God. With that in mind, listen to John 1:14: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory . . . Now let me say it again, this time putting in those Hebrew words: The memra/the Word became flesh and made his shekinah/his dwelling among us. We have seen his yeqara/his glory . . . Add this up, and it means that Revelation 21 is not just a “some day” story. It’s an “already” story.

In Jesus Christ, God has already come to dwell with us. And in Jesus Christ, God already makes everything new. Already. This is true in principle. And it’s true in process. For true in principle, listen to 2 Corinthians 5:17: If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! This means everything is different. And this means we can’t look at things the same old way (v. 16).

But not only is it true in principle, that in Jesus Christ God makes everything new. It’s also true in process. Listen to Colossians 3: You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (vv. 9b-10). Everything is new, and we are being made new.

This means that, for us, heaven is not just a “some day” reality. Heaven is not faraway in time and space. The new Jerusalem is not faraway in time and space. In Jesus Christ, the new heaven and the new earth are already here. In Jesus Christ, the New Jerusalem is already here. Oh, it’s still coming. Nevertheless, it is already here. Here’s how Eugene Peterson has put it. And I think he’s on the mark.

Many people want to go to heaven the way they want to go to Florida—they think the weather will be an improvement and the people decent. But the biblical heaven is not a nice environment far removed from the stress of hard city life. It is the invasion of the city by the City. We enter heaven not by escaping what we don’t like, but by the sanctification of the place in which God has placed us. (Reversed Thunder, p. 174)

Heaven is not far away in time and space. Yes, heaven is coming. But heaven is here. Heaven is now. Can you see it? With new eyes, can you see it? With eyes that don’t look at things the same old way, can you see it?

When we welcome young children in the name of the Lord, when we baptize them and welcome them into the family of God, when we teach them the old, old story of Jesus and his love, when we bless them and feed them at the Table of the Lord, in other words, when the church lives out its calling to be the mother of the faithful, that’s heaven here now.

When disciples of Jesus Christ spend time with the poor or with prisoners, building homes, building relationships, building hope, that’s heaven here now.

When music erupts with joy to celebrate the color and wonder of life and gives praise to the Creator of life, that’s heaven here now.

It’s a beautiful day. It’s a new day. And it’s here already in countless ways. If we open our eyes, we’ll see it. We’ll see Christ at work among us. We’ll see Christ at work in others. We’ll recognize God with us, here now, doing a new thing, seasoning us through struggle and difficulty, until we burst with flavor.

What we can see, with our eyes open, is heaven on earth. Really.

But maybe that’s not enough for us. Maybe that all sounds like pious wishful thinking. Maybe. But no more so than the “some day” vision of a new and improved world. And God gives us good reason for wishful thinking, for hope-filled thinking.

In a few minutes, it will happen right here among us. Actually, it’s already been happening here all morning. Heaven on earth, I mean. Because here we are sitting (and in a few minutes we’ll be standing), here we are with our feet firmly planted on this earth. But Jesus is among us, as he promised.

His shekinah, his dwelling, is here with us and wherever two or three gather in his name. And his memra, his Word, has been with us. Because we have been listening to the Word and taking the Word on our own lips through the liturgy. And in a few minutes, we will see his yeqara, his glory, the glory he revealed on the cross. We will see his glory, because he will be before us in the bread and the cup. And we’ll see his body and blood.

In just a few minutes, we will lift up the cup of salvation with thanksgiving in our hearts, thanksgiving especially that Jesus is here. And we will take in our hands, we will receive into our beggar’s bowls, the bread of heaven. And what we will eat and drink won’t be a dream. And it won’t be a cloud. And in fact, it won’t even be new and improved. It will the same old thing the church received in the beginning and has passed on ever since. The same old thing that makes us new every time.

Jesus said, I am making everything new. And we know he is. Because his words are trustworthy and true (v. 6).

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


07:50:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 2497 words  
Categories: Easter 2013

The Mystery of Election

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
April 21, 2013

O God, we find ourselves immersed in mystery. The mystery of life itself, and the mystery of death. The mystery of desire, and the mystery of mind. The mystery of laughter, and the mystery of tears.

Immersed as we are in such mystery, come and surround us by the mystery of you. The mystery of the Holy Trinity, and the mystery of grace. The mystery of forgiveness, and the mystery of love. The mystery of the Word, and the mystery of the Table. The mystery of the Church, and the mystery of the Kingdom.

Conform us to holy mysteries, O God, as you visit us today and as you go with us from this place. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Confessional Statements
God decreed to give to Christ those chosen for salvation, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through the Word and Spirit. In other words, God decreed to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of the Son, to glorify them.  (Canons of Dort 1.7)

What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?
I believe that the Son of God
through his Spirit and Word,
out of the entire human race,
from the beginning of the world to its end,
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself
a community chosen for eternal life
and united in true faith.
And of this community I am and always will be
a living member.  (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54)


A thousand shall fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand,
but it shall not come near you.  (Psalm 91:7)

Last Monday, Lu Lingzi, a graduate student at Boston University, went with two friends to watch the Boston Marathon. They were standing together, not far from the finish line, when two bombs exploded. Lu Lingzi was killed. One of her friends was wounded. The other friend was uninjured.

So, in addition to the so-far-unanswered question of why the Tsarnaev brothers planted the two bombs, we have another question to ponder. Three friends standing together to watch the race. Why was only one of the three killed, only one of the three wounded, only one of the three spared?

Why? Who knows? Things like this are random. Apparently being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be measured in seconds and centimeters. That’s probably as good an answer as we can expect. Though it hardly seems fair. And it certainly isn’t very reassuring.

One person lives. One person is wounded. One person dies. And we don’t know why. It’s a mystery. And we’re left to wonder, what if we had been at the race? What if we had been standing there with a couple of friends? Would we be here this morning? Would we be in a hospital bed? Or would we have returned to dust and ashes? Again, we don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Three sisters grow up in the same home. They eat at the same table. They hear the same stories. They love the same dog. They go to the same schools. One sister hears the gospel, and it melts her heart. One sister hears the gospel, and it has no effect. One sister hears the gospel, and she rejects it outright. Why? Why one and not the others?

It’s a mystery. What more can we say? Is there anything more to say? Probably not. But what if the three sisters are your children? What if it’s your son whose heart melts with the love of Jesus? What if it’s your son who can’t be bothered? What if it’s your son whose heart turns to ice and stone? It’s a mystery. It’s still a mystery. But is that all there is to say?

When Tabitha died, the small Christian community in Joppa was heart-broken. They had loved Tabitha. Tabitha had loved them. Now she was gone, and there was nothing to be done about it. Except to handle her body with respect and prepare it for burial. But when Peter came, a miracle happened.

Jesus had told Peter, Follow me. Which he did. Peter followed Jesus by doing what Jesus himself had done. He sent everyone from the room. Then he told dead Tabitha to get up. Which she did.

The small Christian community in Joppa was filled with joy. And the news about Tabitha spread all over the city. Good news! A dead woman is alive again! When they heard the news, many people in Joppa believed in the Lord. But not all of them. Why? Why did one believe and not another? Who knows? It’s a mystery.

It’s a mystery. But it’s not random. It’s a mystery. But it’s not accidental. It’s a mystery. But it’s not luck of the draw. 

People were putting pressure on Jesus. Are you the Messiah or not? Tell us plainly! But Jesus wouldn’t do it. He said, I already have told you, but you don’t believe. Not that he had told them in so many words, I am the Messiah. No. He let his actions do the talking for him.

Do you remember when John the Baptist sent a message to Jesus? He said, Are you the one we’re waiting for or not? Jesus didn’t answer John by saying, Yes or No. He said, Tell John what I’ve been doing. Tell him the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, and the poor are hearing good news. In other words, Jesus let his actions do the talking for him.

Now, when people were putting pressure on Jesus to declare himself openly, that’s what he pointed them to. His actions. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me. That’s all he said.

But somehow, for some reason, these actions, which spoke so clearly for Jesus, these actions didn’t get through to some of them. For some reason, they didn’t believe in Jesus. They didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They didn’t believe that God, the God of Israel, was right in front of them in the person of Jesus.

Why didn’t they believe, some of them? Others did. How come they didn’t? Why? It was a mystery. But it wasn’t random. It was a mystery. But it wasn’t accidental. It was a mystery. But it wasn’t luck of the draw. No. Jesus told them, You don’t believe because you are not my sheep. You don’t believe because you haven’t been given to me by my Father. Others have been given to me, but you haven’t. That’s why you don’t believe. In other words, it’s up to God. God decides. God chooses.

In our tradition, we call this election. Election is a mystery. Or maybe I should say election seeks to explain a mystery. The mystery of why one person believes and another person doesn’t. Even when they ate at the same table. Even when they heard the same stories. Even when they loved the same dog.

Election has some baggage that it carries around. Mostly it’s the question of fairness. It’s not fair that one person believes and another doesn’t. Not when it’s God who does the electing. Not when it’s God who does the choosing.

It’s not fair that Lu Lingzi died last Monday. She died and one of her friends was wounded. She died and one of her friends was spared. It isn’t fair. But what would be fair? Would it be fair if all three of them died? Would it be fair if all three of them were spared? Would it be fair if all three of them were spared, while eight year old Martin Richard died? Would it be fair if everyone was spared?

But that would mean no bombs. And that would mean a world without violence. That would be wonderful. But we’re not there yet. And until we get there—in God’s time and by God’s grace—until we get there, some people will die and some people will be spared. And it seems like “fair” has nothing to do with it. Because it does seem random. It does seem accidental. It does seem to be the luck of the draw.

But election is different. It’s not random, who believes in Jesus and who doesn’t. It’s not accidental, who has faith and who doesn’t. It’s not luck of the draw. It’s God’s decision. It’s God’s choosing. God chooses some people and gives them to Jesus. God chooses some people, and he doesn’t choose others. Why? Who knows? It’s a mystery.

But is it fair? Is it fair that God chooses some people and not others? Is it fair for God to play favorites like that?

Well, it’s not about favorites. It only seems to be about favorites if we think of election as only about blessing. Certainly it is a blessing to have faith in Jesus. It is a blessing to be part of the holy church. It is a blessing to be part of a community of faith where we hear the Word over and over again. It is a blessing to be part of a community of faith where we receive the bread and the cup again and again, where we feed on Jesus himself. It is a blessing to be assured of a place in the coming kingdom of God.

But God’s choosing, God’s election, isn’t only about blessing. Well, not only about the blessing of those who are chosen. God’s election is about the blessing of the world.

The whole story of God’s saving love in the Bible is a story of election. It’s a story of God choosing one and not another. God chose Abraham and not Lot. God chose Jacob and not Esau. God chose Judah and not Ephraim. God chose David and none of his brothers. Then, as the first and the last, God chose Jesus. God also chooses you and me.

But always God chooses one and not another for sake of all. Because God loves the world. God chose Abraham not just so that Abraham would be blessed, but so that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. And God chose Jesus not to bless a few, but to be the Savior of the world. To be the source of blessing not to a limited number, but to a multitude beyond counting.

In Revelation 7, John hears the roll call of the chosen. Twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve times twelve thousand. That’s one hundred forty-four thousand. That’s what John hears. A definite number. A limited number. That’s what John hears. But that’s not what John sees. Listen:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9)

That’s why God chose Abraham. To bless the countless multitude. And that’s why God chooses you and chooses me.

Usually our thinking about election begins and ends with the question of who goes to heaven. But we should always be careful about that. Because God chooses people not first of all so that we can go to heaven, but so that we can be bearers of the good news to this world. So that we can be the kingdom of God amidst the kingdoms of this world. God chooses us so that we can be people who live a different way. People who model for the world a different way to be human. A different way. God’s way. And God chooses us so that we can be priests. Priests who pray for the world. Priests who pray for particular people. Priests who pray for a world and for people who can’t pray for themselves or who won’t pray for themselves.

That’s what election is for. It’s not just about going to heaven.

Our thinking about election also runs to that other question. The question of why one person and not another. Why my son and not my daughter? Why me and not my sister?

I want to say two things about that. First of all, election is God’s business. God chooses for God’s own reasons. And to us it’s a mystery. It always has been and always will be. But there’s a second thing I want to say. And that is that we can’t be so sure who is and who isn’t chosen. Jesus said, By their fruit you will know them. And that is true. The chosen bear fruit. And the chief fruit is faith, living faith in Jesus, faith that leads us to seek the Kingdom of God first of all and to seek the ways of the Kingdom.

But we don’t know who God has chosen, even among the people closest to us. And God’s choice of a person may not become evident for a long time. So we pray. And we keep on praying. And it makes sense for us to pray. Because we don’t know God’s choices. And we don’t know how God will bring those choices to expression. Perhaps it will happen through our prayers. So we pray.

I knew an old woman years ago. She grieved over her son because he had walked away from the faith. She had raised him in the church. She had taught him to pray. She had modeled faithfulness to him. Still he walked away from the faith. And he moved a thousand miles away.

But not only did the old woman grieve for her son. She also grieved for his children, for her grandson and her granddaughter. Because they were growing up outside the church. Because they were growing up without a model of faithfulness to show them the way. Because no one was there to teach them to pray.

But she didn’t just grieve. She also prayed. She prayed for her son. And she prayed for her grandson and her granddaughter. Every day. She prayed, and she waited. And the matter weighed heavily on her. She mentioned it to me often.

I’ll never forget the day I went to see her and she had news. A letter from her grandchildren. Oma, it said, we know you’ve been worried about us. And we know you’ve been praying for us. Keep praying. But don’t worry anymore. Because we both love Jesus! The joy on her face as she told me the story! I’ll never forget it.

Why does one person believe in Jesus and not another? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But God is good. God loves this world and all its peoples. God loves this world enough to send Jesus. And by the Holy Spirit and the Word, Jesus is gathering a church so grand, so glorious, that like the stars in a million galaxies, we could never count everyone who is within its embrace.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.



01:02:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 2082 words  
Categories: Easter 2013

Jesus Annoys Peter

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
April 14, 2013

Lord Jesus, you were here first today. Before any of us arrived, you were here ready to greet us. We can hardly believe it. We know there’s no place on earth where we can escape your presence. We know that your Holy Spirit inhabits this world, filling it with your grace. But there’s something special about this place. Not the bricks and blocks and timbers. There’s something special about what happens here, what’s been happening here for a long time. This is where we meet together with you. And we might skip some Sundays. But you don’t. Whenever we gather, wherever we gather, there you are. Here you are. Here today. Here right now. Talk to us, Jesus. Tell us just what you want us to hear today. Help us to settle in and listen. And to hear your voice. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Acts 9:1-9
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

For God alone my soul in silence waits;
from God comes my salvation.
Psalm 62:1

Peter was annoyed. And why not? Jesus kept asking him the same question. He could only take so much of that. Even from Jesus.

Jan warned me years ago. Don’t repeat yourself in your sermons. Don’t be one of those ministers who says everything three times. We heard you the first time! For the most part, I’ve listened to Jan’s advice all these years. Oh, once in a while I’ll repeat something. Rarely I’ll even say something three times. But I know if I made a habit of repeating myself, Jan would be annoyed. She probably wouldn’t be the only one.

Jesus was not in the habit of repeating himself. But this day was different. And he had his reasons. So he asked Peter a question, the same question, three times. And Peter was annoyed. I know, the translations usually say that Peter was hurt. And there may be something to that. But more than anything, I think Peter was a little frustrated with Jesus. He was annoyed.

I wonder if Saul was annoyed with Jesus. He had his plan all worked out. He had his letters of reference in his satchel. He was ready to take Damascus by storm. Ready to root out the Jesus-people. But Jesus had other plans for Saul. And he stopped him in his tracks. Knocked him to the ground. Overwhelmed his eyes. Filled his ears. Sent him to Damascus not to bring a storm. Sent him to Damascus to sit and wait. For three days.

Saul was a fireball. I wonder if he was annoyed. Annoyed with Jesus. Annoyed with the disruption. Annoyed with having to wait.

I think that’s what was annoying Peter, the interruption, more than the repetition itself. Most interpreters say the repetition was the way Jesus responded to Peter’s repeated denials. Three times Peter denied Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, Do you love me? Maybe that is why Jesus repeated himself. But I’m not so sure. I think maybe something else was going on. Something else that annoyed Peter.

We meet Peter over and over in the pages of the gospels. Like Saul, Peter is a fireball. Peter is a man of action. He can’t keep his mouth shut. He can’t keep still. Peter is always working on something. He always has an idea he wants to try.

  • When Jesus was walking on the stormy waters of the lake, who got out of the boat and started walking toward Jesus? Peter. Of course. (Cf. Matthew 14:28ff.)
  • On the mount of Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah showed up to talk with Jesus, who wanted to start a construction project? Who wanted to put up three shelters, right there on the mountain? Peter. Of course. (Cf. Matthew 17:4.)
  • In the garden of Gethsemane, when the squad of temple police came to arrest Jesus, who took a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant? Peter. Of course. (Cf. John 18:10.)
  • When two disciples ran to the empty tomb, who was the first to go inside? Peter. Of course. (Cf. John 20:6.)
  • After the resurrection, after Jesus had appeared to the disciples a couple of times, when there was a lull and nothing to do but wait, who couldn’t stand it any more? Who said, I’m going fishing? Peter. Of course. (Cf. John 21:3.)

Peter can’t keep still. Peter always has to have something to do. Peter is impatient. He’s not crazy about stopping so someone can ask him a question. And he’s really not crazy about someone asking him the same question three times. That’s annoying. And it’s getting in the way.

I think that’s exactly what Jesus wanted to do. I think he wanted to get in Peter’s way. I think he wanted to slow Peter down. I think he’s telling Peter, Hey! Take a chill pill. Just relax. Stop for a minute. Stop for an hour. Focus. Peter has a tendency to get distracted and to miss what matters. Peter is like Martha from Bethany, busy, busy, busy. He’s not like Martha’s sister Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet. Which, Jesus said, was the better choice. (Cf. Luke 10:38-42.)

Peter is like Martha. As such, he tends to miss things. Things that really matter. That can happen to busy people. And I know some of you are busy people. Like Peter. Really busy.

Some of you are busy by temperament. It goes against your nature to sit still. Some of you are busy by necessity. Life comes at you fast. And it pushes you first into one thing then into another. Like it or not, life keeps you busy. So busy that you can miss things. Things that really matter.

Did you notice that it wasn’t Peter, busy Peter, who recognized Jesus? No. It was the beloved disciple. The disciple who had leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper (cf. John 13:23; 21:20). The disciple for whom being with Jesus was more important than being busy. He was a Son of Thunder (cf. Mark 3:17). But by the end, he had stopped rumbling. By the end, he had made the better choice. By the end, he put being close to Jesus first. So it’s no surprise that he is the one to recognize Jesus there on the shore. Not Peter.

But Jesus is working on Peter. Getting him to slow down. Getting him to focus. Forget your plans, Peter. Forget the one hundred one things you think you need to do. It comes down to this. Do you love me? Then look after my flock. Peter, you’re not listening. Peter, stop. Pay attention. Do you love me? Then look after my flock. Peter. Peter. Wait. Wait. Relax. Let go. Peter, do you love me? Then look after my flock.

That’s what matters. Loving Jesus. That’s what matters for Peter. That’s what matters for us. But our own busyness and our own agendas can get in the way of just loving Jesus.

Wednesday Prayers can be a blessing. Wednesday Prayers can also be a challenge. Some of you have wrestled with that. Oh, we’re busy enough during Wednesday Prayers. But patience is the key word. We patiently sing a song over and over instead of rushing to the next thing. We pause. We wait.

And we keep silence. Silence for thinking. Silence for praying. Silence simply to do nothing in the presence of God. That can be a challenge. Especially if we’re not the kind of people who know how to sit still. Especially if we just want to get on with the next thing and be done with it.

But the question from Jesus on Wednesday nights is, Do you love me? Because if we do, then we have the opportunity and the privilege to stop what we’re doing and to spend some quiet time together with Jesus. To enjoy his presence. To feel his love.

Every day of your life, you have plenty to do. You have a list. You check off as much as you can each day. But there’s always more list than there is day. So you stay busy. Constantly on the move from one thing to the next. Well, that stops here on Sunday morning. And that stops here on Wednesday evening.

Sunday morning is not one more item on the to-do list. Wednesday evening is not one more item on the to-do list. These times together, together with Jesus—these times serve as the foundation, the stable foundation, of everything we do and everything we are.

Here, through the Word, we get the story straight. God’s story. The world’s story. Our own story. These are the stories we live by. That’s why we keep coming back again and again. Because as soon as we leave this place, the world will start telling us its own version of the stories. Actually, we don’t even have to leave this place for that to start. Because the world and its stories—stories about what’s real, stories about what really matters—the world and its stories are everywhere.

The world’s version of reality inhabits the smartphones in our purses and pockets. The world’s version of reality inhabits the credit cards and the cash in our wallets. The world’s version of reality inhabits the daydreams and desires we bring with us every time we gather together. 

But there’s one story that puts every other story in its place. The story of Jesus and his love. It’s a sure thing, that story. There’s never a question whether Jesus loves us. His love is constant. He loved us before we were conceived. He loves us when we are at our most unlovable. He always will love us. There’s never a question about the love of Jesus. The question is whether we love Jesus in return. That’s the question Jesus puts to Peter.

The question is whether we love Jesus. And whether our love, which is only a response to his love, whether our love will move us to lose ourselves in Jesus. To be like the beloved disciple and to snuggle up close to Jesus. To be like Mary, at the feet of Jesus. To be like Peter, finally, doing the one thing that matters.

Peter had his role to play. Look after my flock, Jesus told him. But Peter, like all the rest of us, had one thing to do. Which is where it all starts. Which is where life begins for us. Which is where our life draws its meaning. Follow me, Jesus said. He said it to Peter. He says it to us. Follow me. 

And the first part of following is to get close to Jesus. To get close to Jesus and to stay close to him. To lean on him. To draw our life from him. That’s why we’re here today. We’re here today to draw life from his Word. And we’re here today to draw life from his Body and Blood. That’s how we live. That’s how we are able follow Jesus in this world.

We draw near to him. (It starts with Jesus, of course. He has already drawn near to us.) We draw near to him. We set aside our busyness. We put away our phones and our calendars and our watches. We put away our hurry. We put away our constant need to be doing something, anything. And we settle in to spend some time together with Jesus. To listen to his voice. And to take the bread and the cup from his hand.

There will be enough reason to get busy tomorrow. Maybe even later today. But for now, on Sunday morning, we don’t have to be busy. And by Wednesday evening, after the world has had a few days to wind our mainspring tight, we can come here again and settle in for a little while. Not worrying about starting and ending on time. Not worrying about getting on to the next thing. Only welcoming the presence of Jesus. And rejoicing that he is here to meet us, always he is here to meet us, in the Word and at the Table.

It may be the same thing over and over again. The same thing over and over again. The same thing over and over again. And that may annoy busy people. But it doesn’t annoy people in love.

Do you love me? Jesus asks. That’s the question. 

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


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