by Regina Herman
When I was about six yrs. old, my parents enrolled me in swimming lessons. Those of you who have taken swimming lessons before know how it works. For the first couple of days, you are taught to tread water and hold your breath. Then you learn how to kick your legs and move your arms simultaneously. Next, you would start to swim, usually with a teacher either standing or swimming next to you the whole time. Finally, when you could swim on your own in the deep end without a teacher beside you, you would be taught to dive into the water from the edge of the pool. It was this last step that I was afraid of the most.
I had made it through all the lessons just fine, but for some reason, the idea of diving head first into a bunch of water was terrifying to me. The night before I was supposed to dive into the water, I stayed up almost all night with my parents crying. I kept thinking about all the terrible things that could go wrong and I remember telling them that I was really scared of diving in head first and that I didn’t want to die. Of course I knew how to swim, but I didn’t trust in my own abilities. I also knew that there were several teachers that would be with me the whole time to help me if I had trouble, but that didn’t really help.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how my parents kept from laughing at me but, instead they calmly told me that I had come this far, that I knew how to swim, and that everything would be alright. I just had to be brave and do it. The next day, I was still scared, but I stood at the edge of the pool, and after standing there for what seemed like a very long time, the teacher in the water said, “Come on, Gina, you can do it!” So, I stretched out my arms and hands in a point over my head, closed my eyes and dove in head first. Immediately my instincts kicked in, and I was able to swim to the top and over to the side of the pool all by myself.
This is one of many moments in my life where I was frightened of something when, in hind sight, I wondered how I ever could have been afraid of something like that. Fortunately, this time, I had my parents and my swim teachers to encourage me and push me enough so that I was able to overcome my fear. This certainly has not always been the case. There have been many times in my life where fear did keep me from doing something that I probably should have done. Many of you, I’m sure, have had similar moments in life - moments where, because you didn’t know the outcome of something or you didn’t like the look or feel of something, you hesitated, you stopped, you were afraid. Perhaps this fear held you back. I would bet the disciples were also afraid and initially questioned doing what Jesus asked them to do in our Gospel lesson for today.
Jesus had just appeared alive before his disciples after his death and now he had some instructions for them. He first opened the disciples’ minds to the Scriptures, so that they could understand what had happened. It is important that they were able to understand that Jesus was the Messiah and had fulfilled all the Scriptures about him, because of what Jesus was going to ask them to do next. According to Luke, Jesus quotes the Scriptures in saying that “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
I’m sure it was immediately clear to the disciples in that room that the last part of this prophecy had not yet been fulfilled and I’m sure the disciples could have guessed what was coming next. Jesus told them, “You are witnesses of these things.” (pause) You are witnesses. You know me. You have been with me, you saw me die, and now you have seen me alive again, resurrected after my death. You have seen that I have fulfilled the Scriptures about me. You are my witnesses. Yet, as we know and as the disciples knew, there is no point in being a witness to something if you do not share it with someone else, if you do not testify to what you know. Jesus is telling the disciples that they must preach repentance and forgiveness to all the nations.
I imagine the disciples at this point are at a loss for words and perhaps are feeling overwhelmed and a little afraid. But that is not all Jesus has to say to them. Jesus will not leave them defenseless. Jesus says he will send upon them what his Father promised. They will be clothed with power from on high, which turns out to be the Holy Spirit in Acts. Then Jesus blesses them and ascends into heaven. Though the end of Luke says they worshiped him, returned to Jerusalem with joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God, it doesn’t specifically tell us what happened immediately after Jesus left them. For this reason, it is interesting to compare this ascension story in Luke to the one told in Acts. In that story, immediately after Jesus ascends into heaven, it says that the disciples are left standing there, staring up into heaven, until two men, dressed in white, who are probably angels, appear and ask them “Why are you standing there? Jesus will return!”
One may ask, like the angels, why are they standing there? Jesus gave them a job to do, so why are they just standing there? Perhaps they were simply awestruck by what they saw. Perhaps they were grieving, because they had lost their teacher – again! (First when he died and now that he has ascended) However, I believe, like in my swim class, they, too, were afraid of diving into the water head first, afraid of the unknown. The disciples, had also gone through many stages or lessons with Jesus. They saw him do miracles and cast out demons. They listened to his teachings. Eventually Jesus sent them out by themselves and gave them the power to do miracles and cast out demons. And now his final command to them is testify to the all the nations the forgiveness that Jesus offers. But this time, Jesus is not physically with them and they are afraid.
They knew that Jesus had died because of his teachings and they were afraid, rightly, that they might die for testifying to what Jesus had done. They were afraid of what was coming next, because they believe Jesus is no longer physically there, by their side, telling them what to do. So they just stood there. They already knew how to swim on their own, for Jesus taught them everything they needed to know. But they didn’t trust their own abilities. Even though Jesus told them that he would clothe them with power from on high and send them something amazing, it just didn’t help. I’m sure they too imagined all the things that could go wrong, so they just stood there, staring up into heaven, frozen with fear. But then two angels appear and give them encouragement. “Come on, disciples, you can do it!” Everything will be alright. Jesus will return. So be brave and just do it.
We know from the story of Pentecost in Acts that the disciples are given the power of the Holy Spirit and do go on to do many amazing things and are amazing witnesses of the story of Jesus. Yes, in the end they did die, some of them in very painful ways, but the job needed to be done and they didn’t let fear hold them back. Today, the job still needs to be done. There are many people who still need to hear the story of Jesus. There are still many people who need to know about the forgiveness, grace and love that Jesus offers to all people. There is still much to do.
Yet today, like the disciples, many Christians are afraid of diving into the water head first. We are afraid of being witnesses. We are afraid of being ridiculed for our opinions. We are afraid to change when confronted with the truth. We are afraid that if we expose our hearts and beliefs to the world, we might lose something – our pride, our dignity, our faith, our identity. We are afraid that if we go out into the world proclaiming the truth, we might not succeed, and, spiritually, we might die. It is easy to imagine all the things that could go wrong if we stepped outside our comfort zone and were bold witnesses of the Gospel and so we too have a tendency to just stand there, at the edge of pool, afraid of what will happen when we dive in head first.
But God has called us to do something more, to be witnesses, and the good news is that we are already well equipped to do it. It is easy to forget that we too are clothed with power from on high. Jesus has not left us defenseless. At baptism, God clothed each of us with the power of the Holy Spirit. At the table, we are empowered through Jesus’ body and blood to go out in the world and be witnesses, clothed with Christ, armed with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, a shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.
We have already gone through all the steps and stages necessary to be witnesses. When God formed each of us in the womb, God equipped us with mouths to speak, ears to hear, eyes to see, and minds to understand. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been equipped with the knowledge of God’s love, forgiveness, and saving grace and a hope that Jesus will come again.
And today, this day, we are equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can live lives worthy of the Gospel. Yes, it is scary to be witnesses, and as Luther said, we do die every day; every day we drown in sin and fear, but only to be resurrected daily to a new life, full of grace and truth. So we must be confident in the knowledge that God gave us. We too must stretch our hands over our heads in praise and in faith, and we just have to dive in, for Jesus sake. Amen.