Homiletic Notes for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010

Guía Diario de Escritura y Oración


“You Are Witnesses of These Things.” Among Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his ascension is this powerful statement, both of fact in the present and commissioning for the future. What you “are,” they might have been surprised to know, is– according to the ancient manuscript– “martyrs,” from the biblical root martys (v. 48). Here, the martyr-witnesses are those who have seen and experienced Jesus’ death and resurrection, and understand their own confession as an historical, corporate reality. In a strange way, Luke’s intriguing account, book-ended by Jerusalem but centering on an unknown village not mentioned in any history, is a template for what it might mean to be a community of such witnesses today. But to start there is of course to tell the conclusion before setting the stage. 

The novelist John Gardner generalized that there are only two plots to all the stories ever told: one being a stranger came to town and the other, someone went on a journey. The two motifs are brought together in Luke’s account of Resurrection Afternoon on the Emmaus road. Two disciples, one named Cleopas and one not named at all, embark on a long walk– perhaps just to get some distance from the grief and perplexity at their backs– and on the way are joined by an engaging stranger who opens the scriptures to them. But even to start with this scene at the heart of Luke’s fascinating chapter is, once again, to leap to barn-raising prematurely before pouring a foundation. For this reason, it behooves us to go all the way back to the hours before so much came clear to the earliest disciples– to contemplate the essential context of the Christian witness–  and then in due time, the conditions of witness, and at last the content of our witness.  

The Context of the Witness:  Deep Dawn

Luke begins his resurrection account after all seems finished. The Crucified has been entombed by Joseph of Arimathea before Sabbath begins, the women following and seeing how the body was laid. The sabbath becomes a silent interlude, itself like a stone sealing the week’s tomb. “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” (24:1)

Richard Spalding, chaplain at Massachusetts’ Williams College, reflects upon the women’s arrival at the tomb via the stunning nuance of Joseph Fitzmyer’s translation:  the Greek orthrou, meaning literally a dawn inscrutable – or “deep dawn.” [1] The description stands for the bewilderment of these hapless followers, as much as our own. Spalding unfolds the metaphor in a way that illumines the process of remembering developed in almost excruciating stages through Luke’s Emmaus story:

 ... there is no comforting boundary to plot at all between light and dark. It isn’t as though the light pushes back the darkness at a line of scrimmage; it’s as though the night infinitesimally turns itself, revealing some startling new side of its nature, one atom at a time. . . Paul is right: “We shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” But, sometimes, we need to approach that change like Luke’s disciples: gradually, ineffably, turning one memory at a time so as to reveal the startling newness of our nature in Christ. In deep dawn. [2]

It is at this “deep dawn” that the women come laden with spices-- not, as we might imagine, to forestall the body’s decomposition or preserve it from death’s ravages, but for a very different purpose. Biblical scholars point out that the practice was used to hasten the work of death while alleviating the stench of it; so that bones could more quickly be transferred to an ossuary, the permanent resting place. What the women naturally bring to this death, thereby, is the means to hasten it, their assent to it now the only choice-- regrettable as it may be, but inevitable. They, and later the two on the road, will have to be coached to see the world as witnesses see it (to be, literally, “re-minded”); and Luke is setting the stage for that to come. Paul would later challenge the church similarly:  “Do not be conformed to this world; but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  While the women’s spices might symbolize a conforming to what the world knows as deathly real, they are quickly met by a tomb that is empty.

The other two synoptic gospels move directly to proclamation: “Do not be afraid,” Matthew has it, where Mark’s wording is “Do not be amazed.” “He is not here; for he has risen...”(cf. Matthew, with the clauses reversed in Mark). Luke, however, proceeds differently. When the women arrive at the opened tomb, the first words from two dazzlingly attired men  who meet them there initiate a “deep dawn” exploration: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  Remember...” (24:5-6)

Then indeed “they remembered his words,” Luke reports, “and returning from the tomb, they told all this...” (24:8-9)  It is remembering that precedes the re-animation of their faith and spurs them to proclamation:  a movement about to be replicated in the next act of the day’s drama.

 The Conditions for the Witness: Instruction, Hospitality, and Remembrance

It is here in the story that Gardner’s age-old motifs arise: the journey and the stranger. Countless times in life, each of us has been on some ordinary road to an Emmaus– with no idea what revelation awaits us there. Somewhere along this road, the one named Cleopas asks the walker who has joined them, ‘‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?. . . The things about Jesus of Nazareth. . .” (24:18)   Sometimes there aren’t sufficient descriptive words to give a clear, precise, verbal witness, particularly when our deep dawn is yet more darkness than twilight; and so we can only speak of “things.”  And yet, in halting terms they were already witnessing to a narrative and experience they themselves couldn’t believe!  It is interesting that these two, implied to be among those (v.11) who did not accept the “idle tale,” have now entered the conversation.  “But we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.”  (24:21) There’s a poignancy in the words, so that this primitive witness just beginning to find its legs contains not only a hope but a disappointment as well. One who preaches Luke 24 might lead listeners to reflect on how the narrow hopes we hold– for destruction of enemies or triumph of a nation– are foiled or exceeded by the unimaginable breadth of a larger witness. Perhaps here is where “witnesses” are truly “martyrs”: those who experience the martyring of what they had formerly hoped, so that a more expansive Life can fill the void.

These witnesses on the road had been “astounded” at their first encounter with the women’s story. What are the hopes to which, with which, your community might witness?  What are their astonishments?  And where lies their perplexity?

Before we are sent to the fields of harvest awaiting us, our gaze is turned backward so that the journey will be rooted in remembrance. Luke’s narrative hints that if witnessing is preceded (or enabled) by remembering, it may well be that the content of witnessing is first reminding hearers of what may already be known, or suspected, but forgotten or long set aside. “Remembering is often the activating of the power of recognition,” notes Fred Craddock [3] . After gently chiding them for their foolishness, the stranger turns their long walk into an interpretive venture. Still, it will not be his words that interpret his next acts, but after they urge him to “stay with us,” his actions themselves that illumine his foregoing words! Witness is born not so much in death and sacrifice as in the context of a conversational journey and at the table of hospitality. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” Perhaps it is in our simple extension of hospitality to the stranger that we are prepared as witnesses! “Often, often, often goes the Christ in a stranger’s guise” chants the traditional Gaelic “Rune of Hospitality.”

We generally associate “martyr,” the root of “witness,” with tales of dramatic or bloody sacrifice; but in its fuller range of meaning, the word is also illumined by the Rt. Rev. Bruce Cameron’s account of the hospitable conversations among the churches of Scotland. The dialogue among them has not yet yielded structural or institutional unity, but an interrelationship that might be termed theologically organic: unity in the midst of differences, a true tartan rather than one homogeneously-dyed cloth. [4]

The eloquent complexity here in Luke, as in our ecumenical experiences, is that the Guest effects a reversal, and becomes Host at the table of grace. In the churches’ Eucharistic liturgies from their beginnings, the breaking of bread is an act of remembering; and the context of remembering is at the table.  It is in that act, that tearing of bread and opening of hand in offering, that their eyes are enlightened: only a split second of recognition, but recognition all the same, “and he vanished from their sight.” (24:31)  In the end, we get only a glimpse to interpret the burning of our hearts. But the story seems to imply that once we do remember, once we recognize him at the table, then we no longer need to see.  What happened on the road only becomes a clear, understandable witness at last in the breaking of bread, the incarnational reminder.

Immediately, then, the Emmaus witnesses spring into action– heading back to Jerusalem, seeking out their companions, narrating– and it is, significantly, while they do so that Jesus again stands among them. In the midst of the witness, the One witnessed to becomes present again. In fact, the earlier pattern of Emmaus is repeated here, [5] the first woven strand of a long braid that will extend through the ages. It is not the end of table fellowship, this remembering and recognition, but in truth the beginning; and it is such a hallmark of how witnesses are born, that Luke plays it back chiastically. The earlier pattern of the narrative now reverses, echoing in an ABCDDCBA pattern:  When Cleopas and his companion arrive back in Jerusalem, they are told of the resurrection by the other disciples gathered there (D: vv. 34 & 32). Then the risen Jesus joins them and is immediately recognized (C: vv. 36 & 31); asks for food and eats with them (B: vv. 41-42 & 30); and then teaches about Moses and the prophets and his own suffering (A: vv. 44-47 & 27).

Luke’s emphasis on remembrance and table fellowship is a natural prelude to the experience of the early church recorded in Acts. There, appearances have ceased (with the ascension); and the process of revelation that impels disciples to witness happens by other means which sound by now strangely familiar: instruction, remembrance, testimony, and more shared meals. Luke 24 offers an almost seamless transition to those new conditions in the church’s life, which extends across centuries to our life together as the community of resurrection faith.

 The Content of the Witness:  A Surprising Inclusivity

Luke 24 is a busy narrative, enough to reassure us as aspiring witnesses that this is no linear endeavor but a complex, braided one, going on all the time around and behind and ahead of us. We have simply to plunge into the stream that is already flowing. First, two “men” announce to the women that he is alive; then the women report that he is alive, and are not believed; then the two on the road voice their hopes, their perplexity, and their continuing disbelief, and receive instruction from a stranger. Finally, it takes eye-opening table fellowship, not merely hearing, to set them back on the road to Jerusalem to resume the cycle of witness. Lo and behold, before they can give their breathless report, the community they had left behind for only a day now witnesses to them.

Who is to say that any of those steps could be omitted in the journey to becoming martys?  What preparation is required to make witnesses?  Perhaps it is not one grand gesture, not one climactic conversion, but all of the little conversions building upon each other, that compel us at last to run quickly and tell.

Finally, Christ declares us “witnesses of these things” (24:48):  among them, the challenge to repent and the message of God’s grace “to all nations” (panta ta ethne). It is a vastly inclusive word. The phrase “all nations” is significant not so much in its geographical scope but in its inclusion of those we would never have chosen naturally. “[A]ccording to Luke the Holy Spirit has moved the church into areas in which it otherwise would not have gone and into activities in which it otherwise would not have engaged.” [6]   To be witnesses of these things is to see the resurrection live among us in startling ways. It is never an onerous burden to carry out, but a self-renewing way of life for those who take care to look around and remember.

The last word is this: There is a “we”– a corporate essence– in the witness to the resurrection. Witnesses are sought out, re-minded, and commissioned, together. They keep each other honest; they verify the truth of a common confession. And in the institution of our witness is the test of our unity. In exploring the content of Christian witness over the years, I too have sat among a company of beloved peers at the table of a lectionary-rooted seminar called The Moveable Feast. I have harkened to their words in order to be re-minded– and have become a better witness myself in their company. I name some of them gratefully here, to acknowledge the particular influence of these on my understanding of Luke 24, and as a way of affirming that the “you” in “witnesses” is always plural:  Christine Chakoian, Cynthia Campbell, Bob Dunham, Mark Barger Elliott, K. C. Ptomey, Jr., Rick Spalding, Jon Walton, Ted Wardlaw, Robin White. Without knowing it, they have accompanied me at table in this reflection, and in the process have attested the Risen Christ to me yet again across long miles. And isn’t that, always, the way of witnesses?


[1] .Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Gospel According to Luke (Anchor Bible) (New York: Doubleday, 1985).

[2] .Spalding, Richard E., in an unpublished paper on Easter Sunday, Year C, dated January, 1997.

[3] .Craddock, Fred B., Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 283.

[4] .See “An Ecumenical Tartan-- Scotland’s Ecumenical Context” elsewhere on this website.

[5] .Noted by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV. (New York: Doubleday, 1985), pp. 1572ff.

[6] .Craddock, Luke, p. 292.


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