Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — Week of Prayer for Christian Unity                                                                                                                                  2010

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On June 14, 1910, some twelve hundred delegates gathered in the beautiful and blustery city of Edinburgh. They made their way to the great Assembly Hall of the United Free Church of Scotland. For the next ten days they would listen as speaker after speaker bore witness to what they had seen and what they had heard in the many strange lands where they worked. In this process of listening, sharing, and praying the delegates, drawn largely from the ranks of church and missionary society leaders and veteran missionaries, sought to discern how best to carry their message more effectively to the world. It was the message that “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.”

Half a century later and an ocean away, the American landscape was being littered with the bodies of Civil Rights workers, victims of fear and of hatred. This handful of Civil Rights workers strove relentlessly against overwhelming odds to aid thousands of African Americans who for nearly a century had become increasingly disenfranchised as citizens in their own land. The witness that these Civil Rights workers brought to the American South was that things could change if these disenfranchised people could only register and begin to exercise their right to vote.

It had been a very long weekend in Jerusalem. Jesus had been crucified and buried. The crowds that had watched this dreadful display unfold had finally dispersed. And the disciples, now licking their wounds, had become private in their grief. Come Sunday morning, though, curious reports began to surface. His body was allegedly missing from the tomb. Some women had gone there, among them Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. But when they arrived they had found his tomb empty, his body gone. They reported that two men - or were they angels? - had met them there and told them that He had risen, just as he had promised he would.

There were those who said that they had seen him, too. Simon, for one, though we don’t know the details. And Cleopas came with that rather unlikely story that he and a friend had walked with Jesus along the Emmaus Road, their minds still numb from grief - numb to the point of not really seeing the man who had joined them. They had talked, and finally invited this remarkable stranger to spend the night B just an act of ordinary hospitality from their perspective for it was getting late. Yes, there was something different about this stranger. Their hearts had burned within them as he exposed the Scriptures to them regarding the Christ.

It had taken his blessing and his breaking of bread for them finally to recognize Him. And there He was!  He had been there all the time - on the road, in the discussion, and at the table!  It must have been a time of real doubt, of minds that were in utter turmoil when they first recognized their guest. Their disbelief of the stranger’s ignorance of recent events had been followed by disquieting intuition, and then suddenly, there was that flash of recognition! How can this be? These things don’t happen in our day! Do they?

Witnesses! What good are they when no one believes them? If ever you have sat on a jury in a criminal case, you will know that witnesses play a very important role in the process of discovering the truth. An accusation has been made. Someone has been arrested. Charges have been filed. And you must decide whether the evidence is sufficient to find the defendant guilty of the crime that has been charged.

Witnesses in the form of evidence may be largely intangible to the jury, like the logic that finds a motive, or fingerprints that signify a presence, or the mysteries of DNA that link a person to something else. Witnesses in the form of evidence can be more tangible if photographs have been taken, recordings made, a body has been found, or a weapon that can be linked both to the defendant and the crime are presented.

More commonly, we think of witnesses as people. They come with information and insight into the person on trial, or the person harmed, or the scene of the crime, or the events and circumstances surrounding the crime. Witnesses are critical to the truth-finding process because they contribute knowledge that cannot be obtained apart from the evidence they bring, their word - first hand knowledge that has a direct bearing on the case. So juries pay close attention to witnesses.

Sometimes witnesses do not remember things as clearly as they might. Memories are faulty. They are also subject to interpretation. Some witnesses may need to refresh their memories, or be prodded by certain questions. Sometimes, witnesses lie or at least shade the truth in order to facilitate an outcome of their liking, treating their memories like canvases on which it is still legitimate to brush more color.

Courts are aware of all of these possibilities, but they are also concerned for justice. That is why rules have been developed so that attorneys do not lead witnesses to speak in certain ways, to certain conclusions. That is why laws have been enacted to penalize witnesses who lie. The possibility of a charge of perjury can be a strong deterrent even to those who are strangers to truth.

That is also why attorneys look for more than one witness to back up certain points. The trustworthiness of evidence can be destroyed if a single witness is impeached, but its value is greatly enhanced if that evidence can be corroborated by two or three witnesses. They may bring slightly different responses, like the Gospel writers did with their assortment of nuances embedded within their unique accounts of the same event. But in the mouths of these multiple witnesses, the basic narrative receives flesh and bones, their testimony becomes clear, and juries are able to make informed decisions that are consistent with the standards of justice that are sought in each case.

And then, even as the eleven and their friends listened to these accounts, Jesus joined them, inviting their scrutiny, offering them His hands and his feet as evidence that it was really He who stood among them. Although he extended His peace to them, one can imagine the tentative nature of that first meeting with the One for whom they hoped, yet didn’t quite dare to expect. Some may have gasped!  In their initial fright and apprehension, some may have stepped back sharply as though he were a ghost, a distressed spirit, or some other apparition, while others held their ground, unsure of what to do next. Then the ice broke!  There was joy and wonderment as Jesus asked for something to eat!  So they gave him some broiled fish.

By the time Jesus had finished eating the fish, His friends must have begun to settle down. After all, ghosts don’t eat, do they? While they may still have harbored questions or felt uneasy, at least they knew that now they were dealing with something, someone they understood. Flesh and bones. They were ready to hear Jesus speak to them, to bear witness to or explain what they were experiencing. So Jesus opened their minds.

He turned them once again to the Scriptures. He repeated the things he had told them long before he had been taken so cruelly from them. He reiterated that it was necessary for all that had been prophesied regarding Him, to be fulfilled. He reminded them again that he had predicted his suffering and resurrection, something that they still had difficulty believing. He restated, too, the message he had brought repeatedly throughout His ministry among them. It was a message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

Yes, this was the Jesus they knew! He stood now in their midst, engaging them in discussion just as He always had. As He reminded them of all that had transpired, they recognized the truth of his words. So Christ moved on from reminding them of the past and turned their attention to the future, beginning in Jerusalem. “You are witnesses to these things,” He declared.

What things? Would they become witnesses to the Old Testament prophetic texts? To the place of suffering? To promises of resurrection? To the Good News of repentance required and forgiveness bestowed? To all of these things?

In the coming days they would, indeed, become compelling witnesses of “these things”, Once they had received the Promise of the Father, “power from on high,” they would carry the message of repentance and forgiveness to the ends of the earth. As the Apostle Peter would shortly inform the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That message, the message of Jesus, would be proclaimed time after time by the Apostles (Cf. Acts 3:13-26; 4:10-12; 5:30-32; 10:34-43; 13:17-39).

In the years since Jesus walked the land with His disciples, the message of repentance and the forgiveness that is available only through Christ Jesus has not changed. Over the centuries, many more witnesses have joined that initial and ever billowing cloud of witnesses that urge us on to the finish line. The mandate remains the same, though those who are called upon to take the role of witnesses in our own generation have changed. The challenge is now ours!

 Following the Apartheid era in South Africa, the world watched on tiptoes as the “Truth and Reconciliation” process unfolded. In that process, the quest for truth resulted in stories told of horrendous acts that had previously gone unresolved. Until they were brought to light in the court overseeing the process, these acts, like infected sores, had festered below the surface of the land, bringing violence and retribution. Mistrust, hatred, and retaliation, like angry red marks on an infected body marked the territory.

When confessions were made and repentance was obvious, grace through forgiveness was granted. This process did not deny that the horrendous acts had taken place. Nor did it attempt in any way to hide them or explain away either these acts or their consequences. What came from this reconciliation process were knowledge, understanding, and ultimately forgiveness. Losses were calculated, but in many cases guilt was pardoned. Truth was spoken, and absolution was conferred. In the end, the facts made visible through confession and repentance, helped to provide closure for those who had been suspended between hope and despair. In the end, repentance led to new possibilities for healing and true reconciliation.

In the same way, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a witness to the need for repentance and the fidelity of forgiveness.  Africans and African Americans had experienced two hundred fifty years of slavery at the hands of other Americans, and another hundred years of prejudicial treatment and discrimination after they had been declared citizens. Dr. King bore witness not only to the evil nature of these acts, he pointed to their consequences. He warned of patience grown thin, of tempers on edge, of the potential for violence, and lost opportunities that come when repentance is refused.

But King did not revel in threats or grovel in appeals for repentance. He constructed an imaginary screen onto which he projected vivid images through his carefully chosen words. He shared a vision whose foundation was repentance and forgiveness, a vision in which the forgiver and the forgiven would build something new - together B one by repenting, and the other by forgiving.

It is King’s vision, rooted in repentance and forgiveness that inspired those young Civil Rights workers to travel to places like Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere throughout the American South to see that African Americans were properly registered to vote. It was the pride of repentance refused or the conceit of repentance withheld, that led eventually to the murders of several young Civil Rights workers, and to “collateral damage” among those they tried to empower. It was the arrogance of repentance repudiated that led to the deaths of innocent children attending Sunday School in Birmingham, and through their deaths, to the witness that “we must substitute courage for caution.”[1]

It was King’s vision that prompted the U.S. Congress to respond with new voting laws that made it easier for those who for a century had endured a modified form of slavery when they were denied access to the ballot box. It was this vision that captivated the hearts and minds of millions of Americans when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a Dream” and then proceeded to invite all of us to participate in that dream in a profoundly utopian vision of the future.

Dr. King made that dream viable not on the basis of might, or through a display of power, or by keeping the truth about ourselves, hidden from view. He did it by demonstrating that people must take responsibility for their actions, answer for their culpability, and repent or turn away from their current trajectory of actions. King invited us into that dream, constructed not from the explosive displays of dominance. It was a dream fabricated from the much more fragile threads of humility, generosity, and ultimately forgiveness.

“You Are Witnesses of These Things.” Repentance and forgiveness are at the heart of Martin Luther King’s legacy. Repentance and forgiveness formed the basis of the “Truth and Reconciliation” process that enabled South Africa to move through a turbulent time with minimal violence. Repentance and forgiveness are still at the heart of what the Church proclaims. That is why those who attended the 1910 Missionary Conference in Edinburgh gathered in that imposing assembly hall. That is why they listened intently to the stories told, the discussions that ensued, and the final proposals that were made.

Their most significant contribution would be the formation of a continuation committee chaired by John R. Mott to provide leadership to overcome the divisions that led some to declare that the Church had no message to offer until the message of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation among Christians was more than mere fantasy. And so that conference, which is often said to mark the emergence of the modern Ecumenical Movement, continues to summon Christians from around the world to pray and work for the unity of the Church.

The task is still incomplete. Their witness has not yet found its mark. At one level, a century is not much time when placed in the balance opposite the centuries that led to the current state of division among Christians. Our memories of past snubs, sharp words, unilateral decisions, poorly shared visions, and corrupt self-serving actions are still very powerful. Our memories and accountings of our common history often do not seem to agree. Our histories developed largely in isolation from one another have produced harmful stereotypes and deep suspicion. There is no common mind among the followers of Jesus, and thus, there seems to be no common will. As a result, our rhetoric is often unchastened. Our words are more pointed than they deserve to be. Our charges against one another are frequently unfair, given power only because we refuse to repent, to turn away from our present course, to change.

That good and holy things are done by Christians across the spectrum of the Church is not in question. That evil and unholy things have also been done by Christians, is much more difficult for us to admit. That is why the words of the Bishops in the Decree on Ecumenism 3, that throughout the history of the Church “serious dissensions appeared... for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame” were so important to hear. That is why the words of his Holiness, John Paul II acknowledging the “infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren” and calling upon us to confess “our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today” were so powerful [2]. It is time to take Dr. King’s advice to heart and “substitute courage for caution” as we consider these things.

Several years ago I picked up a book by the mystery writer Greg Iles titled, The Quiet Game. It is set in Natchez, Mississippi, and it revolves around the unsolved murder of a young black man killed in 1968. Everyone knows who murdered him. They also presume that they all know why he was murdered. Yet it remains unsolved 40 years after the fact because the people in that community refuse to talk about it, hence the title, The Quiet Game.

As I read this book I found the following lines and I wondered whether they might not also apply to us. 

This is a small town. In small towns there are sometimes truths that everyone knows but no one mentions. Open secrets, if you will. No one really wants to probe the details, because it forces us to face too many uncomfortable realities. We’d rather turn away than acknowledge the primitive forces working beneath the surface of society. [3]

         Open secrets. Uncomfortable realities. Primitive forces.

These are the things from which enemies are created. These are the things that cry out for confession. These are also the things that make confession and repentance so difficult. Yet, these are the things about which witnesses cannot afford to maintain a wall of silence. In spite of the fact that it is so difficult to own up to such things, that was precisely the message to which Martin Luther King, Jr. bore witness as he sought justice through nonviolent means by calling a nation to repentance and forgiveness and then inviting them into his dream.

In a sense, that was the finding of the 1910 Missionary Conference, when it agreed that issues of faith and of order separated millions of Christians from one another. That was the finding of the Catholic Bishops at Vatican II when they noted that our current state of division “scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.” [4] And that was what lay behind Pope John Paul II’ invitation to join him in asking “pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.” [5]

The Good News of Jesus Christ lies at the heart of it all. It is still the Good News rooted in repentance and flowering in forgiveness that we carry forth in word and deed throughout the earth. As we reflect upon the living legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and participate in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is also appropriate to remember the words of Jesus. “You are witnesses of these things.”


1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” in James M. Washington, Ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 19860, 221.

2. For the homily preached by John Paul II on March 12, 2000, the Day of Parton during the Jubilee Year, see:

3. Greg Iles, The Quiet Game (New York: Signet, 1999), 358.

4. Decree on Ecumenism 1.

5. Homily preached by John Paul II on March 12, 2000.


(Dr. Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God, serves as Professor of Church History and Ecumenics and Director of the David du Plessis Center for Christian Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA., 91182, USA.)

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