Third Sunday of Easter

“Witnesses of these things . . .”

April 22, 2012

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Commentary on Luke 24:36b-48

“Witnesses of these things . . .”

Lectionary-based preachers will tell you that there are both pluses and minuses to following that method of sermon preparation. One never has to scramble for a sermon topic nor plan out a year’s worth of sermons. Each week one is given a super abundance of topics and directions. However, there are some occasions that present the preacher with a challenge; the repetition of stories. This Sunday is a case in point.

During the Sundays after Easter the gospel texts assigned, understandably, recount the stories of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples. It means, therefore, that the gospel story for the Third Sunday of Easter taken from Luke’s gospel bears a striking resemblance to the gospel narrative proclaimed the previous week. In each text Jesus appears to the disciples; they are afraid and unbelieving, he convinces them that he is, indeed their teacher and friend raised from the dead.

And that they, believing in him, are to continue his mission in the world. For our biblical scholar side these two narratives offer significant differences. But for the average listener in the pew, it may sound as though we are repeating ourselves. The challenge, then, is to help our listeners appreciate that there is always new grace found in all of these stories, even when we appear to be telling the same story once again.

Scholars believe that one reason for the similarity between Luke and John’s accounts is that both reach back to an earlier traditional account of what happened. 

Before Luke describes the meeting of Jesus and the disciples the evening of that first day, he is the only one who tells the story of an encounter between Jesus and two dispirited disciples. Cleopas and an unnamed companion (perhaps his wife) have left Jerusalem and are returning to Emmaus. Since this story is not read during Year B, and because Luke 24:36-48 intentionally parallels the Emmaus narrative, the preacher may find it helpful to tell the two stories together focusing on the key similarities that link these two important resurrection accounts.

The stories each follow the same pattern:

  • Encounter — failure to recognize
  • Explanation — interpreting the resurrection through the lens of the scriptures
  • Eating — Jesus breaks bread or eats fish
  • Enlightenment — the disciples eyes are opened, hearts burn, and recognize
  • Exit — Jesus departs

In the first story two people from Emmaus, returning home, continue to believe that the women’s report was an idle tale. They encounter a stranger on the road and tell him what has happened in Jerusalem. They report the news of what happened to Jesus and how the tomb was supposedly empty. But, as this stranger observes, they are foolish and “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (Luke 24:25) Jesus then tries to explain to them connecting the dots between what happened and is happening to him and what the scriptures had told. They invite this stranger to eat with them and it is in the breaking of the bread that they are enlightened; their eyes opened, hearts burn, and they realize that they have been speaking with their risen teacher. Instantly Jesus exits.

The two disciples hurriedly return to Jerusalem (remember, this is a distance of 20 miles). They excitedly tell their companions what happened to them. It is at this moment that today’s text begins and the pattern repeats itself; this is “what they were talking about.” (Luke 24:36). The gathering of disciples encounter Jesus but again they do not understand what is happening. They appear to connect this figure with their crucified teacher, but they think that he is a ghost. They are filled with confusion and doubt. Jesus then seeks to explain what is happening by offering them his body, showing them the wounds of the cross.

Next, as he did at the table in Emmaus, he eats a piece of fish. After all, ghosts do not eat, do they? He continues his explanation by opening to them the scriptures to show that everything they have learned and taught before his crucifixion led them to this very moment. Interestingly, Luke does not tell us if all of the disciples finally believed. Did their hearts burn as well?

There is one significant addition to this story. Although Jesus did not send Cleopas and his companion out as witnesses, that was exactly what their encounter caused them to do. But in this second, parallel narrative, Jesus directly tells the disciples that they are to be witnesses. Here, also, is a significant difference with John’s account. There is no infusion of the Spirit. Luke makes a significant separation between what happened in that room at the end of the “first day of the week” and what was to happen in an upper room fifty days hence. The Spirit will come, but for now the disciples are given the content of their message. They are to tell of repentance and forgiveness that will come in Jesus’ name.

Finally, as he did in Emmaus, Jesus does make his exit. However, we do not read this portion of Luke’s gospel for it is his account of the ascension. That night Jesus led his followers out of that upper room to Bethany, blessed them, and “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51)

Today’s reading ends with the commissioning of the disciples. One will be able to make the connection with today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There Luke begins to paint the picture of what it looked like when the disciples fulfilled their calling as witnesses. We read Peter’s proclamation of what God had and is doing in Jesus Christ.

It is here where we are able to enter the story. We come with our doubts, confusions, fears and misunderstandings. We, each week, through worship we encounter the risen Christ. In the reciting of the scriptures and the preached word we are offered explanation, proclaiming the good news of what God has and is doing. We may eat with Christ, breaking the bread of the resurrection in the Eucharist.  (Perhaps like the early Christians we should share fish as well?) The Spirit brings enlightenment, opening our hearts and minds, setting our hearts afire. Finally, the exit should be ours for Christ has sent us out into the entire world to be witnesses to this amazing news.