Sermon for the Feast of St Luke the Evangelist (18th October 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Today we are celebrating the feast of St Luke the Evangelist. The author of two works in the New Testament, the Gospel bearing his name and the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is responsible for about one quarter of the text of the New Testament. Tradition relates that Luke was a Gentile and a medical doctor, and we know from passages such as today’s First Reading that he spent some time as a companion of St Paul, whose missionary journeys he describes so dramatically in the Acts of the Apostles. It is a striking moment in the text when “they” suddenly turns into “we”.
The four Evangelists write their accounts of Jesus in different ways with different emphases. This need not alarm us. We do not doubt the veracity of events in our news because the Guardian describes them differently from the Daily Telegraph or the Times, or even the Daily Mail. Luke as a writer is notable for two themes: history and compassion. In his introduction to the Acts of the Apostles Luke makes it clear to his reader Theophilus that the historical facts are essential to the Christian story. We know this to be true. Christianity is not based on psychology or philosophy. It is based on the birth in Bethlehem and the death and resurrection in Jerusalem of a historical person. The list of ancient worthies which precedes Luke’s account of the Nativity is not included to confuse readers of lessons in Christmas Carol Services. The list is there to make the point that Jesus was born at a particular point in the history of the world. God became man in our world at a particular moment, and it was an actual and not a symbolic incarnation.
Throughout his writings Luke emphasises the historical context of the mission of Jesus and his followers. Context is important. In England one speaks of crisps and chips and know exactly what is meant. So do Americans when they speak of chips and fries. In Australia it is not so clear. Chips may be bought in a packet to accompany sandwiches or they may be the potatoes which accompany battered fish. This may have been confusing to visitors from the United Kingdom (in the days when such individuals existed) but Australians would say, “It all depends on the context.” So indeed it does, and if it does for potato chips, how much more so it does for our understanding of the Gospel! The historical context is an essential element of our faith, both in understanding Christ’s work on earth, and in our appreciation of the development of Christian tradition through the ages and in our own lives. Church History is not simply an esoteric subject for academics. It is the exploration of God’s actions in the world through his people of faith, a living tradition to which we now have our own contribution to make.
In Luke’s writings we see presented to us Jesus’s life on earth and the development of the early church in historical context. Indeed, with the exception of certain details that we may find in the Epistles or the less reliable apocryphal writings, it is Luke the evangelist who has presented us with our picture of the early church so vividly portrayed in the chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. There it is that we read of the early developments of the Christian community in such matters as structure and inclusivity that both illuminate the church’s early days and often strike us as remarkably relevant to the debates we have today.
As well as emphasising the historical context of the mission of Jesus and his followers, Luke stresses the compassionate nature of God and God in Christ. Six of the miracles and eighteen of the parables are recorded only by Luke, and these often stress the value of compassion. Among these are the famous parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Forgiveness and God’s mercy to sinners are themes especially favoured by Luke. God is indeed (as adherents of another faith proclaim regularly) The Compassionate and Merciful, and in Luke’s description of Jesus we see the compassionate and merciful nature of God revealed in Christ. During World War Two the great Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance served as a Chaplain with the Forces. One day during the Italian campaign he encountered a dying Scottish soldier, who had an urgent question to ask him. “Padre, is God like Jesus?” Torrance would later say that the few well-chosen words that he used to comfort the dying soldier were as important as any of the complex books of theology that he would go on to write.
So Luke, the beloved physician “whose praise is in the gospel” as today's collect so elegantly says, may be described as the compassionate historian of the Christian faith. This is of more than passing interest, because we Christians need to combine historical realism with compassion, and for this we have no greater guide than Luke. We need to be historically realistic in our attitude to the Church, that community founded by Jesus that has evolved in so many different ways. Our respect for the historical context should influence both our attitude to the past and our interpretation of the crises and arguments of the present. There is a tradition that Luke came from the Syrian city of Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, as Luke himself tells us. The ancient city of Antioch is now the Turkish city of Antakya and so while in one way today’s church historians and medical practitioners are the heirs of St Luke, so in another way are the inhabitants in and the refugees from the border region between Turkey and Syria.
Luke’s presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ reveals both the Son of God as one born at a particular point in human history and as one who stresses the compassionate nature of the God whom he reveals to us. We in turn are to live with a concern for our own history and compassion for our fellow men and women, especially those like us of the household of faith. Concern for history and compassion make excellent bed-fellows. We Christians are called to share Luke’s high regard for history and compassion not simply because they are helpful for us in understanding our world and caring for its inhabitants, but because we are inheritors in our day of God’s mission. In today’s Gospel passage Jesus called for labourers for the harvest, and today’s labourers are ourselves. It is no good looking over our shoulders or up at someone more qualified than ourselves. We are the labourers at this moment in history, and we are called to display God’s compassion, not our human preferences, to the world. The Spanish mystic St Teresa of Avila explained this succinctly:
Christ has no body on earth but yours;
No hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.