Sunday 18th October 2020
Acts 16:6-12a, Luke 10:1-9
Today, October 18th is the day traditionally kept to remember St Luke the Evangelist.
The title ‘Evangelist’ comes from the word ‘Evangel’, which means the gospel, and is a title given to St Luke as the author of one of the four gospels.
However it is sometimes easy to forget that he did not just write the gospel of Luke but he was also the author of the Acts of the Apostles.
Although I have not counted the words I understand that as the author of both Luke and Acts this makes St Luke the biggest single contributor to the collection of writings we call the New Testament, writing even more than St Paul. And we know that the same person wrote both Luke and Acts because in the introduction to Luke the author addresses himself to ‘the most excellent Theophilus’ saying that he has investigated everything and written an orderly account for him and in the introduction to Acts the author opens with the words ‘in my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do…’
So Luke and Acts are essentially a two volume work by the same author but they are different in character because the gospel is a careful reconstruction of events as told to Luke by eyewitnesses but a great deal of Acts is written from Luke’s personal experience of life as an early Christian and as a companion to Paul on his missionary journeys.
So, if Luke wrote more of the New Testament than Paul then how come it is always Paul that is referred to when we debate the more controversial areas in church life?
I think it is simply because Luke recorded events and stories in a quite self-effacing way and, although he let his priorities shine through those events and stories, as we shall see in a moment, he never wrote using the doctrinal voice that Paul did in his letters. Paul was writing as a pastor to the churches in his care expressly telling them what they should and shouldn’t be doing and so his personality and his doctrine are unmissable in his writings, whereas Luke’s presence as the unseen author of Luke and Acts is much more subtle.
Nonetheless he was obviously an incredibly important figure both in the development of the New Testament and in the life of the early church and so it is right that today we should think a little more about him and some of his priorities that did shine through his writing.
He is said to be a native of Antioch and must have acquired some considerable skill in contemporary medicine, and was referred to as a Physician . We know nothing about his family background but he was probably a gentile convert possibly first to Judaism and then as a follower of Jesus. He became attached to St Paul as his diarist and recorder but also his personal doctor. Luke joined Paul on his second missionary journey, their story beginning about 50AD – and took them to Philippi, Rome, Caesarea and ultimately to Jerusalem.
In 2 Tim 4 v 11 we read Paul’s rather lonely words: “I have no-one with me but Luke”- and we can assume that Luke was not only his medical advisor but a friend who gave him much needed support and advice.
As a physician Luke is the patron saint of doctors, as you might expect.
However, you may not know, that Luke is also the patron saint of Painters and Artists and he is often depicted as a painter with brushes and a palette and is even said to have painted the first icon of Mary. Whether or not that is literally true it is certainly true that Luke displays an artistic eye in his gospel writings as he beautifully depicts scenes from the life of Jesus and it is also true that some of the greatest paintings in the world have been inspired by Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus, or the shepherds coming from the fields to the stable after the vision of the angels, or of the visit of the Magi.
I said a moment ago that Luke’s gospel was written as a result of his enquiries of those who were eyewitnesses to the events and traditionally, it is thought that it contains the reminiscences of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Bible scholars tell us there is clear Jewish style and flavour about the language of the early episodes – the annunciation, visitation, birth, visit of the Magi, the presentation and Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which may all reflect the influence of Mary. And in case you think that is mere fanciful piety don’t forget that Mary was present at the start of the book of Acts and if that book is a first hand account by Luke then he would have been present too and speaking to the mother of Jesus could well have been a primary source for him.
Imagine, for a moment, this cultured, educated physician and gentile convert speaking to an older Mary about the events of the annunciation and the nativity while he scribbles away with his writing implements, and then perhaps he goes to speak to Simon Peter about how he was first called to be a follower of Jesus, and so on until his orderly account is written.
Now each of the four gospels has their own particular flavour or style and it is clear that Luke emphasised some aspects of the message of Jesus more than the other Evangelists.
It seems that Luke has a special concern for the poor. It opens, very nearly, with Mary’s song which talks about filling the hungry with good things, the birth of Jesus takes place in the humblest of circumstances, Joseph and Mary are shown are poor when they present him in the temple, there is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There is the suggestion that if we give a party we should always include some poor people among the guests and Luke’s version of the beatitudes ( 6 v 20-36) also reflects sympathy with the poor.
It is also interesting to notice Luke’s account of the early Christian communal living (Acts 4 v 32) – and the heavy punishment visited on Ananias and Sapphira because they hold back part of the sale of their property from the common fund.
Many women are introduced into Luke’s gospel and Acts. We can note his account of the women who travelled with Jesus and his disciples – Mary Magdalen, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna and many others. Luke portrays Jesus as addressing women with courtesy. Luke’s gospel carries more stories that involve women and children than the other gospels.
It was women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus but found his body gone. It was Mary Magdalen and a small group of women who went and told the disciples that Jesus body had gone.
As a gentile convert it is also clear that Luke had a special heart for those who found themselves outside the bounds of mainstream Judaism and it is within Luke that we find many stories of the calling and redemption of Zacchaeus the tax collector, the Roman centurion who had faith, the story of the prodigal son which has so much to say about God gracious patience for those who have left the fold.
And, as a physician, Luke also has many, many stories of healing – although not of physical healing done by fellow professionals but of a much deeper healing that can only be brought about by God through faith in Jesus.
There is a strong tradition that Luke lived into old age, dying aged 84 years and was buried at Thebes from whence his relics were transferred to Constantinople in the year 357.
So, today we celebrate the Feast of St Luke – physician and evangelist. These roles are inseparable – for an evangelist tells the good news of salvation and salvation means healing. The root of the word salvation is the Latin word salvere – to be well, to be in good health, to be whole. Salvation is not just of spirit in the world to come, but salvation is of body and mind as well.
But although we celebrate St Luke we should also be sensitive to the fact that he was self-effacing, that the stories he wrote down were not about him and his ministry. As an Evangelist he was about the Gospel and the Gospel is all about the good news of Jesus Christ. That because of who Jesus was, God born on Earth, and because of what he did for us in his life, in his death on the cross and in his resurrection we can be made whole once again. I suspect that if he were here now, St Luke would not want today to be all about him but he would point beyond himself to the ultimate healer and physician Jesus Christ and he would urge us to heed the words of his gospel to us this morning:
“The kingdom of God is near you.”
So. draw close to the kingdom of God as it draws close to you, know that you are deeply loved, deeply forgiven, deeply healed and when you leave this building later this morning go out like the apostles to take the good news of Jesus Christ and his healing love to all those around us.
In the name of Christ,