Commemorating St Luke the Apostle
October 18, 2015
We celebrate today (October 18) the festival of St Luke, apostle, theologian, Gospel writer, physician. Saints days remind us that our history is about people, not formulas or doctrines or theories – that the Church is about real people paying forward their experience and wisdom and example, not merely a bureaucracy or institution.
Luke is mentioned three times in the Letters of St Paul, and is known as “the beloved physician,” but the Church remembers him primarily as the author of the Gospel According to Luke, and The Acts of the Apostles, otherwise known as Acts. Early Christian tradition suggests he was a Syrian from Antioch, possibly of Gentile origin, but possibly of Jewish background and heavily influence and educated by Greek culture. He is often symbolized as a bull with wings – a bit of an odd combination, but the bull/ox is meant to represent the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ ministry; it is also a symbol of strength, loyalty and service; and the wings remind us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ soars beyond its humble origins.
Luke was possibly with St Paul right to the end of Paul’s life; he himself supposedly lived to the age of 84 and died in modern day Greece. His remains are now buried in three sacred sites: the body, in the Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua; his head, in the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague; one of his ribs, at his tomb in Thebes.
This is a real man with a real history, who took his place among the leaders of the church; traveled with them; talked with them; learned from them and helped them establish the Christian Church.
Luke’s theology has a unique and personal character, and that plays out in his Gospel and continues into the Book of Acts, which relates the way in which the Gospel bursts out of traditional Judaism and into the Gentile (or Non-Jewish) world, to the point where it confronts Roman imperial power and the world. Because he uses the word “we” in the Book of Acts, the author was obviously a colleague of the first apostles. He shows how the first Christians had to struggle with what to keep and what to let go of, and the painful decisions and personal conflicts that accompanied that first generation or two beyond the time of Jesus himself – he portrays the emergence of the Church and the powerful personalities like Paul who would be its first leaders.
Luke’s Gospel has a humane and inclusive perspective; he has significant concern and sympathy for the poor and lowly, society’s outcasts, women, those who are oppressed; he also has a strong focus on discipleship and prayer. He portrays the gracious and merciful nature of God by being the only Gospel writer to tell stories like the Prodigal Son.
Luke’s gospel gets us to think about the question – who really is my neighbour?
Luke picks up on the prophet Isaiah in some particular ways – Isaiah, considered one of the great prophets of Judaism, prophesied during the pre- and post-exilic period from the 8th Century BC. It contains some of the most poetic and beautiful passages in the entire Bible – today’s reading for example: “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool.”
Luke deliberately connects what is going on is Jesus with the history and spirit and destiny of Judaism. But Luke (as do the other Gospel writers) picks up on specific things in that history that he wants to emphasize.
Isaiah offered a very broad perspective on things, not just seeing Israel as God’s people but seeing Israel in context, as one small nation in a world of other nations and peoples. Israel gets a message that says “It’s not just about you.” God’s purposes work themselves out over vast passages of time and space. Isaiah sees God’s purposes not just working within Israel but in and for the entire world – it is a universal perspective – and according to Isaiah their mandate is global not merely local or tribal. Isaiah pointed Israel beyond itself to see itself as a light to the rest of the world. Through the prophet Isaiah, God reveals an integrated vision of what the world is supposed to look like under God’s shalom.
Anyone looking to serve God has to be prepared to allow their vision and focus to grow and expand, to become universal – holistic – integrated. As Isiah says, we need to see as God sees.
And it suggests that no longer can individuals or individual nations ignore what is going on around them – and especially that we may neither ignore nor create oppression in the world around us. There is an active promise made to the poor and the downtrodden and those who are followers of the one God are summoned into God’s compassion and grace.
According to Luke, Jesus, after his Baptism by John the Baptist, went out into the wilderness for a time of fasting and self-examination and communion with God. That 40 days was his version of a vision quest, but in that as well Jesus is seen to be operating in parallel ways with the ancient people of Israel who also went into the wilderness, in their case for 40 years.
When Jesus returns, he goes to his home synagogue, “as was his custom” (as an observant and faithful Jew) – he is recognized and asked to read from the prophet Isaiah – and then he preaches.
How we begin anything is important, whether it be a new job, a marriage, or the Baptism of a child. This is Jesus’ beginning according to Luke, and what Luke wants us to understand is that Jesus takes Isaiah, especially Chapter 61, as his mandate, a mandate given to Israel when they were in exile and deprivation. At a desperate time the prophet delivered a message of promise and hope to people from the God who had never stopped loving them and caring about them.
Luke will go on to illustrate how this proclamation plays out, as Jesus demonstrates God’s love for the poor, the downtrodden, those who have failed, the sick and the suffering. As David Lose says: “God comes not for the perfect but the imperfect, not for the healthy but for the ill, not for the righteous but the unrighteous, not for the strong but for the weak. God comes, that is, for us.”
This is indeed good news for impoverished souls, for people who perhaps have given up on God or themselves, who do not see or cannot believe that they are loveable and worthwhile – who hang their heads in shame and isolation, as Israel did in exile.
In the wilderness, Jesus has already confronted the source of all evil – the source of all temptation – the source of empty promises and deceit. He knows who he is and what he is about, so this identification with the prophecy of Isaiah is a critical one – Jesus is among us on behalf of the God who cares, who rejoices when even one lost sheep or a lost coin is recovered, or when a difficult child grows up and returns to right relationships with his family.
Jesus is the human face of God – in the readings we can see the process of interpreting and comprehending and expanding upon who and what Jesus really was – he is not just another prophet or rabbi but someone who ties everything together – one who brings fulfilment and the way to peace.
The author of Hebrews creates a comparison between Jesus and the high priests of their tradition. Priests remind us of the ministry of intervention – of intercession – of those who stand before God on behalf of the people – who stand between God and the people. Religion is a word that has to do with connecting – bridging – being between — related to the word “ligament.” Priests are meant to be reconcilers, mediators, go-betweens. But the author see in Jesus something more, something distinct and different. He is no ordinary priest or prophet but one who seems capable of bridging the gap between earth and heaven himself, in his own person.
He is of the order or magnitude of Melchizedek. Melchizedek – now that’s someone everyone’s dying to know about! Melchizedek is a mysterious figure who appears out of the desert to Abraham and offers him bread and wine, and blesses him in the middle of the wilderness. His name means “King of Righteousness.” So you can understand the desire to make the connection with Jesus.
So Jesus is tied in with one who was called King of Righteousness, one who blessed and empowered the Father of Nations. And he becomes the new paradigm for priesthood – his humanity, his capacity to sympathize, being key qualities of this new way of serving God.
Jesus, in quoting one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, paints the picture of the kind of person and leader and son of God that he intended to be.
God has a way of flipping our attention out to places where it doesn’t tend to go – to strangers, foreigners, enemies, the elderly and the sick. Jesus comes to this synagogue full of people hard pressed by the Roman invaders and reminds them of what God said centuries before to their ancestors. He tells them that this message is still valid – it is still full of power and potential – and urges them not to be defeatist or cynical or self-centered, but rather to allow God’s vision to keep drawing them out of their own little world into the bigger picture of God’s plan and purpose.
That vision is fulfilled in a sense any time someone is prepared to embrace it, believe it, and to live it. And that is what Jesus indicates he is about to do.
Roman propaganda (which sounds vaguely like the kind of propaganda we hear today) portrayed the Empire as a place of peace and security and justice, but this was not the case for thousands if not millions of people under Roman rule. As many as 50% of people in the Roman Empire were slaves and could be executed on a whim.
Ezekiel the prophet said: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Isaiah offered a vision of hope and promise that propelled the people forward with a renewed sense of purpose.
It’s interesting, as we move to the conclusion of the current federal election campaign, that it is happening around Halloween, because it just seems that the parties are opening the doors slightly and throwing candy at us, rather than proclaiming any kind of unifying and inspiring vision about what Canada is called to be, and almost nothing about the people in our society who most needed to be uplifted.
And it is appropriate that we commemorate St Luke the Physician today, because in the wake of an election, the country always needs healing after weeks of divisive and disrespectful behaviour by the people who are asking us to trust them to be our leaders.
Jesus goes to his synagogue and his presence resonates the story of his people; he re-visits the vision offered to Isaiah centuries before and says to the people of his own day that it’s still the same vision – God’s overall plan and message has never really changed – God is consistently about life, about compassion, about fair treatment. And then he says that he is prepared to attempt to fulfill that vision – to act on it.
We can speak with the authority and impact of an Isaiah or even Jesus, if we want to, because isn’t that exactly what we are doing this morning? — gathering in our local church, and being reminded of what God is about and has always been about? Let us, like Jesus, commit to fulfilling this vision by being prepared to act on it, because like Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, it is never enough to hear the Gospel – it is essential that we act on it.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers
Isaiah 35: 5–8
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’ In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Luke 4: 14—21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’