A celebration of Saint Luke
Sermon preached by Bishop Michael Colclough at St John the Baptist to celebrate St Luke, 2018
“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God” – words from tonight’s first reading. May I speak …..
Today’s Collect, or Opening Prayer, tells us that St Luke’s “praise is in the gospel”. St Luke certainly sounds the sort of doctor we all long for. In his Letter to the Colossians St Paul speaks of Luke as “our dear physician”. And this physician, described by St Paul in his Letter to Philemon as “my fellow worker”, was committed, faithful to the task for, as we heard St Paul say tonight in his Second Letter to Timothy, “I have no one here with me but Luke”. St Luke the missionary, going out as Jesus had sent out those seventy in tonight’s Gospel reading, to take to others Jesus’s gift of peace. Luke taking risks as he goes out as a close companion of Paul on those sometimes dangerous missionary journeys and then on Paul’s final journey to Rome.
We know little of St Luke’s life beyond these references: but the Collect tells us that “his praise is in the Gospel” – so we perhaps learn more about St Luke from his style of writing in the Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles than from biographical details. The events and aspects of Jesus’s life and ministry on which St Luke focuses, his account of the growth and priorities of the early Church: these tells us of the impact Jesus had on him, of the priorities of his life as a follower of Our Lord. They tell us about the man.
It seems to me that St Luke’s main aim in his writings was to show that Jesus was not some tribal god but, in St John’s words, the “Saviour of the World”, the Alpha and Omega” (the beginning and end) of all history. So it is that, at the beginning of the Gospel, St Luke traces Our Lord’s descent back to Adam, the first human being, unlike St Matthew’s Gospel which traced his lineage back to Abraham. This is not accidental: St Luke is setting the scene for a Gospel that is going to show and emphasise that Jesus came for all people, that salvation is for all people, not exclusively for the People of Israel. Jesus came not for the righteous only but for the sinner and outcast too. The Gospel, says St Luke, calls us to inclusiveness rather than to an isolated superiority: a message for all ages. And yet, you and I must blush to belong to a Church that spends, wastes even, so much time and energy on fretting about tribal matters while “the harvest is plentiful”!
In the Gospel St Luke is concerned also to show the compassionate nature of Jesus with touching parables such as that of the despised Samaritan who helps the Jewish stranger and thus becomes, historically, the Good Samaritan; and the Prodigal Son who is welcomed home by his ever-loving and forgiving father after his riotous wanderings. St Luke helps us picture loving diligence, valuing and commitment in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Yes, in St Luke’s writing we encounter the utter generosity if not the recklessness of God’s love – even to Jesus praying for those who crucify him and his deep concern for the repentant thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise”.
An important caveat for tonight: when we remember and celebrate St Luke or any of the saints we are not called to get lost in history, nostalgia or simple admiration. We honour the saints by learning from their lives, seeing them as examples of Gospel living. It was St Luke’s friend, St Paul, who called the Christians at Corinth to, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ”. That’s the point: as 19th century art critic John Ruskin said:
“You know when you have been in the presence of a Christian by the trail of light they leave behind.”
That sums up what the saints do for us: they give us hints, guidelines, “trails of light” as to how we can live good and godly lives. We are called so to let the light of Christ shine in our lives that others may come to know and love our Father in heaven. If you like, we are called to write the Gospel today in the style of our daily living.
Looking at St Luke’s concerns in his gospel, we are directed to look at our compassion, our acceptance and love for other people. We do this in obedience to that Last Supper command of Jesus in St John’s Gospel, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet”. The hallmark of Christian service: and it is the very earthy and practical nun of the 16th century, St Theresa of Avila, who reminds us that:
Christ has no hands but your hands To do his work today. No other feet but your feet To guide folk on his way. No other lips but your lips To tell them why he died. No other love but you love To win them to his side.
For that to become a reality in us the words of Jesus can’t simply be pious embroidery for the Sundays of our lives. No, the life, death and resurrection of
Jesus have to be embraced in our lives, stamped on our lives so that they bring about a radical change to our whole lives: that “putting on” of Christ that St Paul writes about. This is the whole purpose of St Luke’s writings.
It sounds challenging and it is. What’s more, such radical change has to begin here in St John’s tonight. It’s said that the third-century St Anthony of Egypt, father of the desert monks, started each day by saying, “Today I begin”. Yes, today is the first day of the rest of our lives and for that the Gospel calls us to be renewed in the love of God, to “put on Christ”: “today I begin”. I hope we have heard, not simply listened to, Our Lord speaking to us, to each one of us, in the words of the Gospel. Did we listen deeply to the Gospel? What am I taking away with me from those words tonight, to mull over during the week ahead? For me, tonight, it’s “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” – and if you or I pray that, we have to accept that we may well be the labourer God has chosen tonight to send out in His name. Is there a new beginning, tonight, for you and me?
Soon we shall encounter the same Gospel Jesus in the precious gift of Holy Communion. The opportunity, again, to give myself to Jesus and His plans for me as He gives Himself so completely and lovingly to me. And, of course, this altar-rail encounter with Jesus, this precious gift we are given in Holy Communion, is not for selfish indulgence so that we may become, as it were, the spiritual fat-cats of Kensington. No, we are fed to go out, not alone but with Jesus, to go out to live in our daily lives all that we have experienced here. To go out and take Christ’s gift of peace and healing into the homes of others. To go out and reveal our family likeness to Jesus, to St Luke and all the saints of God. To go out, proclaiming to others, not only with our lips but with our lives, those words of Isaiah with which I began: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” That’s our Gospel message for those we meet this coming week. Amen.