Today we commemorate St Luke, writer of two books in the New Testament: the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles. There are moments in Acts when it sounds like he is present because the language changes from third person to first, as in our first reading which begins “They went” and then suddenly changes to “We set sail from Troas” (16:6-12). Paul describes Luke as the beloved physician, and given he had some kind of ailment bugging him, probably benefited from his care.
In his biography of Paul, the New Testament scholar Tom Wright, offers an interesting thought. He wonders if Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles either as a briefing paper or as part of Paul’s defence when he appeared on trial in Rome. Both are addressed to an unknown official whom Luke calls ‘Theophilus’, or ‘God-lover’. This person is being addressed as someone who takes the things of God seriously and so the two books dedicated to him are in turn addressed to all who love God, who are open to learn and grow in faith.
Luke is a great story-teller. He brings in details and his gospel and Acts are both page-turners. But he has a purpose. The charge against Paul was a serious one in the political turbulence of his time. He was accused of advancing a novel faith which was not approved. To do this was seen as an act of rebellion against the Roman empire. That carried the death penalty.
The Jewish faith benefited from an exemption, so its adherents could be excused the imperial cultic worship. The crucial legal point here was over whether Christianity was a novel faith, and therefore a deviation from acceptable boundaries, or stood in continuity with the Hebrew faith. The charge from his accusers was that his teaching deviated so far that he was espousing something new and deviant. Paul argues strongly in his letters, as does Luke in his gospel and Acts, that Jesus fulfils the hopes of Israel, so he does not stand outside them.
That may sound a moot point to us, who have grown up thinking nothing could be more English than Christianity, and yet of course Christianity is not English. It is Middle Eastern and stands in a very long thread. We need the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, to understand the New, the Christian. Luke tells stories so that Paul’s slabs of theology have a context, they fit a story which is easier to get the head round than abstract philosophy and theology. Story matters – it humanises the thought and the claims. It is more personal and direct.
All of us tell a story. The way we speak and the way we colour what we say has a story inside it. It might be one of despair and gloom, which would be understandable at the moment, but it might be one of hope and joy, of trust in God. The story we tell is how we make this good news of Jesus Christ live and breathe. How do we inhabit the story of Jesus and tell it to others? How does being a ‘lover of God’ show itself in how we are, who we are, the hope we exhibit? If ever there was a time when a narrative, a story of hope was needed, it is now. These times we are living in are anxious, even volatile. We miss those we would like to see but can’t. Travel is curtailed and plans we might be making or have made get put on hold. It is extremely frustrating.
Luke’s story is one that comes into a time of turmoil, of threat, of great dreams being frustrated in the political hopes of a nation longing for freedom from Rome and wanting a leader with an oven-ready plan. What they get is a small child, in a bed borrowed from the animals’ food tray. They get a marginal Jew, walking at 3 miles an hour, not flying in on a jet. Someone who taught and brought a Kingdom that went beyond the political, to the eternal and in so doing challenged the here and now more than any revolutionary could ever have done.
Luke’s stories reflect real life. We see the frustrations and there is no attempt to white-wash the internal struggles of Jesus’ followers or the church that grew out of them. We see the arguments when tempers get frayed. We see when good men and women misunderstand. We even see betrayals and the darker side of human beings at their worst. But we also see a common purpose, a bias for the poor rooted on the fundamental hope in Jesus as Lord. Because God is in Jesus Christ, nothing can overcome the hope we have in him. We are called to live that hope.
Luke portrays this in a series of tales that a Roman Governor or official would be able to access through the human and probably more likely to be taken in than all the finely tuned rabbinical study of a Pharisaically trained scholar like Paul. Luke’s story is the human translation of Paul’s deep theology. His gospel begins with angels, with Mary and Elizabeth greeting on another, with shepherds and child in a manger. The story connects and makes all the philosophy and theology come alive. We need both – the deep thought and the imagination to draw us deeper into living this good news.
So Luke is a physician of the body and also the soul. His stories expand our imaginations and then beg a question from us, how we will let his story work in us so that it becomes the story we use to guide our approach and response to the world, especially at a very challenged time. How will we tell a story of faith, hope and love rooted in Jesus Christ? How will we show that we are indeed ‘God-lovers’? Jesus is Lord, and so we can have confidence in God and proclaim that confidence in how we live, turning priorities upside down with good news for the poor and therefore everyone including you and me.
Sermon for St Luke’s Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 18th October 2020