Feast of St. Luke (October 22, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Sir. 38:1-4, 6-10, 12-14; Ps. 147; 2 Tim. 4:5-13; Lk. 4:14-21
At the end of his second letter to Timothy, Paul reports that all of his friends and supporters have deserted him. Demas has left for Thessalonica; another man named Crescens has departed for Galatia, and Titus is now in Dalmatia (4:10). Earlier in the letter, Paul tells us “all who are in Asia have turned away from me” (1:15). Things have gotten bad. Add to this the fact that Paul is probably writing from a prison in Rome, with more than a faint awareness that the end is drawing near. As he says, “the time of my departure has come” (4:6).
It’s a bleak picture, but there is one person who has remained with Paul to the end. “Only Luke is with me,” Paul reports (4:11). When everyone has vanished, when envy has turned would-be allies into enemies, when the new-fangled Jesus movement is suddenly no longer so fashionable, when the iron grip of earthly power is about to squeeze out what little air is left, Luke remains. Luke abides. “Only Luke is with me.” They are just five words, but they are among the most poignant of the New Testament. They suggest that Luke, our namesake, the saint whose feast we observe today, was different. While the disciples couldn’t stay awake one hour with Christ in Gethsemane, while Peter denied Jesus three times, while the churches that Paul planted in Corinth and Galatia disagreed and divided, and while even Barnabas, Paul’s fellow pioneer in the Gentile mission, went his separate way, Luke remained faithful.
So what made him different? Who is this Luke that we call ourselves by? The only other reference Paul makes to Luke comes in Colossians, where he calls him the “beloved physician” (4:14). That tells us something about how he made a living, but it still leaves a lot out. For more, we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles, one of the two New Testament books that Luke authored. Luke does not mention himself in the narrative, but we do occasionally catch him switching from the third-person narrator voice to a more intimate, first-person plural voice. In Chapter 16, for example, Paul sees a vision of a man who invites him to go Macedonia. It is at this point that Luke drops the third-person voice and says, “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia” (16:10). This same “we” travels to Philippi, where we can deduce Luke remains for some seven years before later rejoining Paul in a Greek city called Troas. Putting the pieces together, Luke would have been associated with Paul for about ten years, from around 50 to 60AD, following him to Rome, where he kept Paul company during his imprisonment and until his death.
From this backstory, one of the most interesting things we learn about Luke is that he was among the first Gentile converts to the faith. Luke is not just the only Gentile author of a Gospel, he is the only Gentile author of any New Testament book. Perhaps owing to his outsider status, Luke saw things differently. In his writings, he often focuses on the people who escape the attention of others. Often these are Gentiles like himself. Luke is the only Gospel writer to include the parable of the Good Samaritan, the most striking example of how Jesus redefines belonging and unsettles our assumptions about who counts as our neighbor. It is also Luke’s Jesus who reminds his audience of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (4:25-27), two Gentile recipients of the favor of Old Testament prophets.
Women also feature prominently in Luke’s Gospel. It is Luke who provides the account of the Visitation between Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Mary’s famous Magnificat, with its soaring vision of social reversal, wherein the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are filled with good things (1:51-53).
The theme of social reversal echoes throughout Luke’s Gospel. It is there in today’s Gospel reading from Chapter 4, where Jesus stands up in a synagogue in Nazareth and declares the year of the Lord’s favor, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (4:18-19). Luke’s listeners would have recognized this as the ancient practice of Jubilee, which entailed the emancipation of indentured slaves, the return of lost landholdings, and the forgiveness of debts, nullifying social injustices and bringing society back into just equilibrium. For Luke, the kingdom of God was a this-worldly reality, something dawning now, with real implications for how individuals treated one another. Thus in his version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says not, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “Blessed are the poor,” for “theirs is the kingdom of God.” He does not say that marginalized members of society will be blessed in the future, but, “Blessed are you who are hungry now… blessed are you who weep now” (6:21). They will have a reward in heaven, but even now they are touched by the new reality that Christ brings. Pointedly, Luke also includes a series of woes for the rich and those who are full and laughing. Things are about to change for them as well, whether they are prepared to acknowledge it or not. In view of these commitments, it is not entirely surprising to discover that Luke’s Gospel is the one where we find the parable of the Prodigal Son. With its emphasis upon unconditional forgiveness and re-integration of the least deserving, it crystallizes the overall message of Luke’s Gospel: the kingdom is at hand, lives are in the process of being transformed, and the signs of this transformation are all around us.
Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, reads like a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, continuing many of these same themes. Midway through the book, Paul’s opponents say in exasperation: “These people… have been turning the world upside down” (17:6). Even those who oppose the movement see what is at hand. For Luke, the signs of this new reality are many. Some are famously radical, such as the sharing of possessions. As Luke reports, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all” (2:44-45). But not all of them are so radical. Some are deceptively simple. One is the breaking of bread: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:46). Another entails new forms of communication and the overcoming of longstanding barriers to mutual understanding. Repeatedly, the presence of the Spirit is found where historically divided groups find themselves mixing: Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor. No sooner are the apostles sure of the direction of this new movement then it veers off course, into another strange direction. Many of the leaders thought it was a movement for one people only, but now they find themselves surrounded by outsiders like Luke. Their community has expanded. New faces can be seen, new voices can be heard. Many thought the faith was measured in external obedience to the law, and now they find that the faith claims their innermost desires and motivations as well. Some of the new Gentile upstarts think they can leave behind their Jewish brethren, but Paul reminds them that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. The covenant is not replaced, but opened. The vision is not one community superseding the other, but historically divided communities sharing life together. Luke should know: he is one of the Gentiles now included in the covenant, a man whose faith has made him a descendant of Abraham and heir of the promise. The gospel promise, the sign of the spirit, the reality of the kingdom, is life together.
If we need further evidence, look no further than Luke’s unlikely friendship with Paul. Here for all the world to see is a different possibility: friendship that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility. Jew and Gentile, former Pharisee and Greek, bound together in common purpose, to the very end. “Only Luke is with me.” The words sound a little different knowing who Luke is, an outsider who not only joins Paul in friendship, but also proves his staying power. A friendship across barriers is not merely possible, but can endure, even amidst developments that seem to reverse everything the kingdom stands for.
Indeed, at the end of Paul’s life, people have begun to give up on this kingdom. The Roman Empire is crushing its followers one by one. The poor remain poor. The powerful remain powerful. And yet exactly at the point when things grow the grimmest, Paul sees the evidence of this kingdom in his friend. His friend, the one most different from him, is the one who makes the kingdom real for him. Luke shouldn’t be here. He should be where Demas, Barnabas, and everyone else has gone. But he hasn’t. He has stayed. He has abided. He has remained faithful to his friend, and in remaining faithful to his friend, he has remained faithful to the world as he now knows it, and faithful to the God who graciously makes its possible. Luke teaches us this: keeping faith in the kingdom means keeping company with those who belong to the kingdom, living out those new relationships that make up the kingdom. Keeping faith means keeping company. It means remaining friends. Paul’s friendship with Luke is part of what allows him to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
As we gather today to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the founding of our community, we find ourselves coming back to something very basic and true. Like Paul at the end of his life, we live at a time when we see very few signs of Christ’s kingdom. The poor remain poor. The captives remain captive. For many of us, the kingdom is something to long for, something we will experience in the future age. Yet when we read of Luke’s simple but profound capacity to stay the course and keep company with his friend to the end, we are reminded of the ordinary fabric with which the kingdom is woven. That fabric is you and me, and the thread is friendship, friendship across boundaries, friendship that shouldn’t be possible but is because Christ has opened a new kind of community where Samaritans become neighbors to Jews, where Gentiles befriend former Pharisees, where the abandoned and imprisoned are remembered, and where absence is filled with presence. Presence. That is what Paul most wanted, and that is the one thing Luke could give him. It is the hardest thing to find and the easiest thing to give. All that it requires is that we see that it is ours to give, that each of us can give it.
That is what each of us gives in being a part of this community. That is the high calling of any community that gathers under Luke’s name: to be a people that abides, a community that keeps faith in God’s kingdom by keeping faith in the friendships God makes possible when we give each other the gift of our presence. “Only Luke was with me.” May the same continue to be said of us. Amen.