Today we set aside the Scripture readings appointed for what would otherwise be the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, to remember, to celebrate, to give thanks to God for, the life of, St. Luke the Evangelist, and one of the patron saints of this church. According to Christian tradition, St. Luke was a physician. In those days, physicians were men or women who acquired knowledge of potions and practices that were supposed to cure illness or injury, either from those who practiced those arts, or from their own study of said potions and practices, and the observations they made as they experimented with such methods. Our reading from the Apocrypha today mentions favorably those persons.
However, Luke the Physician, is Saint Luke, not because he was a great physician (though he might have been so), but because he could write! We don’t interrupt our lectionary cycle to celebrate “St. Luke the Physician,” but rather to celebrate, declare a feast day in honor of, St. Luke the Author. More to the point we celebrate the life and influence in Christian tradition of St. Luke the Evangelist, i.e. the “writer of Good News,” the author of a Gospel, “The Good News of Jesus Christ, according to Luke”. He was not an author of fiction, but of history. Think Stephen Ambrose, not Stephen King. He didn’t make stuff up. He researched it and wrote down what he found. The Christian movement, the “Jesus Movement,” was sweeping the Mediterranean, and the leaders of it and those who were eyewitnesses to the life, death, and –amazingly, resurrection!—of the person who started it all, weren’t getting any younger. It was turning the world upside down and Dr. Luke wanted to make sure there was a record of why it was happening. When it was finally published, it was in two volumes. Vol 1, a Gospel, telling the story of one Jesus of Nazareth, and Vol II, a narrative of “The Acts of the Apostles” through the actions of those who birthed what became known as the Early Church.
This is not dry history. Luke could not only research stories, he could tell stories. He wrote in the colloquial Greek, the “universal language” of the time, so that it could be read by about anybody in that part of the world who could read. (Though scholars also note that he could, and did, write in classical Greek as well, as well as the Semitic Greek in which the Jewish Scriptures of the time were translated.) The preface to his Gospel in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, note that he “was a gifted literary artist” that “produced what has been justly described as ‘the most beautiful book in the world.” It is a tapestry of stories. Luke’s Gospel shares stories in common with the other Gospels: Matthew and Mark, and John whose writers also wanted to tell the stories and teachings of Jesus. However, it contains other stories that these Gospels, and The Gospel of John, do not:
For instance, the birth of John the Baptist, the annunciation to Mary, her song in response—the great Magnificat-- and her visit to Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother);
the angels and shepherds of the Nativity;
the story of the priest Simeon when he held the infant Jesus—his response is what we call the Nunc dimittis, “The Song of Simeon”, -“Lord, now letest thou thy servant depart in peace . . . for my eyes have seen thy salvation”-- found in our services of Evening Prayer and Compline.
In addition, Luke’s Gospel also contains the stories of six miracles and eighteen parables not recorded in the other Gospels, including the parables of “The Prodigal Son” and “The Good Samaritan.”
He is the only writer to tell the story of the earliest Church, the conversions and missionary journeys of St. Paul, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and examples of the earliest Christian preaching, known as the Apostolic Preaching. Its format could be summarized as “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Sound familiar?
In other words, we would be poorer in our understanding of who we are, or are to be, as Christians and as the Church without these writings of Luke.
As I said, Luke didn’t make this stuff up! It boggles my mind to think of what he might have had to do to find and collect all of these stories, teachings, and parables, from those who were eye-witnesses, and ear-witnesses to Jesus and events within the early Church. He didn’t have the world wide web, he couldn’t Google the information he needed, he couldn’t interview people by Zoom, or even over a phone! There were some common written accounts of Jesus that the writers of Mark and Matthew had access to that were familiar to Luke, as well, though it is doubtful he ever saw either of those finished Gospels in writing. But he had to have done a lot or original research to come up with material unique to his Gospel. I can imagine him haunting local libraries, such as they were, for scrolls containing the DNA of this world-changing movement that he was a part of. Maybe he even had research assistants that went back to Palestine to dig up the information he needed! I can imagine him hanging out with his traveling companions as he followed Paul around the Mediterranean to Rome. Sitting with them at the end of the day, or walking on the road, or sailing on a ship, as they told stories about Jesus that had been passed down to them by an aunt or uncle, or grandfather, or by a friend, or a friend, of a friend. For stories and information were still largely passed on orally in those days. And please note, if you don’t know this already: it was a hallmark of the practice of the oral tradition that the stories and teachings passed on suffered very little from being passed from one person to another over a span of years.
These teachings and stories of Luke, like those of the other Gospel writers, aren’t just dry histories, unlinked to our own time and place. St. Luke knew that these words he had seen and heard and written down had transformed the lives of the people he kept company with, and had transformed his life as well. They had opened him up to “a God whose property is always to have mercy,” who loved His people and His creation so much that He had settled into our midst see us through the eyes of Jesus, a Jewish carpenter in the backwater of the Roman Empire. Luke must have been rendered both heartbroken by the excruciating story of this Jesus’ death and astonished by his mind-blowing resurrection. He had seen the lives of many others changed, given new hope, courage, and purpose by the words said by and about this man who claimed God as His Father. He had seen first-hand the truth of the words written about Jesus and the Holy Spirit confirmed in the self-less and self-giving acts of those who had been transformed by those words both written and spoken to them by others. His life was changed, and he wanted others to experience the same words that had transformed him and took it upon himself to collect all of these stories he could and write them down so that others might be transformed too.
All of the saints we honor as Episcopalian Christians—“The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement” as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it, bear witness to someone who has been changed by these words, whether by reading them, or having someone speak them, or someone who enacted them as someone who accepted them and included them when they were a shunned Prodigal Son or who ministered to them like a Good Samaritan when they lay wounded in one of life’s ditches. And they, in turn, represent countless others through the ages who have been so moved by the stories Luke (and others) told and re-told. For these words have a way of being re-enacted in the actions towards others of those who have heard and been changed by those words. Those persons who founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in 1854, here in Kansas City MO, the forerunner of our present St. Mary’s, were among them!
“Re-enactment” is word often used to refer to a situation in which a time or a situation from the past is acted out, by “re-enactors", as in those who populate a replica of a Colonial village, or an Old West town, or a Civil War army bivouac. It helps us see how “those folks lived.” As part of the modern day “Jesus Movement”, we don’t don bathrobes and sandals and build a first century village for the tourists. We take the Biblical stories and teachings spoken and written millennia ago, and by the timeless power of God, make them come alive in our time and place by our actions towards others in the here and now. That process of passing on to others the love of God that we know, believe, and experience, has a place in our baptismal vows, as the question is asked of us “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
The Good News of Jesus becomes the Mighty Acts of the Apostles because that is the way that God works, and the way that God works through us even today. Here is something for all of us to think about: Are we are here because we once upon a time we read these words of Luke, of Matthew, of John, of St. Paul? Or heard them read by someone. Or had the words unspoken, but rather put into an act of kindness or hope or rescue by someone whose life had been changed and/or molded by these words, then, in turn, passed them. by word or action, on to us, resulting in our own transformation in some degree or another?
This “passing of the Good News” is called “Evangelism,” because Evangel literally means Good News! Unfortunately, it is a word that might have negative associations for us because of certain traditions that self-identify as “evangelicals.”
It might help some of us, therefore, to “re-associate” the word with St. Luke, and his work of gathering stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the mighty acts of God in the early Church, so that they would be remembered, and re-enacted in time of those who heard and read them.
He even tells us a story about Jesus that illustrates this. You heard it this morning.
Jesus begins his formal ministry by showing up in his hometown synagogue, and reading a familiar piece of Scripture by Isaiah. He read: “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 the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He rolled up the scroll. He looked at his listeners. They looked at him. Then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It was fulfilled because he was there to enact it. And, by the power of God, he did.
How might we, in turn, re-enact, this passage from Luke, again by the power of God, in our lives this week, or the next?
Be prepared to find out!
-The Rev. Larry Parrish
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!