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Luke's Day, 18.10.78. The Queen's College, Birmingham, 5.30 p.m. Eucharist
Summary: In our diversity of witness and understanding we are complementary to each other.
This evening, on St Luke's Day, we have gathered together to share with thanksgiving the bread and cup of the Lord, that is, we who are many may be one body because we all share the one bread and the one cup.
And yet there are differences among us, differences in how we understand the
gospel, differences in what we emphasize, and differences in our needs. In
yesterday's community meeting one of these was pointed to when it was jestingly
suggested that David Cook and Frances Young [who both teach New Testament]
recommend the books published by the Banner of Truth.
If we all know the same Lord Jesus, how can we be so diverse? If we all live, work, play and pray together ought we not to expect that we should agree more broadly and deeply than, in fact, we do? Don't we all of us feel at some time or another that life would be much rosier if only others could see the truth as we see it?
Perhaps it is here that St Luke can help us in dealing with the problem of diversity: is it a bane or is it a blessing?
Let us start with our reading from the Book of Acts, the second half of Luke's writing. in this passage about the journey of Paul and his companions there is a sudden shift of pronouns in the midst of it. From having talked about how "they" went through Phrygia and Galatia down to Troas, it suddenly talks about how "we" sought to go on to Macedonia. These "we" passages in Acts occur almost always in narratives about travel, so they look like they are part of a travel diary. And yet they are in the same style as the rest of the book. So it is very likely that Luke travelled with Paul on a number of his journeys. Like us, Luke and Paul were one in fellowship.
And yet, whereas Paul's basic message is "I would know nothing among you
save Christ Jesus and him crucified", Luke does not seem to present
anything like the same emphasis on the centrality of the cross, and he certainly
does not present the event as a sacrifice. This substantial difference of
Luke's presentation from that of Paul. Mark, John or even Matthew, has long
since led such a New Testament scholar as R. V. G. Tasker in his book, The
Nature and Purpose of the Gospels (SCM, 1962) to say of Luke's Gospel,
"A Christianity ... based solely on this gospel would be ... even more
untrue than that based solely on any one of the other three" (p. 48).
Tasker goes on to say about Luke's narrative of Jesus' passion, "If therefore we had to depend solely on his narrative, we should have no true picture of what it cost to redeem men's souls; in fact, we should have no idea that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sin at all. It is therefore natural that those who wish to eliminate the Atonement from Christianity tend to exaggerate the significance of the Gospel of Luke" (p. 55). Tasker then goes on to state his own rejection of any form of "religion which stresses the love of God as the expense of His severity" (p. 55), and Tasker clearly thinks that Luke's Gospel opens up this possibility.
So in Luke we have someone who was one in fellowship with Paul and yet presents the Gospel with a substantially different emphasis, or at least in a way that highlights different facets of the Gospel than either Paul or the other evangelists. So let us now look at out Old Testament reading, and by commenting on it, see what we can learn from Luke that may deepen, broaden and reinforce our understanding of the Gospel.
The reading was Isaiah 35.3-6. It started out nicely enough, with words of encouragement and strength for those with weak hands, feeble knees and a fearful heart. Certainly Luke has good news to say to these people and to us as we go out in ministry. But then the Isaiah passage goes on to say, "Behold, your God will come with vengeance", and it is here that Luke goes in a very different direction.
If there was anything that most Jews agreed on in Jesus' day, it was their dislike and even hatred of their Roman overlords. This even found expression in the Jewish feast of Purim, when they read the Scroll of Esther, which many of us have heard read in the lectionary during the first week of October. This feast, and the book of Esther itself, was a thinly veiled looking forward to the day when the Jews could knock the guts out of out of their Gentile oppressors. This hatred of being a subject people was part of the basis for the Jewish hatred pf those who were taxgatherers for the Roman government.
If there was any phrase that summed up this attitude, it was the phrase "signs and wonders", It occurs about 40 times in the Old Testament, and it invariably refers to God's judgement and punishing actions against the oppressors of Israel, namely, the Gentiles.
St Luke, in his work of Luke-Acts, uses this phrase far more often than any other writer of the New Testament, and he turns it completely upside down. Now it becomes the signs and wonders of God's mercy for all men.
It is Luke who presents salvation coming in Jesus' person to the house of Zacchaeus, the hated taxgatherer, who is also a son of Abraham. It is Luke who presents us with a Jesus who sets up the hated Samaritan as the neighbour to be loved and as an example of the good neighbour. It is in Luke that the male Jew's daily prayer, "Thank God I was not born a woman" is undone when Jesus gives Mary pride of place for sitting at his feet to learn Torah, for very few rabbis though that women should be taught Torah.
In all these ways Luke presents a witness to Jesus, and I believe it to be true witness, that those who would follow Jesus cannot buy their security at the cost of condemning those who are different than they are. They dare not gain stature for themselves by becoming a cosy in-group or by castigating those who are different. They are empowered and impelled to move out and to accept all kinds of different people with differing viewpoints.
If, like Professor Tasker, some of us find it hard to think of God as loving without severity, perhaps we might ponder the story in Luke, chapter 4 [4.18-19a, where Jesus comes to synagogue in Nazareth and reads the words from Isaiah 61 [61.1-2a]:
|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.
Here is the costliness of God's love. It is seen in Jesus' standing out for God's salvation as intended to be held out to all people and not just to some, to those whom we find it hard to like as well as to those who are likeminded, in forgiveness, acceptance, healing and service unbounded and not in vengeance or in terms of a God of a tit-for-tat kind of justice. It is Luke's witness that Jesus stood out for the God whom we shall worship without fear, the God who calls us to be merciful as he is merciful, and it is Luke's witness that it is because Jesus stood for this that he was put to death. May we with St Luke live and die in and for that selfsame witness that we may truly be one Body as we break the one Bread, going out by God's grace to live with one another, to love one another, and to learn from one another in Christ to God's glory.