Return to Index or Sermons
St Lukeís Day (19 Trinity), 18.10.98, St Markís
Isa 35.3-6: God ... will come with vengeance
(Acts 16.6-12a: Paul and Timothy ... we ...)
2Tim 4.5-17: Luke is with me
Luke 10.1-9: sending the 70 (2398 words)
Summary: Luke is concerned with out-going and on-going mission to everyone.
Today is the feast of St Luke the Evangelist, and all year we have been following his gospel on Sundays of Year C of the Common Lectionary, so this morning I want to share with you a few insights into what Luke was trying to do when he wrote his two-part work, the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke has his own distinctive witness to the gospel. If we may characterize each of the Gospels, we might say that Matthew is the gospel for disciples, that is, for learners, which is what the word disciple means, and Matthew most systematically sets out the teaching of Jesus as the Way of God that is to be followed. Mark might be summed up in Paulís words from 1 Corinthians: "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified", with the emphasis being on the necessity of going in the way of the cross if one would truly know Jesus as Lord, Messiah and Son of God. John is the gospel of the community of Love: "You are to love one another as I have loved you". If we try to sum up the distinctiveness of each gospel by one word, then: Matthew is the Gospel of the Teacher, Mark is the Gospel of the Cross, John is the Gospel of Love, and by the same token, Luke and Acts constitute, above all, the Gospel of Mission, of mission to all people everywhere.
One way that we can see this is by going to the very end of Acts, where we find Paul in Rome, the heart of the Gentile world, talking to Jews about a passage from the Book of Isaiah, saying that the salvation of God is also sent to the gentiles. The final note is that no one hinders anyone coming to hear him tell of the Kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. And when we turn back to the Gospel, we find an exactly parallel story about Jesus at the end of chapter 4, at the very beginning of his ministry.
Jesus enters the synagogue at Nazareth on the Sabbath, and he is handed the scroll of Isaiah. He unrolls it to what we call Isaiah chapter 61, and he reads one and one-half verses only, hands it back, and sits down to teach. Now the passage that he read sounds very much like part of our reading from Isaiah 35 this morning: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. The second half of the second verse that he carefully omitted is: "And the day of vengeance of our God". Incidentally, you may have noticed that vengeance was prominent in this morningís reading from Isaiah. Jesus then goes on to say that there were many widows in Israel in Elijahís day, but he was sent only to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon, a gentile in gentile territory. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, but the one he cleansed was Naaman, the Syrian, another gentile. Because Jesus omits the note of vengeance and talks of outreach to gentiles, the people of the city try to cast him down headlong from a hill, but he passes through their midst unhindered. It is this note of out-reaching mercy and compassion for all that Luke places at the heart of Jesusí teaching. Where Matthew has "You shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (5.48), Luke instead has "You are to be merciful as your Father is merciful".
When Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts he thought of them as a unity, and he had an overall plan for them. That plan is to be found in Act 1.8, when the risen Lord says to his disciples, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." In line with this plan the Gospel begins in Jerusalem, in the temple, with Zechariah, and the angel telling him of his future son, John the Baptist. It moves out from there to Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth speaking of gentiles. The gospel then moves by stages from concern for gentiles, such as the centurion who seeks healing for his servant, on to stories about Samaritans and Samaria, like the Samaritan leper we heard about last Sunday. Then Jesus moves on to Judaea and finally Jerusalem and the temple. Acts begins with the disciples in Jerusalem, frequenting the temple. After Stephenís martyrdom they spread through all Judaea and Samaria, and then, by stages, throughout the gentile world, ending up, as we have seen, with Paul in the very heart of the gentile world, Rome. Thus Luke lays out his vision of the church as being sent to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, a witness above all, to the mercy of God, with no vengeance.
Another striking aspect to Lukeís concern for mercy for all is his use of the phrase "signs and wonders". In the Old Testament we find the phrase almost 40 times. And every time it concerns Godís punishing acts and judgements against the gentile oppressors of Israel, usually the Egyptians. But Luke inverts it and uses it to speak instead of the "signs and wonders" of Godís love and mercy being shown to all people.
Joyce [Birkett, Vicar of St Markís] spoke last week about "endurance
and fidelity", and Luke is especially concerned to encourage us and to
enable us to endure and to remain faithful no matter what happens.
One of the ways he does this is to use what we may call the Exodus pattern. In Lukeís account of the Transfiguation he says that Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about the Exodus that he will accomplish in Jerusalem. The Exodus out of Egypt is mentioned over 200 times in the writings of the Old Testament, and it forms the heart of what was probably the earliest creed of Israel, as we find it in the Book of Deuteronomy. It says that one is to bring a basket of the firstfruits of the harvest to the priest, put down the basket and say the following: "A wandering Aramaean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders, and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey" [Deut 26.5b-9]. This is presented as a four-stage story: Stage 1: initial success Ė becoming a mighty and populous people. Stage 2: oppression Ė afflicted by the Egyptians. Stage 3: vindication Ė freed by the LORD. Stage 4: greater success Ė in the promised land. It is Luke who uses thus pattern time and again:
In the life of the church in Acts Luke uses the same 4-stage format time and again. One example is in Acts chapter 5, where we find the apostles meeting daily in the temple, and through them God is doing signs and wonders. They are held in honour with many being added to the Lord. The high priest and Sadducees are jealous and have them put in prison. They are freed by the angel of the Lord, after which they are told to "Go stand in the temple and speak, which they do to the perplexity of the chief priests. Again, we have: initial success, oppression, vindication, greater success.
Lukeís purpose in telling his stories this way is to encourage disciples to hang in there when times are hard, as though to say: You had initial success, but now the going has gotten rough? Donít give up: hang in there, for God will bring you back not only to where you started, but to even better times.
And the potential, the power, for doing this lies in prayer and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is Luke who emphasizes that Jesus is begotten by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, and empowered by the Spirit, especially as he prays. In the same way Luke then presents the church as begotten by the Spirit at Pentecost, guided by the Spirit in all its prayerful deliberations, and empowered by the Spirit to bear witness.
When we read St Johnís Gospel, Jesus empowers the disciples with the Holy Spirit on the day of resurrection, Easter day itself. And St Paul in 1 Corinthians likewise connects the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit as one event. So why has Luke in his second book apparently moved the empowering of the disciples with the Holy Spirit to fifty days later, the feast of Pentecost, and what difference did he hope that it would make for those for whom he wrote then Ė and for us today?
The answer to this question lies in what the Feast of Pentecost meant to the Jews and also in the various traditions associated with the feast.
This Jewish feast originally marked the start of the wheat harvest, and was what we might call a Harvest Thanksgiving. But it was given an historical meaning, so that well before Jesusí day it was a celebrating of Godís giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, that is, the giving of what we call the Law.
Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel was a passage that was read at the season of Pentecost. One of the Jewish traditions, based on this passage and associated with the feast is that when God spoke on Mount Sinai his voice was heard in every land, but only Israel responded. And so Luke tells the story that representatives of every land on the feast of Pentecost now hear Godís good news, the gospel, in their own tongue, in effect, undoing the Tower of Babel and bringing people together again.
After the exile in Babylon, when the Jews returned to Israel under the leadership of such people as Ezra and Nehemiah, there was a drive towards what we today might call "ethnic cleansing", for Ezra and Nehemiah tried to force all the Jews who had stayed in the land to get rid of their Canaanite wives. In reaction against this drive for ethnic purity, the scroll of the Book of Ruth was read at Pentecost, and this scroll reminded the Jews that their great king David came through the line of a non-Israelite, Ruth, the Moabite.
Also at the time of the feast one of the readings following on from the story of the Tower of Babel was Genesis 12, which tells of Abraham, the patriarch of Israel, leaving his home land of Haran. And Gen 12.5 tells of his taking with him "all the souls he had begotten in Haran". Jewish tradition took the phrase, "the souls he had begotten" as being proselytes, or converts. In fact, the same tradition spoke of Abraham himself as having been a proselyte or convert to the worship of Yahweh, the Lord.
So, when we put together these elements of the Feast of Pentecost, we see a
breaking down of old ethnic barriers in the reading of the Book of Ruth, a
concern for opening up the community to new members in the traditions about
Abraham, and a sharing of the good news with people from every known land. That
is, Pentecost is above all the missionary feast.
Now we can see why Luke associates the giving of the Spirit with the Feast of Pentecost. He wants to make very sure that we do not think we have been given the Holy Spirit in order to be happy simply in our Christian fellowship with one another. Rather, we have been given the Spirit to empower us to share the good news of the gospel with those outside our fellowship. In fact, when you read the end of the Gospel according to Luke and the beginning of the Book of Acts, Luke says that the disciples were very happy among themselves already, so that when he tells of the Spirit coming upon them on the Feast of Pentecost the Spirit comes very much as the Spirit of mission. The Spirit is a sending Spirit.
We have seen Lukeís emphasis on mercy and compassion, an emphasis that he shares with Matthew.
We have seen his concern for a mission of outreach to everyone, a concern that Luke shares with Matthew and Mark, with Luke giving it even greater emphasis.
We have seen his emphasis on the centrality of the Holy Spirit, an emphasis that he shares with John, while he adds great stress on the Spirit as being given for mission, which is why it is appropriate that the gospel chosen for today tells of Jesus sending the seventy into mission.
And we have seen his deep concern for prayer and encouraging us for the long run no matter what happens, and this is an emphasis all Lukeís own.
So let us rejoice and give thanks for Lukeís witness to Jesus and the good news of the life in Christ, and pray that we my stay true to it as disciples of the same Lord.