Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 8th February 2012
Not once in the three year cycle of readings used by Anglicans are the opening words of Saint Luke’s gospel read at Sunday morning worship, which is a pity because the verses offer us important insights into the rest of the Gospel. Here is what Saint Luke writes about his purpose in setting down the words of his Gospel account:
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed”.
It is interesting to note what Luke says. ‘Many have undertaken to set down an orderly account’: he is aware that others have written Gospels, but it is always intriguing as to what he meant by ‘many.’ Different scholars draw different conclusions as to what material Saint Luke had access; he may have had read the Gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew; some believe that he and Matthew had access to a collection of the sayings of Jesus which scholars call ‘Q’, and perhaps also to a collection referred to as ‘L’.
He makes it clear that what he has written is something that has been handed to him by others, he intends to write of the events, ‘just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses’. Luke is not claiming to be writing a first hand account of Jesus but rather to be passing on what he has received exactly as he had received it.
“After investigating everything carefully from the very first’: Luke approaches his Gospel account in a way very different from that adopted by Mark. Mark is simply concerned with writing a Gospel; telling the Good News. Luke wishes to set down an orderly account of what he knows of the life of Jesus as well as to tell his readers of the Good News that Jesus brought.
“That you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed”: we don’t know who Theophilus was; his name literally means ‘friend of God’. Perhaps he is an actual person, perhaps Luke is writing for the many inquirers who had learned something of Jesus and who wanted to know the full story.
Epiphanius of Salamis, a fourth century Christian writer, stated in his book the ‘Panarion’ that Luke was one of the seventy-two from Saint Luke Chapter 10 whom Jesus sent out to proclaim the Good News. Epiphanius’ view would fit in with Luke’s description of himself as not one of the eye-witnesses of the events, but someone with close enough contact with those who were there to be able to set down his orderly account.
Luke appears in the New Testament in the writings of Saint Paul. The earliest mention is from the closing lines of Paul’s short letter to Philemon. In verse 23-24 of the letter, we read, ‘Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers’.
We know that Luke is a companion of Paul in his ministry from Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, and from references in the later Pauline letters: Colossians 4:14 says, ‘Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings’ and 2 Timothy 4:11, reflecting the closing period of Paul’s ministry, says ‘Only Luke is with me’.
The next reference we have was thought to be from 160-180 AD, within a century of Luke’s death, but is now thought to be from the Fourth Century, a work now called the ‘Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke, because of its opposition to the views of Marcion, who rejected the Jewish Scriptures, the ‘Prologue’ speaks of:
Luke, a native of Antioch, by profession a physician. He had become a disciple of the apostle Paul and later followed Paul until his [Paul’s] martyrdom. Having served the Lord continuously, unmarried and without children, filled with the Holy Spirit he died at the age of 84 years’.
One other clue to his biographical details are verses from Acts Chapter 16. Luke has written the book in the third person up until Chapter 16 Verse 8, ‘So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas’. Then the telling of the story changes, if we read Verse 9-11, we see Luke becomes part of the story, ‘During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days’. The verses would suggest that Luke was living in Troas when Paul arrived there and left home and work to join Paul on his journeys. The change of the way in which the story is told is an important and obvious change, but Luke draws no attention to it. How different he is from what we might expect if someone were writing the account in our own times!
Luke is a highly-educated, much-travelled and very cultured man, but his self-effacing attitude towards himself is a reminder that his task is not to tell his own story, nor to write history, but to present to people the Good News of Jesus.
If there is a Gospel that is especially suited to our time, it is Luke. We live in an age of suspicion and distrust towards authority, particularly towards the church. It is no longer adequate (if it ever was) to present people with a series of facts and propositions. Stories are needed to capture the imagination and Luke was the only one to record two of the most famous of the stories told by Jesus, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. They are timeless in their quality—the Prodigal Son addressing issues of family life, of materialism, of forgiveness and reconciliation and the Good Samaritan helping us to think about how to confront sectarianism, racism and prejudice.
At a time when institutional Christianity is crumbling, the place of prayer in Saint Luke’s Gospel helps us think about how we develop personal spirituality, how we can be confident about continuing to be Christians in an age when the church as we know it might disappear.
The decline of the institutional church brings with it a decline of the authority with which the church might speak, but if we read Saint Luke, this does not present a problem. “The Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say”, says Jesus in Luke Chapter 12 Verse 12. The assumption of authority by the church was a forgetting that authority lay with God and that the Holy Spirit would always be there for the faithful.
Saint Luke’s Gospel has a special place for women and anyone who has been to the developing world will know how critical is the role of women in achieving development, not only do women do the majority of work in rural Africa, they also reinvest 90% of anything they earn the lives of their families—a proportion far larger than men who have a tendency to spend money in bars (and in video clubs watching English Premier League football matches!). The role of women in Saint Luke’s Gospel points to the role of women in a better world.
Saint Luke stresses strongly the humanity of Jesus, particularly noticeable in his description of the time in the Garden of Gethsemane, and makes much of Jesus’ concern for the weak, the suffering and the outcast. They are emphases that we need in an age when the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider and wider. If we do not care for other people, then everything else counts for nothing.
Like Luke, we need to have confidence to face our world with nothing more than trust in Jesus and his story.