A Sermon preached on
the Feast of St Luke, Physician and Evangelist
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
on October 18, 2020 11:00 am
Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. 2 Timothy 4.9-11a
The lectionary of Common Worship gives one the option to mark this Sunday as the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church), or as the Feast of St Luke. I have decided to go with the Feast.
Now, the collect today, as well as other prayers provided in the Church of England, all suggest that there was someone named Luke, who some 1980 years ago was a companion of Paul, was a doctor, and also wrote The Gospel according to Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. Thus, our gospel reading is Jesus’s instructions to his disciples about preaching the good news, and our reading from Isaiah and the Psalm deal with healing. So far so straightforward, right?
Well, no. Because, in all probability, there were two Lukes.
One is the person referred to in the quotation above. He is a companion of Paul. He is also mentioned as being with Paul in the Letter to Philemon, and in Colossians he is referred to as “Luke, the beloved physician.” That is it. Later works add details, but they are viewed with great skepticism. For example the Orthodox Church believes that Luke was the first iconographer, doing a portrait of Mary, the Mother of God, from life. However, the first mention of this dates from the 8th century, in the midst of the iconoclastic controversy.
Then there is the author of the Third Gospel, and the Acts of the Apostles. What is interesting here is that nowhere in the text of the gospel does the author identify himself – the author is anonymous. Likewise, nowhere in Acts does the author identify himself. The same is true of the other three gospels as well. How did they get the attributions to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, then?
Well, the four gospels came to circulate together relatively soon after they were written – perhaps by 100 CE. By that time no one was alive who knew Jesus in the flesh, and it was felt that if these anonymous works were ascribed to some of the pioneers of the faith then their authority would be accepted. So, each was ascribed to a member of the Twelve – Matthew and Luke – or companions of the apostles – Mark and Luke. Luke carried the authority of Paul, and Mark the authority of Peter. It was a pious tradition, incorporated early on in the manuscripts, and having these titles made it convenient to keep the four separate. Modern scholarship, however, doubts that the same person who is referred to in Philemon, Second Timothy, and Colossians, is necessarily the same person who produced the two volume work of Luke and Acts. However, because it gets inconvenient and strange to say “the anonymous author of the Gospel according to Luke and Acts of the Apostles” most scholars just call the author “Luke”.
Of course, none of this is a matter of salvation; our standing before God and the strength of our faith does not depend on whether tradition is correct and there was only one person, or whether, as modern scholarship suggests, there were really two. But it is perhaps instructive. To the question, “Where does this leave us?” we might answer “Today we can honour two very different types of people in the early church.”
One is personified by Luke, the beloved physician, about whom we know next to nothing. Luke stands alongside all the other early followers of Christ about whom we know very little. Behind them are the anonymous Christians, who carried the gospel from Jerusalem to Damascus, and from Antioch to Rome. We do not know who these people were. I suspect many of them were otherwise perfectly ordinary people who were attracted to the message of Jesus Christ and could not help but share it with others by word and by deed as they moved around the Roman Empire.
The other type of person we might honor are those who have transformed the world by their achievements. In some case we know their names: Mary of Magdala, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos. Sometimes they are literally anonymous, but we know them very well through their written works . They speak loud and clear: the anonymous authors of the gospels, the anonymous author who wrote the three letters ascribed to John, the anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews, and so forth. The author of the Third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles wrote over one-quarter of the New Testament. In the first paragraph the author we call for convenience “Luke” writes,
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.
Theophilus here is “God-lover” – probably not a person, but the reader, you and me, anyone who hears the gospel being read. The author says he is setting things in order – a theological and evangelical order, mainly, not a history as we would understand it.
- So in the gospel we follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, and in the Acts we follow the apostles from Jerusalem through Samaria and Galilee, Syria, Anatolia, and Greece, and then on to Rome, portraying the explosive growth of the church.
- The author refers to the action of the Holy Spirit more than any other evangelist, and has given us the hymns of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, as well as the Benedictus.
- In this gospel only do we find the story of the shepherds of Bethlehem, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and the story of the Good Thief at the cross – and in these stories and elsewhere the author shows a concern from the outsider, the abandoned, and the repentant sinner.
- Similarly, only Luke has the story of the Walk to Emmaus, and he is the only one to describe the ascension, and he does so twice, at the end of the gospel and at the beginning of Acts.
- In Acts he fleshes out our understanding of who Peter and Paul were, although sometimes smooths out the rough edges of conflict that is apparent in the Letters of Paul.
These two texts, now part of our sacred scripture, shows us who Jesus is, and what the body of Christ was like. It is an incredible achievement.
We can see ourselves in these two Lukes, because the church has needed both. While the church conflates them, let’s keep them apart for just a little bit more.
On the one hand we need these Christians who do amazing things for God, so that we stand in awe of their achievements. I think today of such folks as Desmond Tutu and C.S. Lewis, Mother Teresa and John XXIII, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, and Aimee Semple McPherson and Simone Weil.
But most of us are not like that. Most of us are footnotes to history. I am reminded of the line that the poet Malcom Guite repeated from a dying friend of his: “I thought my life was an epic, but it turns out to have been a sonnet.” Nevertheless, although most of us may be short sonnets – or haikus, or limericks, or epigrams – we can be faithful. As is written in Second Timothy, “Only Luke is with me.” That is enough.
So, on this day in which we celebrate St Luke, who may have been one person or two, let us also celebrate ourselves, as the body of Christ, and how we show forth Jesus in our lives in word and deed.