Evensong 18th October 2020
Whose praise is in the Gospel
St Luke's Day 2020
There is comparatively little that can be known with certainty about a number of figures in the Bible, not least St Luke, whose feast day is today. We do at least have some references in Scripture: Luke accompanied Paul on two of his missionary journeys (Acts 16 and Acts 20), and stuck with him right to the end: Paul says “only Luke is with me” when writing from Rome to Timothy (2 Tim 4. 11). Paul calls him a “fellow worker in the letter to Philemon (Philemon 24) and “the beloved physician” in tonight’s New Testament reading (Col 4. 14). Paul must have been grateful, given his many ailments, to have a doctor as his close companion. Luke was probably a Gentile, as he is named in Colossians 4 but not included as one of those “of the circumcision” in the same passage. As far as the New Testament is concerned, that’s it. He may well have come from Antioch, if you accept a later variant of a verse in Acts (Acts 11.28).
For the rest, we have to reply on tradition and scholarship. Most fundamentally, the Gospel which bears his name didn’t do so originally. However, the Luke who accompanied Paul was been ascribed as the author of the Gospel from at least the second century, and the tradition was not disputed. The author of the Gospel was also the author of Acts, and there are various passages where the narrative becomes “we” rather than “they”. Whether Luke, as described in an early text, was unmarried, gave himself solely to the service of the church, and died aged 84 in Boeotia in Greece, we cannot quite know. Other sources say he was martyred by being hanged from an olive tree.
That a “beloved physician” should become the patron saint of doctors is understandable. He’s also the patron of butchers, not because of bad surgeons, but because the symbol of his Gospel is the winged ox. He’s the patron of artists also, because he was supposed to be the first writer of icons, and a painting in Rome was ascribed to him. He’s the patron of students, because he learned and wrote about the Jesus he had never met. And bachelors. So there. From early days he was associated with the “brother” in 2 Corinthians 8.18, “famous for proclaiming the good news”, and that gives the 1549 Book of Common Prayer its collect: “whose praise is in the Gospel”.
It’s the Gospel I want to return to. It’s reasonable to say Luke the physician wrote it, and I thought it would be interesting to hear perspectives on Luke from eminent medical professionals of our own day. The Christian Medical Fellowship publishes a journal, and in two articles offers insights from medics of faith: a Director of Tropical Health and a Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics. Both of them praise Luke as a “gifted clinician”. He observes carefully, talks to eyewitnesses, and keeps careful records. Contemporary archaeology confirms much of the detail of the Gospel and Acts. He is to be trusted as a recorder of events.
As a physician, a healer, Luke is interested in the human condition, and our medics note his special focus on the outsider and the downtrodden. He gives a prominent role to the women who supported Jesus, affording them honour in a society where this was complex and rarely done. He records the parables of the lost – like the sheep and the coin. Luke alone gives us the prodigal son, self excluded, and the Good Samaritan, who reaches across the boundaries of prejudice to cement his common humanity with a Jew in distress. Luke shows us the Jesus who reaches across barriers, touches the untouchable and restores the lost. When Jesus tells someone that their faith has made them well it also means that they have been saved. Luke the doctor shows Jesus the saviour of souls and the healer of mind and body.
John Wyatt, Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics make the interesting point that many physicians buy into the social attitudes of their time and prefer the elite to the masses, the rich over the poor. Not so Luke, Words like accessibility, discrimination, exclusion and inclusion may not have been in the vocabulary of his day, but Luke the physician is all about healing the deep wounds of division as well as the physical wounds of disease and illness. Eldryd Parry, an expert in tropical health says Luke’s Gospel should be acclaimed “because it is socially radical – both in its assault on the attitudes and prejudices of the time and in the interest and care that Luke shows for those whom nobody cared for, the dispossessed and weak of his world.” Luke shows the best elements of the medical profession, and also shows it where it fails people too.
The Collect of St Luke speaks of the “medicine of the Gospel”. In Luke we are given a clear sight of God who in Jesus heals body, mind, soul, community, nation, world. God’s church is to play its part in that healing and salvation. Luke shows that such medicine is powerful to save. Not all doctors used their medicine, their opportunity to heal, wisely and openly. Not all health systems treat rich and poor equally: look at the disparities revealed by Covid-19. The church too can buy in to such discrimination and prejudice, excluding people and closing its doors. The enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse shows the Church of England to be systematic in its failure to protect the vulnerable. In Black History month we are confronted with the way the Church of England denied black people in England a place in the church they had come from in the Caribbean.
Thanks be to God that we have been given the good news of the Gospel. Medicine for the soul. Luke tells us that it is for all. It is for us to overturn the systems, and to make it so, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.Print This Page