Last Thursday saw the sixth anniversary of the extraordinary rescue of the thirty-three miners from the San José mine in northern Chile. During the ordeal a leader emerged, shift supervisor Luis Urzua. His natural authority persuaded them to ration their food supplies and generally kept them going, but afterwards they all resisted attempts to depict them as one hero plus the rest, insisting on their solidarity as ‘the Thirty-Three’. Underground, they had given each other nicknames – ‘the Doctor’, ‘the Runner’ – to emphasise that each had a distinctive part to play. More of that later.
Today we celebrate Luke the Evangelist. We do not know who wrote what we know as Luke's gospel: perhaps it was Luke, the companion of Paul (also called the Doctor) or perhaps not - and it doesn’t matter.
The main thing, the gospel itself, lies before us with its unique portrait of Jesus, and tonight we dip our toes in a stream that runs through the whole book.
This gospel is preoccupied with ordinary people. Compare Luke’s Christmas stories with Matthew’s: Matthew describes the birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph, Luke from that of Mary - in that culture (and many others) the social inferior; Matthew has stately wise men pay Jesus a visit but Luke has shepherds, the miners of their day, whose work is vital but keeps them on the margins of society. Luke's Jesus is for everyone, especially perhaps those on the edge of things.
This evening, Jesus sends out disciples to bring peace and healing, but it’s not the twelve we are used to: there are seventy of them. The twelve disciples are less of an isolated group in Luke. It’s not an élite plus the rest, for Luke sees Jesus as a saviour for everyone: his invitation is to the many and no-one is automatically ruled out.
If we let this speak not just to them but to us tonight, that may be uncomfortable, because here he is inviting the many to do his work. And here is a difference between Chile’s Thirty Three and Jesus’ Seventy. The miners were ordinary people pitched into an extraordinary ordeal with no choice over whether or not to go through it but only over how to go through it. For the Seventy it is different. These ordinary people have every choice. Jesus is not commanding an army but attracting a ragbag of followers and they don’t have to obey; they can just go and leave Jesus to it - as some will when Jesus is arrested.
You may have found yourself in a situation a little like that of the Thirty Three – a time of trial you could not escape. Like them - and many of them were people of faith - you may have found a strength that was not your own. Indeed, this may be what you are going through now, in which case this is the place to be, for here God makes weak hands strong and firms up the feeble knees, as the prophet Isaiah says.
It may, though, be more accurate to see yourself among the Seventy.
Here I am (you might say) in the ragbag of Jesus’ followers drawn by this place; or these people; by a sense that here I am touching deep things, drawn by a rumour of God. The Lord gives me good things here, but now I am told the Lord wants to send me. He talks about peace and healing, things that I find here - in his place, among his people - and now he wants me to take those things to others.
And at this point you may say
This is not about me; it’s for others to work on the harvest of the Lord, to take risks for God, not for me;
I am not one of the chosen, not one of the inner circle, the committed.
Well – just as the welcome of Jesus is for all, so is the call of Jesus which follows, and no-one – neither you nor I – is ruled out. And if that makes you feel out of your depth, let us not underestimate the power of what we do here, as we open our ears to the voice of God in Scripture, and our hands to receive the life of Jesus in bread and wine. Here is strength that is not our own. We will let this strength work among us in a further way tonight as, in honour of Luke the doctor, we offer the ministry of healing and wholeness, laying on of hands and anointing. It will be done not by an élite cadre but by some of the twenty-odd people in our (growing) healing team.
Just how Jesus invites any of us to be a bringer of peace and healing will differ from one to another. It may be a calling for the remainder of your life - it’s never too early or too late for that - or it may be something immediate and specific. What we can say, though, is that there are few if any of us here to whom such an invitation is not offered tonight. The harvest is plentiful and ours is a gospel of democratic discipleship in which we each, like the Runner and the Doctor and the rest of the Thirty Three, have a distinctive part to play.