St Luke The Physician
2 Timothy 4:5-17
It’s always a treat when from time to time a Saint’s day of the church lands on a Sunday. We would always keep St Luke’s day anyway here, but it does give us an opportunity, on the Sunday, to think a little more deeply about the way in which this particular man has influenced the church to which we belong. St Luke of course is one of the four Evangelists. That means that one of the four Gospels which the church regards as canonical, in other words the four Gospels which made it into the final cut of the Scripture, is attributed to him. That’s one of the things that most people know about Luke. That he wrote one of the Gospels. The other thing that most people know about Luke, I guess, is that he was a doctor. We’ll come back to that in a minute, but let’s begin with the gospel that bears his name.
It’s really interesting isn’t it that as Christians we kind of know that there are four Gospels, and that those Gospels contain different stories, but by and large we picture the life of Christ as a sort of amalgam of all four Gospels squished together and mixed up like a sort of delicious cake. Probably most of us don’t immediately think when we hear a reading, ‘ahh that’s from Matthew’, or ‘ahh that’s from John’. The Gospel, as it were, is a mixture of these four accounts, and, if we are honest, probably also some stuff that our own imaginations have thrown in along the way, or that popular traditions have added. But imagine for a moment that the Gospel of St Luke hadn’t made the cut into the Scripture. I don’t know, imagine that some group of bearded robed men in a room somewhere, had turned their noses up at it and thought ‘no this is not going to make it into our volume’, what would we lose? Well it is rather interesting actually. For a start, we wouldn’t have Christmas. An interesting thought isn’t it? The gospel according to St Luke is the only gospel which records the nativity. Matthew gives us Epiphany, the visit of the wise men to the child Jesus. Matthew also gives us the angel visiting Joseph, not Mary interestingly. Mark doesn’t give us anything until Jesus is an adult, and we all know what the front-end of St John’s Gospel looks like, and as glorious as it is, it’s not stables and shepherds and angels is it?! So we wouldn’t have Christmas as we know it without St Luke. We wouldn’t have that lovely story of Jesus childhood either: the one where Jesus gets left behind by his parents at 12 years old and is discovered in the temple when Mary and Joseph finally return to search for him. We wouldn’t have the story of the miraculous catch of fish, or the 10 lepers. We wouldn’t have the story of the penitent thief on the cross, the walk to Emmaus after the resurrection, and we wouldn’t have most of the material concerning Jesus’ Ascension. What an extraordinary amount of the story as it exists in our heads comes from this gospel narrative.
There’s another part of the gospel according to Luke which is unique to that account as well, and this is the useful link with the tradition that Luke is a doctor. You remember the account of Jesus in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest? We usually hear it sung on Palm Sunday morning. When the crowd of soldiers and priests arrive to arrest Jesus in the gloom and the darkness of the garden, we are told in several of the accounts the one of the things that happens is that the disciples tried to defend Jesus, and a blow was struck at one of the slaves of the high priest resulting in his ear being cut off. Only Luke, Luke the physician, the doctor, records that Jesus after that event, touches the slave of the high priest and heals his ear. Interesting isn’t it?
Actually the only place where Luke is referred to as a doctor is in the letter to the Colossians, but biblical scholars point to the fact that the author of the third gospel notices that Jesus heals the slave’s ear, when none of the other authors do, as a bit more evidence for this. Here is a man who is interested in healing. Here is a man who notices that little detail.
I think there’s lots for us here, as a community, in the example of Luke. Luke who tells the story of Jesus. Luke, of course, tells the story of the early church in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. A lot of people think that Luke and Acts were originally one book in fact. Luke who, in Scripture and in the tradition is described as a physician, a doctor, a healer, someone who is interested in the health of the people around him. Luke who according to tradition died a martyr’s death, which is why we are wearing these red vestments today.
If you look up to the high East End of this building, you will notice the second most famous East window of Salisbury Cathedral. It is a good deal older than the blue window, the one that most people comment on, and it depicts that account from the book of Numbers where Moses makes a serpent of bronze and sets it up on a pole, and when the people gaze upon the serpent on the pole, they are healed. The serpent on the pole has become the universal symbol of healing. Numbers chapter 21 verse eight: “the Lord said to Moses, make a snake and set it up upon a pole, anyone who is bitten can look upon it and live”. You see that symbol all over the place, on ambulances, on helicopters, you see it in footage from war zones, places of natural disaster, you see it on the walls of hospitals across the world. I’m intrigued and rather thankful that whoever it was who commissioned that window did so. I think it was put in in 1781. The sub-Dean preached a rather better sermon than this on the window about a year ago, and is still on the website, I’d encourage you to read it. But at the very highest point of the inside of this building, at the eastern end, we have held before us every day as we meet for worship the symbol of healing. The symbol which across the world is now associated with the fact that there are people who care for us, and who will try to make us whole. And I think that’s a privilege. I look at it every day from my stall during Evensong, and I am reminded of the gospel. The words written below the window are a quotation from John’s Gospel: “even so must the son of man be lifted up”. And we’re back to the story of Jesus.
For Luke I think, whether or not he was a doctor in the way in which GPs and specialists are doctors today, wholeness is at the heart of his gospel. I think that’s evidenced particularly in that lovely little story from Gethsemane about the fact that Jesus bothers to heal the slave’s ear, before being taken away to his own humiliation, kangaroo trial, and degrading public death. But you know it’s also seen at the very beginning of the gospel according to Luke. What are the words that the angels sing to the shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem? “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Goodwill toward people”. Luke puts into the mouths of the citizens of heaven the confident assertion that what Jesus is about is bringing peace. About bringing goodwill. And who is it who remains with Paul when, towards the very end of his ministry, it seems that many others have abandoned him, perhaps frightened of the way in which his ministry is going. Verse 11 of our first reading this morning, “only Luke is with me”. Luke remains with Paul sharing with him in his suffering, bringing peace, and perhaps the promise of wholeness.
Paula Gooder, as part of the afternoon discussion she and I led a few weeks ago here in the cathedral, reminded us that in parts of the Scripture, the same word is used to mean both peace and wholeness. The Bible very often doesn’t differentiate between the two words. Both, in Hebrew, are rendered shalom. That what we pray for when we pray for healing, or where we pray for the absence of war, is actually that we are praying for wholeness. For the putting back together again of either an individual, or society, or the church, or indeed the whole world. Do you know I think that’s vital for us to remember.
There is renewed violence, appalling violence, in South Sudan. There is ongoing bloodshed all across the world. There are hundreds and thousands of men, women and children homeless and terrified, fleeing across the borders of our own European Union. There are communities at each other’s throats in our own nation, and individuals in this community are visited by tragedy, sickness, pain, and seemingly unjustifiable circumstance. How do we begin to pray for all that? How do we begin to respond positively to all of that? Well I don’t think I’m being facetious, or churchy, when I suggest that we could do worse than read the gospel according to Saint Luke again. We who meet each week for worship below the symbol of the serpent on the pole can be reminded today by St Luke the Evangelist and Physician, that amongst the first words addressed to the world in the gospel that bears his name are “peace on earth and goodwill to all”. “Wholeness on earth”. We can be reminded that amongst the last things that our Lord did before giving himself up into the hands of those who would kill him was to heal the ear of one of the people who meant him harm. The gospel according to St Luke is framed by the call to make the world whole again. That is no less than the task to which God calls us today. And if you want to seek out that wholeness for yourself or for someone else, there will be people waiting to pray with you during communion. Do make use of that ministry, for it is the ministry of Christ himself. The words with which you will be addressed are these: “in the name of God and trusting in his strength alone, receive Christ’s healing touch to make you whole”.