Stephen Conway explores the example of St Luke
How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness…
This evening, we celebrate St Luke, evangelist and patron of this parish. Current circumstances mean that we are not celebrating in all the ways we usually would, and perhaps we don’t feel very much like celebrating in these uncertain times, but the calendar calls us back and invites us to remember Luke. We give thanks for the life of this parish and pray for it. After the example of the saints, we both rejoice and intercede.
Luke was, of course, the first church historian. He set down his ‘orderly account’ for Theophilus, of God acting in the specific time and place. In his account of Christ’s birth, he is concerned to tell us that Caesar Augustus issued his decree for a census, and that it took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. He tells us this not for narrative effect, but to emphasise that God’s history of salvation takes place in the particular – God is at work in the particular times and places of our lives. God is at work now, even in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety.
It is into a particular context that God’s messenger brings good news, heralding peace and announcing happiness in this evening’s Old Testament reading. Exiled Israel is promised a highway through the wilderness and return to Jerusalem. The ruins of the city, left so long abandoned and desolate, will break forth into singing because the Lord is consoling his people. Jerusalem is redeemed. Here is the promise of restoration and new beginning, of comfort and happiness. The prophet announces God’s peace.
The longest tradition about Luke is that he was a physician, possibly from Antioch. He is among those whose greetings Paul conveys to the Colossians towards the end of the epistle, and one of Paul’s companions, as we heard in the New Testament reading. Luke bears witness to the healing and wholeness – the salvation – Christ brings. In the gospel reading we heard, the Lord appoints seventy-two others beyond the Twelve and sends them ahead of him in pairs to all the towns and places he was to visit. He sends them ahead of him to bring good news and herald peace. They are to cure the sick and announce, ‘The Kingdom of God is very near to you.’
But their first greeting, in whatever house they go into, is to be ‘Peace to this house!’
The call for all who seek to follow Christ is to be people of peace, who in word and action proclaim the good news of the Kingdom. But what is the peace we proclaim? What does it mean to herald God’s peace, especially in times such as this?
Here we might seek inspiration again from St Luke. Historian and physician, tradition also tells us that Luke was an artist, and artists as well as medics enjoy his patronage. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe many painters’ guilds were named after St Luke, who – tradition held – had painted the Virgin and Child, specifically the icon of the Hodegetria – she who points the way – of which the original was taken to Constantinople in the fifth century. The Virgin holds the Child, pointing towards him as the way of salvation.
Seeking to follow in the footsteps of the messenger who brings good news, heralding peace, we look to Luke as he looks to Mary as she points to her Son. And so we paint a picture of the peace and salvation Christ offers.
This is peace that is more than, at one end of the spectrum, absence of conflict, or at the other, a nice feeling of calm. The peace that Christ sends the seventy-two out to announce, that the messenger on the mountains heralds, is God’s Shalom. It is the whole richness of God’s blessing. Peace for exiled Israel is a vision of return and restoration, of springs of water in the desert, and songs of joy and praise resounding from amid the ruins of Jerusalem. The peace announced on Christ’s behalf is the vision of return and restoration to the relationship with God for which we were created. It is the healing and peace of knowing our sins forgiven; it is the assurance of love and salvation we receive as we come to the altar. These are blessings that are true now, even in the midst of all that we currently face.
We are called to paint those blessings in colour in how we live as Christ’s people – assured again and again of his forgiveness and his love, and then sent out as his witnesses and heralds. Again and again in Luke’s gospel, we have examples of this: from the angels in the skies above Bethlehem who sing ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth’ to the angels at the tomb who tell the spice-bearing women ‘He is not here; he has risen.’ Here are messages of peace and hope, of the promise of new beginnings and new life in Christ. Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms and sees in him the salvation of Israel for which he had looked all his life. Here is light and hope for the nations.
Above all, of course, we hear Mary proclaim this vision in her Magnificat, as her spirit rejoices in the great things that the Almighty has done for her. Here is a vision of salvation and justice, as the hungry are fed, the humble lifted high, and the world is turned the right way up.
Luke tells us of God becoming involved in the life of the world, tells us the history of God’s saving work in Christ. He tells us of the healing and wholeness that is offered in Christ, to those who are sick, and to those who are hungry, oppressed and marginalised. He voices Zechariah’s praise and Mary’s prophetic vision of God’s transforming work. Under his patronage, we are called to follow his example and to tell that story.
We are sent to announce God’s blessings to every place Christ himself is going – to the people of this parish, and all with whom we have to do in our daily life and work. We are to live as people who know that Christ’s peace, the full richness of God’s blessing poured out, is true now. These blessings are not postponed until the pandemic is over, or the economy has recovered, or all the difficulties and tragedies of life are overcome. As we come to the altar and know again for ourselves the blessing of God’s love for us, we are called anew to be people who live into the reality of that love; we are sent anew to be heralds of it, to announce God’s Shalom, his healing, peace and restoration, and that the Kingdom of God truly has come very near.
The Rt Revd Stephen Conway is the Bishop of Ely. This sermon was preached at the parish of St Luke’s Shepherd’s Bush for their patronal festival. The readings at Mass were Isaiah 52:7-10; II Timothy 4:10-17; Luke 10:1-9.