The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Isaiah 43:8-19; Psalm 124; 2 Timothy 4:5-11; Luke 1:1–4; 24:44–53
Poor divided Luke.
We pay lots of attention to St. Luke’s gospel. We spend every third year with it. We think of him fondly as we name parishes after him and see his symbol, the ox, displayed prominently in church iconography. He’s even right here on this magnificent pulpit. Luke the ox. We think of him as a writer of scripture. We think of him as a teacher. We think of him as a follower. We think of him as a physician. We think of him as a writer of icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We think of him in so many ways that I am prone these days to simply think of him as poor divided Luke. Maybe we have too many bits and pieces of information about him. Too many to make him look singular in focus, but too few to paint him as a whole person.
We think of him and then we hear these words from the Second Letter to Timothy, today’s second reading: “Only Luke is with me.” Not such terrible words, at least at first. We don’t know if St. Paul himself actually wrote them, or if someone who knew him well wrote them after he died. We do know that Paul was in Rome and Luke was with him. But we also know that others across the Mediterranean basin had deserted him, even acted treacherously towards him. There are bitter words and dire warnings from Paul in Second Timothy, words that warn Timothy that the life he is entering into as a disciple of the crucified and risen Jesus is at best difficult, and even possibly leads to death itself.
The sort of death, perhaps, that Paul suffered when he was beheaded in Rome, if what St. Ignatius wrote is true. Paul had been under house arrest in Rome for two years when he died. Two years after his two years of imprisonment in Caesarea in Palestine. And now, at the end, “Only Luke is with me.” Deserted by disciples and friends, nearly alone and lonely, Paul sounds mournful in Second Timothy.
“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…When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.” Only Luke is with Paul in more ways than one.
It is so difficult to follow a leader, to faithfully follow, perhaps where we don’t want to go. To live fragmented lives, with the cloak of warmth left behind, longing for the books that were the mainstay of our spiritual and intellectual life, lost in the dust of travel and imprisonment. To live fragmented lives, missing the precious scrolls of parchment that unfolded for us, over and over unfolded for us, the truth of God. The truth of love. The truth of who we are meant to be.
So there stood Luke, by Paul, Paul sounding like a mere shadow of the man, the preacher, the apostle he had been. But instead of being depleted by Paul’s plight Luke seems to have been energized. To Luke, Paul’s truth, his truth of accepting the death that he was sure would soon be brought down on his head by the Roman government, Paul’s truth was for Luke the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many will hear. Some will follow – for a time. Persecutions will flourish. And a few, a blessed few, a saintly few, will persevere. Like Luke.
The fact that there are so many fragments of tradition about St. Luke, the fact that people across the church and across the ages have given him the honor of elevating him in healing and preaching and teaching and the arts, among other things, these facts point to one idea that should override all of this for us: in Luke, in his life, in his work, there was God in Christ Jesus.
It has ever been the case that God’s people are called to honesty. To face the realities that characterize their lives. To live into the truths of our day-to-day existence, rather than to run away. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble…I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.” Do not hide your blind, your deaf, your weak, your sinners, your transgressors; do not hide any source of shame.
Rather, bring it forth. See. Hear. Gather together for healing in the name of the Lord God Almighty, the only hope for changing our struggles in darkness into dancing in the light of peace.
We do that; we gather in blindness and deafness, every time we gather in this assembly. We do that, we gather to see and to hear, in spite of our infirmities, our deficiencies. We do that, even in spite of the fact that we don’t want to admit our deficiencies. But God knows them. We hear the voice of Paul echoing through the ages: “Only Luke is with me.”
And we look to their lives, to the writings, the witness of Paul and Luke. And if we see clearly, if we see through the eyes of tradition and holy writ and if we see through the history that has formed and re-formed people of faith across the centuries, we see that having only Luke with us, having only the witness of God in Christ, having only the power of the Holy Spirit to bless and to heal and to make whole, having only the good news that all is well and all shall be well, it is enough. More than enough. It is the grace of God calling across the ages in the words of Isaiah and Paul and Luke, in the breath that creates and recreates, in the lives of countless, unknown sinners across time saved by God’s power for eternal joy.
Today we are fed on bread and wine in that joy, in that future, in that hope as we become one with Christ all over again. And we have the opportunity for a touch, for the anointing of grace, to be brought to our foreheads, to our souls, to our world, in bowing, not before each other, but before the throne of grace, God’s mercy seat. The opportunity for healing is offered as you return to your seats from Holy Communion. Kneel and as you receive the ancient act of the laying on of hands, the signing of the holy cross in blessed oil on your brow, as you enter into the rite of healing, bring your cares and your woes, bring your loved ones and their fears, bring our earth and our community, bring all forward for God’s powerful blessing.
Then rise. Praise. And know that having only Luke here is quite enough. Amen.