Sunday, 18 October 2009

St. Luke's Day

When I was in high school, I was entirely put off the subject of history because I had the most boring teacher. But over the past few years I have just become fascinated by history. Whether it’s read from a book, or dramatised in a film, or watched on a TV programme with the latest in computer graphics, history can really help us to understand why we are who we are. And these days when the focus seems to be about how we’re ‘feeling’ in our ‘individual present moment’, we need to remind ourselves of the past – not to wallow in nostalgia, or pine for how things used to be, but in order to remember our identity within the big picture; in other words, as Christians we need to be reminded of our past so that we can remember our future. It’s a trite but true expression that history is ‘his story’ – its God’s story and we are in it. We, as God’s people, have a past, a present and a future.

Today is St. Luke’s Day. Luke, the gospel writer, was amongst other things an historian. He was most concerned about recording accurately the historical events that took place which led to the birth of Christianity. Luke’s gospel is the first volume of a two-volume book which Luke continues in the Acts of the Apostles – over these two volumes the first 60 years of Christianity are covered, and together they make up the largest contribution by a single writer in the New Testament. Luke makes clear the continuity of Christianity with the Old Testament - between the story of Jesus and the history of Judaism - of Jesus as the fulfilment of all God’s promises; and Luke makes clear the inclusive nature of the gospel for Jews and Gentiles and especially for outcasts. So Luke is hugely important to us as Christians.

I can remember about 11 years ago, being driven into re-reading the gospels, after an extraordinary experience of God’s love and his grace. And with what really felt like ‘new eyes’, I re-read Matthew and Mark’s gospels; but then as I got into Luke’s gospel, for some reason I became increasingly uncomfortable the more I read, and I didn’t understand why. I told the Rector about my discomfort and he nodded slowly with an air of great wisdom and suggested that I persevere with it, so I did.

Gradually I began to recognise that Luke’s gospel was revealing to me a lack of discipline in my life. Was I going to be able to cope with the ‘cost of discipleship’, something Luke consistently emphasises throughout his gospel? The grace of God is free, but that doesn’t mean it is cheapdiscipleship is costly, and Luke wants us to be aware of that. He urges us to carefully estimate the cost to be sure we can finish what we begin that very moment we say ‘yes’ to the call of Jesus to follow him.

Luke addresses both his Gospel and the Acts to someone called ‘Theophilus’, which means ‘Lover of God’. If we really love God, this is what we need to do, Luke says. It’s in Luke’s gospel that Jesus says ‘No-one who takes hold of the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’ He also says, ‘…those who do not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples’ - ‘those who try to keep their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will preserve them’. Whoa! Wait a minute! Am I gonna be able to follow through? Am I even willing to follow through with what I’m opening myself up to through faith?

It’s costly discipleship: it’s not about legalism or about formalism. It’s about following him. It’s about trusting him so fully that we are willing to give up all those things that we use as security props; to go out to where he leads us and bring his peace into the lives of others - not OUR peace, HIS peace. Our peace usually means not having our lives disrupted by the interruptions and problems of other people. His peace comes from awareness of who he is, and who we are, secure within him. His peace comes from our relationship with him and our trust in him that if we dwell in him he will dwell in us and he will be with us through all the burdens of life and he will help us to bear each others burdens, and he will bring us through to a new place of peace which will last for all eternity. He leads the way; keep close to him.

It’s the call of Christ followed by a response of obedience to Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century German theologian and martyr, who has given so much to us through his writings, says that "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. … There is trust in God, but no following of Christ." And this is related to what Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’: "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline; Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."

I think Bonhoeffer and Luke are on the same wavelength, and so is Paul, who writes with a sense of great urgency in the reading we had today from his 2nd letter to Timothy. This letter was written towards the end of Paul’s life, and the clock is ticking. Ever since Jesus sent out the 72 disciples, through the time when Paul wrote to Timothy, and right up to today, this very day – we never know how close to judgment day we have come. Paul doesn’t mince his words with Timothy or gloss over the cost of following Christ to proclaim the kingdom of God. And Luke was with Paul at this time; Paul writes that many have deserted him, but Luke was still with him. Luke and Paul are on the same wavelength. They wanted to reach as many people as possible with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Wherever we go, we need to reach as many people as possible with the good news of Jesus Christ. We have a hope, and we have a future! It may be difficult and uncomfortable; it may be painful at times, but if we have been called to be part of God’s church, we have been called to proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’, and to do it without being distracted by trivial things.

The Lord sends out 72 disciples ‘like lambs into the midst of wolves’, and they are told not to bring anything with them! Most of us set off on journeys worrying about the things we may have left behind! The lesson from the reading is that we just need to focus on the mission that Jesus has given us and not be distracted by petty things - to depend on him for our security. And if we look a bit further in chapter 10, we find that the 72 disciples returned from their mission full of joy because of what Jesus was able to accomplish through them.

As today is St. Luke’s day, we remember his emphasis on the cost of discipleship, but let’s remember that Luke also highlights the great joy it is to be a Christian. From the beginnings of Luke’s gospel, in chapter 2, v. 10, Luke describes the story we remember each year at Christmas, with the angels bringing ‘good news of great joy’. The parables of Jesus in Luke’s gospel end on a note of great happiness and rejoicing: the lost sheep and the lost coin are found; the lost son returns to his father; and ‘there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’.

In chapter 12, Luke reminds us of how much God cares about us: ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows’. In other words, we won’t be sold on the cheap! On the contrary, we have been bought with the precious blood of Christ!

And at the end of Luke’s gospel in chapter 24 v. 52 after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples returned to Jerusalem ‘with great joy’, because they knew the risen Christ. And after the Holy Spirit came, Luke reports to us in Acts that they had glad and sincere hearts and they were filled with wonder, amazement, courage and boldness. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? As we become part of the church, wouldn’t we like to have ‘glad and sincere hearts’ and to be ‘filled with wonder, amazement, courage and boldness’?

How can we have more of this? By hearing the call to obedience and trusting in God. Listen to Luke in Acts ch 5 v.29-32: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead… God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’

So on St. Luke’s day, I urge you over the coming week to read (or re-read) Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, and to prayerfully explore the cost of discipleship and the joy of living the Christian life. As a church, let’s talk and pray about our struggles, hopes and fears as we work out how to follow Jesus more closely. And let’s ask the Holy Spirit to increase in us a greater trust and reliance on Jesus, because I believe that the Spirit today is moving in the Church to bring a deeper awareness of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, so that our participation in HIS story as Christ’s body will be renewed for the sake of his kingdom, which is very near. Amen.

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