Tuesday, October 21, 2014

St. Luke the Evangelist

Heal the sick. . . and say unto them, the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.

Today we commemorate the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. The word evangelist is derived from a Greek word that simply means proclaimer of the Gospel. To Luke is attributed the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the continuation of that Gospel, the book the Acts of the Apostles. We do not know a great deal about Luke. According to tradition he was a physician and a disciple of Paul. The argument is often made that Luke's training as a physician gave him special skills in attention to detail that characterize the books attributed to him. Another noteworthy quality of the Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts is his ability to depict a remarkable range of different types of people. Luke has a special concern for women, Gentiles, the poor, and non-practicing Jews—called in the idiom of the time sinners. Today we might speak of him as being humane. It is not surprising then to learn that some of the most moving parables are only found in his Gospel: the parables of the prodigal son, the Rich man and Lazarus, and the good Samaritan. So too are only found in Luke's Gospel the account of Mary's humble obedience to the angel's announcement that she will bear God's son, the encounter of our Lord Jesus with the tax collector Zacchaeus, and the realistic portrait of the two sisters Martha and Mary, the one who works tirelessly to host Jesus and the other who simply wants to sit and enjoy his presence.

One significant application that can be gleaned from the profession that St. Luke is said to have had is that Christianity and secular learning are not at odds. There is a significant streak in some Christian sects to put a wedge between the spiritual healing offered in faith and modern medicine. The traditional understanding is that God works through both supernatural and natural means: he can miraculously heal someone who is sick, or he can use doctors and modern medicine to effect the same end. Sometimes he appears to do neither, but more on that in a moment. Christians should not be afraid of secular learning, as if secular learning could undermine the claims of the Christian faith. Rather, Christianity has always welcomed learning, harkening back to Augustine's assertion that all truth is God's truth. In fact, the home of the liberal arts is really the Christian university. A strictly capitalistic view of learning would minimize the liberal arts because the utility and economic benefit of the liberal arts is so minimal, but we worship the God who of his own free will, not for any utility or monetary gain, created all things bright and beautiful.

The question, however, remains why God heals some while others who seem faithfully to ask never receive their miracle? Some have even lost faith altogether because they felt that God failed them in their darkest hour in not giving the physical healing for which they pleaded. The collect does not make any false promises that God will always heal. Rather, we ask God that we may delivered from all the diseases of our souls by the wholesome doctrines delivered by St. Luke. Luke, the physician of medicine became the physician of the soul by relating the story of Jesus the healer. All of our Lord's miracles have a spiritual dimension. They are never simply just a physical healing but also a spiritual release. This is why our Lord says to many of those healed, your sins are forgiven. But notice what our Lord does not do: we never once hear him tell a supplicant that he is unwilling to heal and restore. Are the Evangelists simply trying to paint him in the best possible light? And if Jesus is still Lord, even the risen Lord who triumphed over death, is he unable or unwilling to heal now?

One of my favorite hymns speaks to this very question. The hymn is “O what their joy and glory must be”; the text was written by the medieval theologian Peter Abelard. In the hymn, the joys of heavenly life are described: in that greater life there is a ceasing of sorrow and an eternal rest in God, our greatest happiness and contentment. The second verse contains the profound lines, Wish and fulfilment can severed be ne'er, Nor the thing prayed for come short of the prayer.  You see, my friends, in heaven every noble desire, every virtuous longing will find its object. Those who long for peace will find a greater peace than heart can understand. Those who long for love will be in God, whom we confess to be a Trinity of persons, a communion of love. In short, even if the prayer goes unanswered or appears to have been answered with a no, in that Jerusalem above the thing prayed for cannot come short of the prayer. Every good desire of the human heart can and will receive fulfillment there because wish and fulfillment can severed be ne'er.

The members of the church here on earth always will have the prayers of its ministers and people for healing, and yet, we know that death inevitably comes. In the Bible's account, death is a judgment for human sin. No man can reach the end of his life and say that he has not sinned nor in some way contributed to the unhappiness of this world. And yet as Christians, we die with hope for that greater life, a life given to us not because we are perfect, but because of what Jesus has done on our behalf and for all humanity. It is very important to realize that God's grace and judgement are not two separate actions, but two aspects of his unchanging will. Death is a judgment for human sin because God cannot have fellowship with our darkness, but there is a grace hidden in death. Death is a mercy in that our earthly lives are not prolonged beyond measure because life here is subject to many evils: here unfulfilled desires abound, the separation between brother and brother caused by anger and unforgiveness is normal. There is even the wall of death which separates those who love one another and seems to put an end to that mutual love. We are told in the book of Genesis that God guarded the way to the tree of life with a flaming sword and cherubim so that humanity was not given eternal life in this fallen and unhappy world; the exile outside the garden would not last forever. The way to new life has been opened now that we are forgiven and redeemed in the new Adam, our Lord Jesus. Those prayers for healing may or may not be answered in this life, but in God's eternal kingdom, we will have the fullness of his healing and benediction. We will, in the words of the prophets, abide by streams of living water. The leaves of the trees which line its banks will be for the healing of nations.

     Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
     We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
     Seeking Jersusalem, dear native land,
     Through out long exile on Babylon's strand.

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