Isaiah 35:3-6, 2 Timothy 4:5-17, Luke 10:1-9
Historian. Writer. Poet. Painter. Physician. Friend of the Blessed Virgin Mary…
One feels the need on St Luke’s Day to pop out from behind a pillar in Church with a big red book intoning these attributes and concluding “Tonight, Luke the Evangelist, this is your life!” (If you didn’t get this particular cultural reference, you are obviously wonderfully young, and I am becoming much too old!)
Both scripture and tradition have furnished Luke with a huge range of skills, attributes and associations. As a preacher one is spoiled for choice to light on just one to celebrate on your patronal festival at here St Luke’s.
Some of these associations and skills (it has to be said) owe a bit more to tradition, or even legend, than to scripture or reliable historical fact. And some are a little far-fetched – I am not quite convinced that Luke actually did paint the Blessed Virgin Mary’s portrait, for instance. But I want to concentrate this morning on the incontrovertible fact of his writings – the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts, its sequel – and on a key theme that runs right through them. It is a theme that I think may be especially suggestive and significant for St Luke’s Church (and the Barn Church), your life and your mission here in Kew.
The theme is Blessing. This is the idea – the thread – that runs through the heart of St Luke’s story, like Blackpool through a stick of rock.
It is there in this morning’s Gospel. ‘Whatever house you enter’, the seventy evangelists are told by Jesus, ‘first say “Peace to this house!”’ Before anything else, unconditionally and freely – even a bit riskily, as it’s possible that there will be no person of peace there to reciprocate. Blessing comes first, before anything else.
And it is the story of the Gospel as a whole. The God of Christ Jesus who, by his messengers, offers blessings – not judgement, not fear, not rules, not the promise of reward if we are good, but blessing before all else.
Think back to the very beginning of the Gospel. The angel Gabriel comes first to the priest Zechariah in the Temple and says ‘Fear not…’ as he announces the birth of John the Baptist, blessing for a childless couple. And then – more memorably still, as we recall from so many Christmas readings – he comes to Mary in Nazareth and says to her ‘Greetings, favoured one…’ Blessing, again.
The angels at Jesus’ birth proclaim to the shepherds the blessings of God’s peace: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those of goodwill!’ The adult Jesus in his first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth takes as his text the reading from Isaiah, part of which we heard read this morning: blessings again: strength for the weak, courage for the fearful, sight for the blind, hearing, agility, joyful voice for those who have been deprived of these things, blessings for those who have been deprived of hope and freedom.
And then, most movingly of all, in that moment recorded only in Luke, on the cross when Jesus promises to the naked criminal hanging next to him the blessing of paradise, rather than the condemnation the man might legitimately have expected.
Luke continues the theme in Acts, the sequel to his Gospel. He records Peter’s proclamation of the blessed fulfilment of God’s promise in the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost and Paul’s insistence that his hearers are those ‘to whom the message [the blessing] of salvation has come’.
Blessing, blessing, blessing – always blessing: that is what the Good News brings. That is the heart of Luke’s message. Not judgement, not condemnation – these are not dispensed by God, though they may be passed by hearers of the message on themselves when they fail to accept the blessing offered – but Blessings for all, offered not forced. No one excluded.
Now, I doubt that I would need to work hard to persuade you that we are living through troubled times, times deeply in need of blessing, not least the blessing of peace. A Government that has lost control of the economy, even of itself, as it may seem. A war of unimaginable horror on our continent, with little sign of its ending or the restoration of peace with justice. Economic turmoil, conflict and natural disasters all over the world. The increasing and terrifying realities of climate change and its implications for all with whom we share our planet, especially some of the poorest and most vulnerable.
I daresay there are local issues in your community, too, that are in need of a message of blessing and of hope. I would hazard the guess that there are troubles and griefs in families and relationships represented here – perhaps well hidden, yet nevertheless real enough – that are painful and threatening. Our world – your world – is greatly in need of being blessed, of being healed. St Luke was writing for us – for you and me – quite as much as he was for Christians in Antioch in the first century AD.
Which makes it all the more important to remember what his message was, and how it was delivered. A message of blessing – blessings of peace and hope and reconciliation – delivered by God’s messengers. By his angels. By the seventy whom Jesus commissioned in this morning’s readings. By Jesus himself in his ministry. By Peter and Paul and the apostles in Acts… Communicators of hope, announcers of blessing, offering a new story and a changed narrative for their troubled times.
As – I am sure – do you, the people of St Luke’s and the Barn Church, in your time and your setting. For this and every church is called and equipped to be an agent of blessing to the community in which it is set. You are the seventy: not, perhaps on the road, exactly, but certainly sent out from here to bless, to offer love and kindness and joy outside these walls. That is why we are here – it’s the whole point of our calling and our worship. In Jesus’ words from Matthew’s Gospel you – we – are to be light and salt and leaven, that is adding colour and zest and airiness, to the community in which you are set.
You do this – I have no doubt – in your personal interactions with friends, neighbours, family, workmates and others; and you do it – I hope and firmly believe – as a Church, existing not just for yourselves, as a little group who have ‘got it’ and cling together to treasure it for your selves, but so that you can transform in however a small and imperceptible a way (though it will not always be small and imperceptible) the streets and gathering places, the exchanges and encounters of Kew and all who live here.
People of St Luke’s, blessings for the world, this is your life!
The Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon