Luke the Historian
Fr. Patrick Reardon · November 16, 2009
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the feast of the beloved physician, Luke. He was beloved, not only to St. Paul, but he is beloved to all of us and has been beloved for 2,000 years. I can think of very few of the saints who have been held in such dear affection by the Christian people in the entire history of the Church. Every Christian physician who stretches forth his hand and applies his art to the healing of the flesh, every healer, does so under the patronage of Luke.
This morning we had a little list of his friends who were with Paul when Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea for two years. The people who were mentioned in this morning’s epistle were those who there with him:
Tychicus, a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. I am sending him to you for that very purpose, that he may know your circumstances and comfort your hearts, with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will make known to you all things which are happening here. Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus.
Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.
One of these, Aristarchus, was there today, and even Demas, who did not finally make it. Demas eventually goes away because he loves this world. Luke was also the friend of Peter and Paul, and all the others who gathered at Antioch, and was a member the Antiochian Church. He was a friend of Mark, as we know today, and a friend of Silas, Timothy, Barnabas and young Ignatius, who would eventually be the second bishop of that city. It is nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of this man in the history of the Holy Church. This morning I want to limit our consideration to three points.
First, history. Among the evangelists, it is in Luke that we meet the first historian in the full sense of someone who was explicitly and consciously thinking of himself as doing history, doing history. Matthew, Mark and John wrote Gospels. Luke is the only one of the Evangelists who says explicitly, “I’m doing history.” Luke described his enterprise in exactly this way when he said:
it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.
You can hear resonances of Herodotus (484-425 BC), Thucydides (460-399 BC), Plutarch (AD 46-120): “It seemed good to me also, having perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account.”
Aware that he was about to do something different, Luke spoke of the earlier efforts of those who had taken in hand, who set in order, a narrative of those things which had been fulfilled among us. Of this group, which certainly included Mark, Luke was not critical, because they too had relied on those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. It explains right there at the beginning of his Gospel, that he has gone back and spoken to people. He has interviewed people. He has taken this as far as he can on first-hand testimony. Luke was aware that he was embarking on an adventure new to Christian literature, which is why he has always been regarded as the first of our historians, the first Christian historiographer.
He was endeavoring to write, in this Gospel, an account of Jesus that would meet the standards of what readers of his day called history. That is, he was writing an orderly, directed, carefully researched narrative of historical facts with a large thesis covering an entire movement over a good number of years. He was writing a Gospel which would be the initial part of a church history, the first volume. He announced:
Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty (asphaleian) of those things in which you were instructed.
That’s one sentence, by the way, in the first four verses of Luke 1, this magnificent cadence that will rival anything in classical historiography. Luke places the proclamation of the Gospel in the context of world history. Matthew doesn’t do that, Mark doesn’t do that, John doesn’t do that. Luke does it.
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
That is history. Luke is placing the Gospel in the context of world history, as a sharer in world history, as effected by world history and as transforming the history of the human race. How does one do that for a worldwide movement, except by speaking of geography?
Point two is geography. Luke is our first example of a Gentile Christian in the early church at Antioch. As a young man, he caught the excitement of this new experiment in which Jews and Gentiles would live together in a single congregation. Now we know something about the crisis that came in the church of Antioch because Jews and Gentiles were together and of the problem this was causing for the early Church, especially for the Jews, because now the Gospel was being shared with Greeks and they just weren’t sure Greeks could be members of the Orthodox Church. I thought I’d get a little rise on that but didn’t. Jews and Greeks are together, Syrians and other people.
Luke knew himself to be part of a dynamic and significant movement which would change the history of the world and all the nations within it. We find the evidence of this awareness in his own writings, particularly in the Acts of the Apostles. In this book Luke has left the Christian Church what deserves to be called an epic, a lengthy account based on the motif of a journey of the early movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, to the capital city of the greatest empire of antiquity. That movement from Jerusalem to Rome, especially embodied in the travels of St. Paul, symbolized for Luke the internationalizing of the Gospel inherent in his version of the great mandate that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem.
Only a few decades before Luke wrote his Gospel, Virgil had written of another journey from another condemned city, Troy, and how these people from Troy found their way over to Rome and became the ancestors of the Romans. So you have the movement from the ashes of Troy all the way over to the capital of the greatest empire of antiquity. Luke copies him. Tracing through the Acts of the Apostles, it is astounding how closely he copies him. The movement is from the condemned city, the city soon to be reduced to ashes, the city of Jerusalem. The missionaries were going over from there to Rome to evangelize an empire.
The story in Acts, my brothers and sisters, ends in the city of Rome. Here, the story ends not because Luke had run out of things to say, but because he had now reached the geographical and thematic goal toward which his entire account has been moving. The movement from Jerusalem to Rome served for Luke as a symbol of the internationalizing of the Gospel, bringing God’s message of salvation to the political center of universal human concern. He places the Gospel within the political history of the human race.
Luke introduced this universal concern for salvation in his description of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In this account he enumerates the various peoples on whom God poured out the Holy Spirit on Pentecost morning. I’ve always been disappointed that in this list, he does not include the Irish. Why didn’t he? There happened not to be any Irishmen in Jerusalem that morning, that’s all, that’s the only reason he didn’t include the Irish. He didn’t include the Japanese, he didn’t include the Chinese. He included the people who were actually there that morning, and he found a sampling of the whole world:
Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”
He starts by moving from the east, and then he moves across the Fertile Crescent all the way down into the Persian Gulf. He moves into the Mediterranean and all the way over to Italy and suddenly remembers that he forgot Crete and Arabia, and he backs up and takes them in as well. The Gospel is the transforming agent of human history. It is also that which binds together the peoples of the world who accept the message of the Gospels. They are all bound together in the Holy Spirit, which brings us to the third point, life in the Holy Spirit.
For Luke, the great agent of transformation in the world, in the proclamation of the Gospel, is this mysterious power from on high which dwells within the hearts of men, the Holy Spirit. God reveals Himself not only in the categorical, historical order of the Incarnation, He also reveals Himself in the internal, mystical order of the Holy Spirit. God sends forth His Son. He sends forth His Spirit.
We find the Holy Spirit descending already in Luke 1. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Spirit descends upon the Virgin Mary. He overshadows her and she conceives of the Holy Spirit. The Word becomes Incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit. That same Holy Spirit is poured out at the beginning of the Book of Acts on the Church and Christ begins to live in the hearts of those who confess Him. All through the Gospel and all through the Book of Acts, Luke portrays the activity of the Holy Spirit. For Luke, the life in the Holy Spirit was not something separable from the institutional life of the Christian Church. Luke doesn’t know anything about a division like that. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Church.
For so many Christians, the Church is a necessary evil. We sort of have to get by with it. We are very well aware of the weaknesses of the Church, the sinfulness of the Church, the weakness and sinfulness of churchmen, the failure of bishops, the failure of priests. We’re well aware of that. So was Luke. Luke knew all about this. The Church for Luke, however, was not something you had to have. The Church was something that he loved and in which he lived. Luke manifested no sense of a spiritual life outside of the Church, the same Church that is rooted in the ministry and the testimony of six nobodys and half a dozen ne’er-do-wells which constituted the band of the Apostles, those men whom Jesus had chosen.
At the same time, he saw that the Holy Spirit is bigger than the Church, that the Holy Spirit was at work in other things in the world and it was the business of the Church to go find that work, to speak to that work by the proclamation of the Gospel. Luke portrays this freedom of Spirit in Acts 10. Even before Cornelius and his friends have come into the Church, as soon as the Gospel is proclaimed to them, before their baptism, the Holy Spirit comes rushing down upon them, and we have a second Pentecost.
How in Luke’s writings, how does one reach the grace of the Holy Spirit? What can we do to make the Holy Spirit, let’s say, make His job easier in our lives? For Luke, it’s the grace of prayer, which is why Luke says so much about prayer in the Gospels, for example. We have parables about prayer which don’t otherwise appear in the Gospels such as the story of the widow with the judge (Luke 18) which is followed immediately by the two men who went up to the temple to do what? To pray. Luke frequently portrays Jesus as praying. Luke is the only one who tells us that the night before he chose the apostles, Jesus prayed. Luke portrays Jesus in prayer many times. The other Gospels don’t mention it. Luke concentrates on it.
In the Book of Acts, we find the apostles constantly in prayer. The times they pray, you’ll notice, are the same times that the Jews prayed, the third, sixth and ninth hours. In the Book of Acts, we find them praying at the third, sixth and ninth hours, exactly as the Jews did and exactly as Christians do to this day. If we want the Holy Spirit operative in our lives, and heaven knows we do, it is imperative that we develop and work on, cultivate and discipline ourselves to have a life of prayer, that every day begin and end with prayer, that prayer be frequent during the course of the day, that we become men and women of prayer.
Luke would not, I think, have said so many things about prayer if he were not himself a man of prayer. He knew what it took to be a Christian. One does not become a Christian or is not made a Christian by his own resources. He does this in prayer, because in prayer we receive the grace of God. This day, let it be, my brothers and sisters, a source of joy and refreshment for all of us as we celebrate this feast of our friend, the beloved physician Luke.