SERMON—18 October 2015—The Work of an Evangelist
Glory to God, Source of all Being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we honour and remember St. Luke: evangelist, storyteller, disciple, martyr and physician. We know him, of course, because of the gospel he wrote, but also as the author of the Acts of the Apostles, the lively record of the earliest beginnings of the Christian church. Luke is a wonderful storyteller, and reading his texts in the New Testament always fills us with a sense of wonder and drama. Luke is the evangelist of the infancy of Jesus, and the crafter of the adventures of Paul. He writes the story of the Jesus movement from its humblest origins in a backwater village called Bethlehem, to its confident entry into the very heart of the empire in Rome itself. And what a glorious story it is!
Today is also special for me because it’s my name day. My middle name is Luc, French for Luke. The family story goes that my mother asked my father what they should call me, apart from Donald and also Joseph, the name that all French Canadian Catholic boys were automatically given at baptism. My father suggested Luc, because those were the first three letters of my mother’s name, Lucienne. So this day is a time for me to remember her and this sign of our unbreakable bond.
When I was a youngster, there were four things I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a priest. Done. I wanted to teach. Done. I wanted to write a book. Done. And, I wanted to be a saint. Well, I think the verdict is still out on that one. Being a saint may sound like a strange idea for a kid, but it made perfect sense in the religious culture I grew up in. Whatever our age, we were all expected to strive for holiness. It was what we were called to do, and I took it very, very seriously indeed. I guess if I had known better, I might have thought of becoming an evangelist, if only I had known then what that was. But now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. All of us, in a way, are called to be evangelists, as I was back then, even as a youngster. There may be, in fact, only four evangelists as we know them—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—but the work of an evangelist, a follower of Jesus, a person who brings Jesus to life for others, as those four did, is something that still beckons to each and every one of us. Like Luke, we too are called to write and to spread the good news of Jesus in and for our time.
The gospel reading from Luke that we have just heard makes of Jesus an evangelist too, a bringer of good news for his own time. Jesus has just returned from being in the desert for forty days, prior to beginning his public ministry. He begins preaching in the region of the Sea of Galilee, and people are beginning to take notice. His reputation is spreading. He finds himself in his home town of Nazareth. Being a devout Jew, he goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, where he is presumably called upon to read from the Torah. He reads the famous passage from the prophet Isaiah, the one which talks of the long-awaited messiah as the anointed one of God, sent to usher in an era of liberation and justice. Jesus is not shy to apply this prophecy to himself, as well he should. I can just imagine the look of shock on the faces of his listeners. They may have thought him rather odd, if not downright delusional. But apart from the fact of his special relationship with God which Jesus is here not afraid to claim, he was also taking on the unique role of an evangelist, a herald of God’s word, someone sent to bring the good news of a fresh and different day about to burst forth. One could even say that the man Jesus, in his person and his witness to divine love and divine justice, was the evangelist of God. He bore witness to God’s unending work of creation in the world. His own life was the gospel text, as it were.
Luke is mentioned in the second letter to Timothy as a helper or associate of Paul, someone who remains with him even when Paul is alone and going through difficult times. Paul seems to want to make special reference to Luke’s loyalty in the service of the gospel; hinting that this is the singular mark of a disciple and an evangelist, of a ‘spreader’ of the good news of Jesus: loyalty for and to the inspired word, a word that Paul calls upon Timothy to continue promoting actively. An evangelist is therefore someone who moves forward with confidence, loyalty and determination: trusting without reserve that their steadfast service to the word is not for naught. But an evangelist is also someone who draws a mark, who writes a reflection, who teases out and describes God’s active engagement with the world. An evangelist is a theologian, as Luke certainly was, and evangelists leave traces.
We need to ask ourselves what sorts of traces we might leave in our own time and in this place. Will they be almost invisible traces, giving the impression that the living word of God is no different than so many other good and noble ideas, and that this word does not make any meaningful difference in the world? Or will it rather be a trace that leaves a dent, large or small, and that proclaims defiantly that, yes, God’s word is active, engaged, dynamic and world-changing? That God’s work leaves a mark. I imagine Luke sitting down to write his gospel and asking himself questions like that. How would the story that he was about to write on behalf of his Christian community make a difference not only in his time, but to future generations of seekers? How would the Christ that he was about to bring to life in his gospel be perceived by them? Would this Christ be the vibrant and appealing figure that Luke knew him to be? Luke’s story certainly succeeded. We keep returning to it time and again in order to discover and understand not only Jesus, the Living Word, but also ourselves in relation to him.
Perhaps the line between ‘the saint’ and ‘the evangelist’ is a thin and porous one. Perhaps all of us are indeed called to be both. In fact, all Christians, by virtue of our common baptism, are both saints and evangelists. Our lives are and should be like a living gospel. How we may choose to write it, how we may choose to live it out, how we may choose to share it with others: these are questions that we are compelled to answer on a daily basis, and that Luke’s gospel can help nourish.