This sermon was preached on the feast of St Luke the Evangelist at St Mary’s, Diss – October 18th 2020.
The readings were: Acts 16.6-12a, 2 Timothy 4.5-17 Luke 10:1-9
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today our Church is decked out in red because this Sunday we remember St Luke the Evangelist. In the years gone by we have remembered his connection with healing by having a service of anointing with oil as an act of prayer commended to us in the Scriptures for the health of those who are sick. And many of us have our ailments which we hold before God and ask him to be with us in. Whether it be issues with fading eyesight, diabetes, poor liver function, problems with our hearts, our mobility or even just the wearying culmination of aging felt in our aching joints and diminishing energy.
It is right that we should ask God to be with us and bless us in the midst of our health issues, and also right to thank him for his provision to us of both well trained doctors, consultants, nurses and medical staff who are helping us, or for those treatments which have either saved our lives or made our pains manageable.
Health has been acutely at the forefronts of our minds this year with the pandemic; whether it has been fears of contracting Covid or the impacts and delays lockdown has caused on our continued access to treatment and for several of us the increased delays we have had to wait through to receive treatment and surgeries.
In a sense, it’s unfortunate that in this year of all years that we cannot do our healing service in the way in which we ordinarily would. However, rather than being disappointed at the disruption to our normal customs let us take this as an opportunity to step back and reflect on Luke and health in a slightly different way. After all, Luke was more than just a physician. Unlike Hyppocrates whom history remembers for his early contribution to medicinal practices Luke is not remembered purely as a doctor, but as one of the four evangelists along with John, Mark and Matthew. These four are those to whom our gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and specifically his death and resurrection for our sake, are attributed. In a very real sense, without the testimony of Jesus’ life recorded in their writings we would not be able to remember and be inspired by the Gospel which brings us all together today.
Indeed their significance is literally carved into the history of this building at the sites of the sacraments in this Church. If you look at the font you’ll see the four symbols of the Gospels; a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an eagle for John, and an ox for John. These creatures are symbols taken from the vision of Ezekiel and occur once again in the book of Revelation as the living creatures which herald the throne-chariot of the presence of God in heaven. According to the ancient traditions of the Church, Matthew is associated with a winged man because his gospel begins with the genealogy of Christ, emphasising his authentic humanity. Mark is symbolised by a winged lion, for his account resonates with the courage and majesty of Jesus as the risen king. John is connected with an eagle for the tradition that eagles could look straight into the sun, just as John focuses on the glory of the Son of God. And Luke, who we remember today, is signified by an ox; a figure of sacrifice, service, and strength.
The other place where these figures are carved into the fabric of the building is as part of the reredos, flanking the gemmed cross behind the high altar beneath the stained glass window.
When we notice this we realise a message which has been left for us by those who bequeathed our faith and this building to us. The two central acts of worship in the life of the Church are the sacraments of baptism, our entrance into the Christian life where we are joined by the Spirit of God into the death and resurrection life of his Son Jesus Christ so that we might ourselves share in his eternal love, and the sacrament of the Eucharist, our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving where in our remembrance of all that Jesus did for us on the cross we truly encounter the presence of God in the bread which is his body, and the wine which is his blood – broken and shed for us. These two acts are the living continuation of our witness to the Gospel which we hear in the words of John, Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Luke was a doctor, yes. He was also an evangelist who shared in the ministry of the Early Church, particularly as a companion, friend and supporter of Paul as we find in both the book of Acts, which he authored, and within various of Paul’s letters such as our reading from 2 Timothy today. Indeed, in that reference Paul writes to Timothy from prison and tells of how he is close to the end of his life and everyone has abandoned him during his trial and imprisonment – everyone, that is, except Luke.
“Only Luke is here with me.”
In a time of great difficulty, Luke was notable by his commitment and loyalty not just to Paul but to the message that Paul was proclaiming of the resurrection of Jesus.
This has led me to ponder something in these difficult times. How might we look beyond our own personal health issues and reflect on the health of the body of Christ here in this place? Are we as committed as Luke to being loyal to the Gospel?
I suppose I am asking, what is the health of our Church?
As we know from our own health, everything is interconnected and requires careful balancing. What we eat affects our body, how we exercise affects our mind, and different medications which are fine separately may cause issues when taken together or at the wrong times and dosages.
This same sense of interconnectedness occurs within the health of our Church, and some are more easily identifiable and quantifiable than others. For instance, after every service we write down in the register of services how many people were present and how many received communion. We track how many weddings, funerals, and baptisms happen. We share our minutes and reports from our PCC meetings which includes our finances. More recently with the new website and the video reflections and our experiments with livestreaming a couple of services we can now track how many people use the website, how many watch the videos and even for how long the average person spends watching a video.
Numbers and metrics are interesting, but they don’t capture the whole picture. There’s nothing in those numbers which tells us, for example, how people are doing in their own personal faith and trust in God. It’s wonderful to see you here this morning, but I have no idea how much or often you pray by yourself at home. We don’t spy on you to see how often you mention church with your friends and family in conversation.
But just because we don’t know that numerically doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Indeed I believe that many of you are living out your faith during the week and that it means more to you than simply coming to Church each Sunday as a pleasant social habit.
My point is simply this, the health of our Church is more complex than the numbers might show, and sometimes more subtle than we might realise at first glance.
But I believe that this is something we should spend time reflecting on and discussing with each other. How are we doing as a Church, and what can we do to improve the ‘health’ of our Church?
These are worthwhile questions because of the reality which in 2020 we have found ourselves sharing in. Naturally one obvious factor is the pandemic. It has changed many things about the ways in which we meet; from the reduction in how many people can father, to what we can or can’t do – such as singing, though we hope to soon be able to reintroduce a limited offering from the Choir – to the income the Church receives.
On that last point I’d like to express a big thank you on behalf of the Clergy and the Wardens for those who have continued to give generously, especially those who have spoken with Yvonne and changed to give by standing order – which is by far and away the best way to make your offerings. However at present it looks like we’re going to be approximately ten thousand pounds short of reaching our parish share.
We have done well given the circumstances but the Church at large in going through a time of change. We see this here in our own team given that in just a couple of weeks we shall be receiving the Winfarthing Benefice into the Diss Team Ministry. This in part is indicative of the reality that many parishes can only afford to receive priestly ministry by sharing the costs as a team, though unfortunately this also means that the clergy can’t spend as much time with each parish as they used to.
It could be tempting to focus on the financial side of things here, and it is certainly a live and active conversation at every level from parish, and team through deanery and diocesan to nationally and globally. However the financial state of the Church is not its sole metric of health.
Another, and in my view more important, aspect to consider is the changing demographics and culture of not just people in Church but also people in our town and community. It should not come as a surprise to you for me to point out that with the exceptions of Ellie and Linnea, I am the youngest person here by more than 20 years. More than this, when we look beyond these walls to the community around us, the general Christian literacy is diminishing by the day. We might say to ourselves, “not another sermon on the feeding of the five thousand, I’ve heard that a million times before”. But there are more and more people my age who have never heard that story, and if they have it was once in passing and they can only half remember it.
We live in a world where people are more conscious than ever of the problems which people face, whether it be issues around mental health, social inequality, how we treat the environment, or drug use to name just a few. We live in a world where people are wrestling to make sense of life, life which seems increasingly overwhelming and chaotic, evermore polarising and divisive, resulting in stress and anxiety.
This is a world which is yearning to know that God is real, that God is present, and that God loves them – even if they don’t realise yet that that is what they need to know.
Is that arrogant to claim?
I don’t believe so, because I believe this is at the heart of the Gospel which Luke wrote for our benefit – remember, he opens his account saying: “I decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you… so that you may know the truth”.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke 10 Jesus commands 70 disciples to go out to every town saying: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few… Go on your way, see I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves… Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick who are there, and say to them “The kingdom of God has come near to you.””
Somehow the health of our Church living beyond ourselves is intimately entwined with the spiritual health of those beyond our Church walls in our town and communities.
It is not that we need them to join us for us to survive the coming season in the life of the Church, though that is true; it is that they need us to proclaim to them the Gospel so that they might encounter the love of God, repent of their sins, be baptised into the life of Christ and grow in holiness with the nourishment of the Eucharist.
When we reflect on the health of our Church it seems that, in essence, we have a choice.
We can sit back and abdicate our responsibility to our shared faith much as people abandoned Paul, or we can be inspired by the example of Luke who alone remained steadfast and loyal even in the midst of great difficulty to live out our faith with acts of sacrifice, service, and strength in order to bequeath the rich heritage of faith onto the next generation, much as those who came before bequeathed it into our care.
We can go out into town, to our friends, neighbours and strangers and say: “The Kingdom of God has come near.”
This is not an easy challenge.
But I promise you it will be a worthwhile one.
In the name of Jesus,
who has won for us our salvation and conquered the power of death and sin,