The Last in This World Will Often Be the First in the Kingdom of Heaven: Homily for the Feast Day of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 10:16-21

          It is sad that many people today do not have heroes or even role models whose example they want to follow.  One of the many reasons that we remember the saints in the Orthodox Church is because they are vibrant examples of what it looks like when human beings are fully open to God.  They shine brilliantly with holiness and inspire us to become like them in faithfulness to Jesus Christ. The saints comprise the great cloud of witnesses that encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” to the eternal life of the Kingdom of Heaven.  (Heb. 12:1)

On this feast day of the Holy, Glorious, All-Laudable Apostle and Evangelist Luke, we have an opportunity to celebrate the great witness to the Lord made by the patron saint of our parish.  Our small community is named in his honor and memory.  We see his image on our iconostasis and regularly ask him to pray for us in the Divine Liturgy.  Author of both a gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, as well as an iconographer and a physician, St. Luke died a martyr’s death at the age of 84.

One of the 70 Apostles sent out by the Lord to proclaim the good news, St. Luke was the only Gentile to write a gospel.  Like St. Matthew, he includes the family tree or genealogy of the Savior, but he traces the Lord’s lineage all the way back to Adam, the first human being who lived before the distinction between Jew and Gentile.  By doing so, he showed that Christ came to bring all peoples and nations into the glory of His Kingdom.  As a Gentile, St. Luke’s own family tree did not place him in the house of Israel, and his gospel especially emphasizes the mercy of Christ for those considered unworthy of God’s blessings.

The Lord rejoiced in today’s gospel reading that the Father hid His truth from the wise and prudent, but revealed Himself to babes, to humble and simple people with little standing in the eyes of the world.   Gentiles, the poor, the sick, and women got little respect in that time and place, but St. Luke presents the ministry of our Lord in a way that makes clear that the lowly and despised are often the ones most ready to receive the good news of Christ and enter into the joy of His Kingdom, precisely due to their humility.

For example, Luke tells us of the Virgin Mary’s obedient acceptance of the calling to become the Theotokos.  She sings the Magnificat in response, praising Him for regarding the low estate of His handmaiden; for henceforth all generations will call her blessed.  She sings of a God who has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly, who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  A simple, unknown virgin girl miraculously became the living Temple of God; through her, the Savior came into the world.  In humble obedience and with purity of heart, she freely accepted a shocking pregnancy that put her own life and reputation at risk.

The physician Luke describes the meeting between the pregnant Theotokos and the pregnant St. Elizabeth in which St. John the Forerunner leaped in the womb in the presence of the Savior, Who had not yet been born. This very maternal scene conveys both the vital importance of the faithfulness of women for the salvation of the world, as well as the true humanity of Christ, Who has sanctified the womb.  It is a remarkable scene that few men of that time, or perhaps of any time, would have recognized as being so spiritually profound.

Luke also writes of the astounding humility of Christ’s birth in a cave used as a barn, where the Son of God had the feeding trough of a farm animal for His crib.  Shepherds—poor, dirty, and generally looked down upon– were blessed as the first to hear of this event from the angels.  In the Lord’s first sermon in Luke’s gospel, He read a text that showed His love for the outcasts, the suffering, and those on the margins of society.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor…to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”  Those present in the synagogue that day liked the beginning of the sermon, but they hated the ending.  For the Lord reminded them that God sometimes worked through the great Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha to bless Gentiles instead of Jews.  When the people heard that, they literally tried to kill Christ by throwing Him off a cliff.  They wanted a Savior to bring them power and glory in this world, not One Who came to save even their enemies.

St. Luke’s portrait of Christ demonstrates that the Lord does not operate accordingly to conventional human standards of who is important, powerful, worthy, or holy.  In contrast with the ways of the world as we know it, the Savior taught that the last will often be first in the Kingdom of Heaven and the first will often be last.  The weak, humble, and lowly outcasts will often respond to Christ with a pure heart while those who trust in their possessions and power, their social standing and respectability, and their religious and national heritage, will often refuse Him.  That was an uncomfortable message in first-century Palestine, and it remains so in our own time and place.

As a small parish in an area with very few Orthodox Christians, St. Luke is an especially appropriate patron saint for us here in Abilene.  Like those common people in Luke’s gospel, our community has no special prominence or standing at all. There is no common ethnicity or other human characteristic holding us together. To put it bluntly, there is no earthly reason for our parish even to exist.   Our life together is a sign of nothing but God’s abundant grace and mercy for a very unlikely collection of people.

St. Luke described the original Christian community in similar ways in the Acts of the Apostles.  By the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, people who spoke different languages were united together as the Body of Christ.  Both Jews and Romans persecuted them.  There were tensions in the Church between different ethnic and cultural groups.  Arguments raged over whether Gentiles had to be circumcised and obey the Jewish law before becoming Christians.  The Church as described by St. Luke was not wealthy or large or well-known.  To follow Jesus Christ under those conditions was a difficult struggle.  In their weakness, however, the first Christians found God’s strength.  In their humility, they were lifted up by His power.  In their obedience, they became victors over their enemies by sharing in Christ’s victory over sin and death in their own lives.

Let us celebrate this feast day by persisting in obedience to the Lord for Whom St. Luke gave his life, both throughout his long and varied ministry and as a martyr.  That means being last in the proud ways of the world so that we may open ourselves in humble purity of heart to the blessedness of the Kingdom.  That means offering ourselves for the flourishing of this small parish as a sign that the world’s healing does not come through the acclaim of the high and mighty, but through the faithfulness of obscure and lowly people who are transformed by the Lord’s mercy into a living icon of a reign that stands in sharp tension with the conventional ways of the world.  St. Luke is our role model in pursuing such a life together.  Let us ask for his prayers even as we follow his example in running “with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Heb. 12:1)

 

2 comments:

  1. Indeed, healing comes through knowing we are not powerful and we have no voice in this world. Thank you, Father, for reminding us that God’s kingdom is not of this world.

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