Yes, I agree. In every age God keeps shaking us up, leading us into deeper truth and love for our particular times and context. There is therefore plenty of conflict about what God desires in Luke’s stories. We often think of Luke as a healer and evangelist but perhaps he is above all a model for us of what it means to communicate God’s ‘good news’ in new ways in every generation. That certainly leads to conflict. We need to see that Luke, like St Paul, was a radical.
A radical? Really? What do you mean by that?
Well put it this way. When we look at what is in the Christian scriptures, it is fair to say that we, and most Christians who have ever lived, would simply not be Christians if it were not for Luke and Paul. Without their re-working of the early Christian Faith, Christianity would have essentially remained a sect of Judaism. Luke and Paul however, like Jesus, cut through many of the external Jewish elements of human relationship with God to the internal heart of Faith. They helped Gentiles to be fully accepted, without demanding that they meet traditional standards of ritual and mores. In doing so, they refused to be tied to the spirit of one age, the past, so that the Christian Faith could flourish afresh in the ages to come.
So is that why we hear of conflict among Paul’s group in today’s reading from 2 Timothy?
Yes, it tells us that, from the very early Church, there has always been pressure to give up on the freedom and openness to truth which Jesus taught and lived. Some have always wanted to imprison God’s freedom and truth in past understandings which can never stand the test of time. So, in 2 Timothy, we see Paul under heavy pressure for the freedom he shared about what it means to be a Christian. At least one colleague, Demas, we are told, went off ‘in love with this present world’. Another, Alexander the coppersmith, was but one bitter opponent, doing Paul ‘great harm’, as he ‘strongly opposed his message.’ Luke, in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, then gives us much more information about this struggle, telling us how many early Jewish Christian leaders opposed the relaxation of traditional rules and the full acceptance of Gentiles, those of other cultures and lifestyles. Even Peter, Luke shows, was greatly conflicted, until, after a great vision, he also saw the light. Peter, with other early Church leaders, then gave up the idea of Christian Faith as a fixed entity, immune to change. They stopped clinging to the past and opened themselves to the change of the Holy Spirit. Thus Jesus was able to become ‘good news’ for all peoples.
Amazing! So what you are saying is that Christianity involves change and being flexible to the different needs of different times, cultures and lifestyles? That is still difficult for many to understand isn’t it?! Yet the scriptural reality is that Luke, and Paul, are huge encouragers to us to reject fundamentalism and clinging to the past. Have you ever heard the saying that ‘whoever marries the spirit of one age will find themselves a widower in the next’? Luke, and Paul, are wonderful antidotes to that danger I think.
‘Whoever marries the spirit of one age will find themselves a widower in the next’. Yes, I have heard that. Sometimes it has even been used, hasn’t it, by deeply conservative Christians to resist theological and social change? They have argued in the past for example that everyone had to agree completely with what the Pope said, or with literal or traditionalist readings of scripture. Anything less, they have contested, is simply giving in to the spirit of the modern age. Similarly, it was argued that getting rid of slavery, giving every person a vote, or ordaining women, were compromises with modern thinking which would change again in the future and leave the Church high and dry. As we know today however, neither the world nor the church fell in when such momentous changes were made. This should surely give us food for thought in regard to present conflicts also.
Yes, I think so too. For the phrase ‘whoever marries the spirit of one age will find themselves a widower in the next’ was coined by one of the most interesting Anglican thinkers of the 20th century, a man called William Ralph Inge. He is best known as Dean Inge, from his 23 years as London’s Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, where you and I were ordained. Prior to that however, Inge was professor of divinity at Cambridge University, a notable philosopher and a prolific writer: publishing 35 books, in addition to many other articles, lectures and sermons, and, for 25 years, being a regular columnist for London’s Evening Standard newspaper. As such, he spent most of his life seeking to relate the eternal truths of the Christian Faith to the changing culture and thinking of the modern age. Hence he coined this challenging insight that ‘whoever marries the spirit of one age will find themselves a widower in the next.’
Is there a danger though, to use another well known expression, that ‘we can throw out the baby with the bathwater’ when it comes to changing aspects of Christianity? Surely there must be limits?
Yes, indeed. St Luke certainly does not encourage us to think that anything goes. His writings are clear that there is one God who is most fully known in Jesus. Faith is shown in how far we participate in Christ and in the life of the Holy Spirit. Whilst rules and mores may change in different times and contexts, the test must always be whether God’s sacrificial love and the fruits of the Holy Spirit are present. If, for example, we fail to live like Jesus in including the poor and outcast – a particular concern of Luke – then we are not sharing in the mission and healing of God.
So, in a way, when we celebrate the feast of St Luke, we are committing ourselves to deeper humility and compassion in the power of God’s eternal love and truth?
Yes, that is a good way of putting it. Dean Inge would certainly have agreed. He was one of those Anglicans who recovered the Christian mystical tradition. For him, finding answers to life’s challenges in any generation was therefore neither about blindly clinging to the past nor receiving new ideas uncritically. Instead, we need both to deepen our thinking and to open the depths of our heart to God’s eternal presence. As he put it, ‘we maintain that the future of Christianity is in the hands of those who insist that faith and knowledge must be confronted with each other till they have made up their quarrel. The crisis of faith cannot be dealt with by establishing a modus vivendi (a simple compromise) between scepticism and superstition.’
So let me sum up what we are saying. The example of St Luke encourages us to embrace the new insights and openings of God which come to us afresh in every generation. Luke’s writings challenge us to let go of those inherited cultural constructions of Faith which exclude others. Luke models for us how to experience a much, much bigger, and more loving God than we can ever imagine, and how to share that big love with others. In doing so, we continue the mission which Jesus gave his disciples, but, like Luke and Paul, in ways appropriate and sensitive to our times.
May it always be so, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
by Jo Inkpin and Penny Jones, for the feast of St Luke 2016