Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
During the 15th century, an ideal emerged in Italian society of the Uomo Universale or Universal man. It carried the notion that “a man can do all things if he will.” This was the aged of gifted men such as Leonardo da Vinci who chose to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, science, art and literature. In time, the phrase Uomo Universale became the definition for the Renaissance Man. Interestingly, 15 centuries before the Renaissance unfolded, a true Renaissance man emerged. He was a doctor, theologian, writer, historian, adventurer and artist.
Throughout the summer, I preached on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. Although the term “apostle” is generally the title only given to Jesus’ 12 disciples, there are actually 12 other men who are referred to as apostles in the New Testament, including the beloved doctor, St. Luke the Evangelist.
According to tradition, St. Luke, the author of both the Gospel of St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, was a born in Antioch an important Greek city in the eastern region of Roman Empire. It is today in eastern Turkey. Antioch had a large and thriving Jewish community, and according to scripture it is where the first Gentile church was established. Peter and Paul and Barnabas all visited, Antioch and it is where the members of early church were first called Christian. Some theologians believe that Luke himself, who was well educated and raised in a prosperous home was a Gentile. There is only one line in scripture that hints at his ethnicity. In Colossians, Paul mentions those who were the ones of the circumcision, and Luke was not listed in that number. Instead, he refers to him as his co-worker and beloved doctor. If correct, this could imply that the writings of St. Luke are the only scriptures penned by a non-Jewish author. Certainly, he has written his gospel for a Gentile audience, including the form and styles of classic, ancient literature. But I believe more importantly that this gives Luke offers a unique Renaissance perspective into the life and work of Jesus.
In this morning’s gospel, we read that Jesus was crossing the frontier between the regions of Samaria and Galilee. It was a “no man’s land” where no Jew nor Samaritan would choose to live. But it was in this abandoned and neglected region, that the unfortunate ten souls had found for themselves a collective shelter. They were victims of a common disease and tragedy. Leprosy. In the ancient world, it was the C word. Cancer. But there was no cure, nor was there even a race for the cure. The misbegotten were sent away to live out their days alone. And there, united by their common pain and humiliation, the lepers knew no distinction between race, status nor religion. They were all forgotten wayfarers. They no longer looked upon themselves as men. They were simply their disease. And so we read, that the ten lepers stood far off. “Keeping their distance they called, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’”
St. Luke must have been struck by their cry for pity- especially as a doctor. Perhaps that was all they dared to ask for. Pity. What more could they expect than a fragment of bread, a discarded robe, or a sympathetic glance as a gesture of mercy? The lepers’ own families had abandoned them to the desolate frontier and their own clergy had declared them unclean with God’s judgment upon them. Yes, keeping their distance, pity, was all they dared ask for.
But as a healing physician, Luke wondered why the ten lepers hadn’t asked for more. If they had known Jesus’ power, they could have pleaded for healing. Everyone else in scripture, the other struggling souls facing life’s challenges knew what they wanted. They didn’t want Jesus’ pity. They went to Jesus to receive his gift of healing. Luke understood that that is where all true healing begins. And this often begins by listening. Some of us, however, don’t know how to listen to ourselves or those we love, and so we don’t know what to ask for.
Of course, we could pity the ten lepers for not knowing Jesus or what to plead for, but thank goodness, Jesus knew what they needed. For Luke, that is the beauty of the story. Jesus showed the men mercy- even beyond their dreams. He heard their voices, and he told the ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests who had sentenced them to the “no man’s land.” And they went. Now we could be a bit cynical, and say, “Well, why not?” In times of need, many people turn to God. In anxious times, when people don’t know what tomorrow will bring, as a last resort, they turn to God. When I was a hospital chaplain, I would regularly ask people if they would like to pray before surgery, and inevitably even the most skeptical would say, “Well, it couldn’t hurt.”
Regardless of their doubts and motives, the ten lepers went on their way and they were healed. Interestingly, the lepers were not healed while waiting. They were healed while they were on their journey. They alone were responsible for taking their first steps.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, as the ten lepers’ lives were healed, they kept right on going. They didn’t turn back, but rather they went on their way to their rabbis, just as Jesus directed them. And, as it happens so often in life, once men, and women and children receive what they want, they never turn back. The nine lepers went back to their families. They were restored and welcomed to their communities, and then as the saying goes, “they moved on.” All except for one- and he was a Samaritan. The apostle must have delighted in this little detail. Perhaps because he himself was a foreigner.
But I think there’s more to this scene than an interesting social commentary on the outsider. I think that as a doctor , Luke understood that in order for true healing and wholeness to occur, we need to return to the place of our greatest pain and sorrow. We need to go back to the no man’s land of life to confront the dark midnight hour, and announce that it no longer has power over us- and only then can we give thanks to God for accompanying us on the journey and for giving us that victory.
According to tradition, Luke accompanied Paul on his second and third missionary journeys and doubtless had the care of Paul’s health. He was with Paul in his last days and final imprisonment in Rome. After writing these lines to Timothy, “the time of my dissolution is at hand, I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course, I have kept the faith,” Paul goes on to say, “Only Luke is with me.”
What exactly happened to Luke after Paul’s martyrdom, we have no certain knowledge. According to a fairly early and widespread tradition, he travelled to Greece where he settled and wrote his gospel in Greece. There he died peacefully in old age at age 84. But as for all the apostles, there are differing endings. According to the Coptic and Syriac traditions, Luke died in Rome which may explain why he never completed the story of Peter and Paul’s martyrdom. In the years after the great fire when Peter and Paul were arrested, Luke was the lone apostle in Rome to continue the task of preaching. He was reported to the Roman authorities of false charges of sorcery. Emperor Nero, who was confident that he had destroyed the Christian community was outraged that he had overlooked Luke and ordered that he be taken and brought to him. When Luke heard the soldiers coming, he fled to the coast where he met a man named Silas (Arabic has Theophilus) whom he gave his writing. A day later he was arrested.
As Luke came before the Emperor, Nero commanded his men to cut off the apostle’s right hand saying, “Cut off this hand which wrote the books.” Luke took up his severed hand and made it reattach to its proper place. Those who were present marveled, including the emperor’s wife and members of his cabinet. Nero then ordered that all be beheaded together with that of the apostle. The executioners then placed the body of the apostle in a hair sack and cast it in the sea. By God’s grace, the waves of the sea brought it to an island where a follower of the apostles found it, took it and buried it with great honor. These various accounts may explain why there are now eight bodies and nine heads, located in different places, all regarded as the authentic relics of the Apostle Luke. In the Western Church it is said the body of St. Luke is in the Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua; the head, in the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague; and a rib, at his tomb in Thebes.
St. Luke lived and died as a Renaissance Man trusting in the promise he had revealed in the story of the ten lepers. Indeed, it is a promise and hope for each one of us as we face the enemies of health and well-being. It may be cancer, it may be dementia. It may be the cruelties of nations at war. It may be a loved one who is struggling and hurting. In the dark hours of the soul, we must dare to face the pain and to trust that God alone, who raised Jesus from the dead, the source of all hope and healing is near and will conquer- if not in this world, then the world to come. And then you will hear him whisper into the heart of your soul, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.