Sunday 18 October 2015
St Andrew’s Leytonstone
2 Timothy 4:5-17
Today we celebrate the life and ministry of St Luke. Tradition has it that he was an artist, writer and doctor – perhaps today he would be called a polymath, someone with remarkable skill in a number of areas. He is best known as the writer of the Gospel according to St Luke, of course; but he also gets attribution for the book of Acts, and for acting as a scribe for many of the letters of St Paul.
Luke is only referred to as a physician once in Scripture, but his language in writing about people is the same style of Greek that was used by other doctors of the same period. Luke’s Gospel has not only technical, medical language, but a particular concern for healing, and for the inclusion of society’s outcasts in the Kingdom of God.
I wonder what it must have been like for a doctor to write so much about the healing ministry of Jesus, while also spending a lot of time with Paul, who was no stranger to physical suffering. But there is more to healing than physical health. It might help to think about the origin of the word “health” – it comes from the same roots as the word “wholeness”. So another way to think about healing is to think about what makes people whole. When Jesus heals people, they are made whole, regardless of whether their physical symptoms stop.
Our readings today all talk about preparation and healing. “Strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees,” says the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel; “encourage those who are afraid and tell them: God will save you. People will be healed.” These are comforting words to a nation full of fearful and downhearted people; but also challenging: the work of God is going to require us to have a sort of strength, and it’s best to start preparing sooner rather than later.
The reading from the second letter to Timothy tells us of a rather different sort of preparation. This is a very personal letter: Paul is in prison, and he expects he will soon be put to death. That’s what he means when he says “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” He is certain he isn’t going to be alive much longer, and he wants Timothy to come and see him – and Luke, the only person who has stayed with him. He asks for a cloak that he left with someone else; prisons can be cold places. He asks for books and papers, perhaps to put some of his affairs in order as best he can. But Paul isn’t afraid of death: he knows he has done all he can, and he trusts utterly that God will reward him in death. That is a sort of healing, to him, despite all that he has suffered. His main concern seems to be that Timothy should continue his own ministry: and the parts of the letter we didn’t hear today are full of advice on how to do that, preparation for what lies ahead.
The Gospel reading this morning is also about preparation and healing. Just before the passage we heard, Jesus is asking people to follow him – but they make excuses. There is an urgency to the instructions Jesus gives to the seventy he sends out, which he conveys by speaking of harvest. Sometimes, we tend to think of harvest as a time of plenty and profusion – and it is that, after the work has been done. But if you’ve ever had an allotment that’s just a bit too big to handle, or perhgaps a very fruitful apple tree, you’ll understand the urgency that comes before the harvest: if there aren’t enough people to do the labour of picking the beans or onions or fruit, it still gets ripe – and eventually goes rotten. So Jesus is in a hurry, and he sends these 70 people out in pairs into a dangerous situation, like lambs among wolves – another farming comparison. And rather than going on this journey fully equipped and prepared, they are to go as they are: no bag, no purse, no sandals. They have to take the risk of being vulnerable, and rely on the people in the towns they visit for basic needs of food and shelter.
It seems pretty drastic – but if the harvest is plentiful and the labourers are few, the need for more labourers does call for drastic measures.
The task of these 70 people, as unprepared as they might feel, is to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God. This is how they’re supposed to find more labourers to help with this urgent harvest Jesus is talking about: They are to wish peace on the households they visit, and then if they are welcomed they are to accept whatever hospitality they are offered, to cure the sick they find there, and to declare that the Kingdom of God is near.
As Christians, we are also invited to join in God’s work, and each of the readings we heard today can help us prepare for that work. We can begin, as Isaiah tells us, to strengthen ourselves and one another in preparation for what God is doing here. We can remind one another of the salvation and love of God, which means we have nothing to fear.
Like Paul in his letter to Timothy, we can encourage one another in ministry; and we can ask one another for the help we need in getting our own affairs in order.
And, like the 70 that Jesus sent out on the road to Jerusalem, we can be people who prepare the way for Jesus. We can work toward peace: in our family and home life, in our workplaces and local communities, and in our politics. We can learn to be vulnerable with people, appreciating what help and hospitality is offered. Where we are welcomed, we may not be able to cure the sick – though there is a long tradition of Christians providing medical care – but we can certainly have conversations about healing and wholeness, and work toward the reconciliation of people to one another and to God.
When we do these things, we will be showing people not just that we are encouraging, or peaceful, or vulnerable, or kind: we will be showing them the Kingdom of God and preparing for the coming of Christ.