Acts 4:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

3rd Sunday before Lent

St Barbara’s 17.02.19

Rev Tulo Raistrick

A number of years ago I was blown away when a good friend said to me: “I have managed to get tickets to go and see the cricket. Do you want to come?” It was a test match between England and South Africa and tickets were almost impossible to get hold of. In fact you had to be a member of Surrey Cricket Club to get them. My friend, who was a member, had managed to get tickets and amazingly he was inviting me along. It was with real joy and excitement that I went – it was the first day of Test cricket I had ever seen.

Something which had seemed exclusive and beyond me had been opened up.

Maybe you have had a similar experience: an invitation to a concert or to a restaurant or to a club.

Well Luke’s gospel is a bit like that. He takes the message of God’s love and blessing, which some people may have thought was reserved only for a select few, and opens it up to everyone, and this morning we are going to take time to explore how he does that and what it means for us today.

We began our overview of Luke’s Gospel last week by looking at who Luke was. He was someone who had a much broader focus than just the Jews living in Israel. He is writing for a non-Jewish, a Gentile, audience, for the people he would have met during his travels with the apostle Paul in Europe. Most of these people would have had very little experience of the Jewish faith. Their encounters with Jews may have been quite limited, regarding them as a community that kept themselves to themselves, and who strangely, for the culture of the day, refused to worship any other God but their own. They may have been regarded with the suspicion that we may today view a religious cult. Even those who came to respect the Jewish faith, such as the centurion in our Gospel reading, who even paid for the building of the synagogue, were still outsiders. True entrance into the Jewish faith was by birth: it was an exclusive club.

So when Jesus, a Jew, who spends his time primarily speaking to Jewish people, and who grounds himself in the Jewish scriptures, comes along, it is easy to brand him and those who follow after him as simply belonging to a Jewish sect. But as we know, the Christian gospel is far more radical than that, and it is in Luke’s gospel, a gospel for the gentiles, that this point is most powerfully made.

From the outset of his gospel Luke has a wider vision of who Christ has come for. The popularity of programmes such as “Who do you think you are?” and our interest in tracing our family trees are an indication of how important we view our roots in helping to explain who we are. So its noticeable that whereas in his gospel, Matthew traces Jesus’ descent and genealogy back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, Luke traces Jesus’ family tree all the way back to Adam, the father of the human race. In other words, Jesus is linked, related, to all humanity, not just one section of it.

It is from Luke that we hear those wonderful words that we heard two weeks ago of Simeon in the Temple, speaking of the baby Jesus, that he “will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel.” Jesus has come for Gentiles and Jews alike, for the whole human race.

It is in Luke’s gospel that we see most clearly the truly universal vision and love of Jesus for all people. Next week we will see how Jesus reaches out to some of the most marginalised in his community: women, children, the poor. But this week, we see how he reaches out beyond the religious and ethnic boundaries to embrace those who had been rejected by his own people.

Its in Luke that we discover most about Jesus’ attitude to the people of Samaria, a land between Galilee and Jerusalem that was almost regarded as a no-go area by proper Jews. Samaritans were regarded as unclean, impure, a people that had betrayed their Jewish faith and culture, merging their identity with other peoples and faiths. And yet Luke tells us that Jesus chose to travel through Samaria, staying in their villages. When he heals ten lepers, and only one, a Samaritan returns to give thanks, Jesus is quick to commend his faith. And of course most famously of all, Jesus transforms the name and reputation of Samaritans for future generations to come by telling the parable of the good Samaritan. Here is a sign of Jesus reaching out beyond the boundaries of his day to embrace the religious outcasts.

He reaches out further still, beyond Israel’s neighbour, Samaria, to the peoples of all the world. At the outset of his ministry, when visiting his home town of Nazareth, Jesus spoke of the faith of two gentiles in the Old Testament – the widow of Zarephath and Naaman of Syria – as an example of why the wider world would be ready to accept his message more readily than his own people. And then we encounter the remarkable story we heard in our Gospel reading of the Roman centurion. Jesus says, in response to the faith of the centurion in trusting Jesus that if he just says the word his servant will be healed: “I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Greater faith than in all of Israel! In other words, non-Jews as much as Jews can have faith.

There is a wonderful parallel to this story in Luke’s second book, the book of Acts, where Peter encounters the faith of a Roman centurion too. That encounter proves to be the turning point for the early church when they finally get the truth that Jesus has been living out – the gospel is for all: all peoples are welcomed into the kingdom of God.

If we are not to be excluded on grounds of ethnicity, nor are we to be on grounds of religious observance and moral rectitude. The most common criticism levelled by Jesus’ opponents in Luke’s gospel was that he ate with and associated with tax collectors and sinners. Its in Luke that that we get the wonderful story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, ostracised and despised by his community but loved and welcomed by Jesus. Its in Luke too that we get the story of Jesus favourably comparing a humble tax collector at prayer to a boastful and religiously correct Pharisee. And its in Luke that we have Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son – the son who wastes all his father’s inheritance – and yet returns home to the most wonderful and love-filled welcome. In other words, throughout Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus reaching out to all people, no matter who they were or how far they may seem from God. Even on the cross, Jesus speaks words of love and welcome to the penitent thief nailed to the cross next to his.

Luke’ Gospel emphasises a remarkable truth about Jesus: he has come for all people, whether Jew or non-Jew, whether religiously correct or religiously lax, whether morally good or morally bad. All people are included. All people are invited to receive his message of salvation.

So what does this message mean for us today? Well, firstly, it encourages us to reach out and welcome all who come into this church, no matter how different they may be from us, and to do so with love rather than with judgment. Jesus embraced and loved an incredible variety of people from thieves and unscrupulous tax-collectors, to foreigners and outsiders, to the religiously sincere and the socially acceptable. Our challenge in following Christ is to do likewise, to welcome and love all.

There is a second challenge for us. There is no-one for whom the love of Christ is not relevant. There is no-one who lives in a culture, a faith, a country, for whom discovering Jesus’ love cannot make a difference. As Luke records in the book of Acts, in the first reading we heard today, the disciples quickly worked this out. Peter declared: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed… Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.” 

It is one thing to be loving and welcoming of those who come into church. But we need to acknowledge that the vast majority of people in our community never come into church in the first place. We live in a culture where knowledge of who Jesus is is in huge decline; where people don’t consciously reject Christ as much as that the thought and knowledge of Christ never even enters their minds. That it wouldn’t occur to them that the love of Jesus could be relevant to them.

For all of us, there is a challenge to speak of the relevance of Christ to people’s lives. That is by explaining the message of God’s willingness to forgive us and love us – the golden thread throughout Luke’s gospel. Some of you here are particularly gifted in sharing your faith in such a way. For others, it may be harder, but for all of us, finding ways to share Christ’s love with others, whether it is our colleagues at work, our neighbours, our family, is so important.

I was hearing about a lady in another church this week who had told her vicar that she wasn’t someone who could speak about her faith to others, and yet this same lady knew every person in the village and whenever anyone was ill she would visit and ask if they would like to go on the church’s prayer list. By that simple act, no-one was left in any doubt as to what Jesus’ love meant to her. They also were helped to realise how Jesus’ love was relevant to them too.

At the heart of Luke’s Gospel are three of the most memorable stories in the whole of the Bible – the parable of the shepherd searching for and finding his lost sheep; the parable of the housewife searching for and finding her lost coin; and the parable of the father waiting for and welcoming home his lost, or prodigal, son. Each of these stories speak of a God who will do everything he possibly can to seek us out, to convince us of his love, and of his absolute and overwhelming joy when even just one person turns to receive him. God is reaching out to his world today. Let us join in with him, going out into his world to share his love, and welcoming all who return into the loving arms of his embrace.