Sunday 18th October 2015
Luke the Evangelist
St Luke's, Brighton
Luke 6.20-38; 12.27
Acts 4.32-35; 5.1-10

Here is the opening of Chapter Five of the Acts of the Apostles:

"...... a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife's knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles' feet. "Ananias," Peter asked, "why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!" Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, "Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price." And she said, "Yes, that was the price." Then Peter said to her, "How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband."

Most commentators seem to think that this is a case of Saint Luke hamming it up, incapable of resisting a good story but it sounds quite different if we read it in the context of the passage at the end of Chapter 4:

"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

The problem for us is that we confuse our modern practice of seeing breaks between chapters as signifying an emotional, thematic or rhetorical shift in a text with the functional division of the Bible into chapters and verses by Archbishop Stephen Langton around 1227 simply to make it easier to find material. Luke’s story in Chapter Five is simply an elaboration of the negative consequences of going against the Spirit - the Holy Spirit - at the end of Chapter Four.

When I was a child, when there was a powerful Communist Party in France and one so powerful in Italy that it seemed to be hammering at the gates of Vatican City, the Roman Catholic Church got itself into all kinds of tangles over the issue of holding goods in common but there is no denying, whether we like it or not - and by and large we don't - that the ownership of private property is a sign of a disordered society. We are incessantly haunted by the Lilies of the Field (Luke 12.27) but we are not about to stop toiling and spinning as this would be, according to our human way of looking at things, totally imprudent. We simply are not prepared to take God's word for it.

But this is no debate about economic theory, it constitutes a direct challenge to the way we live out our Christian faith. Whereas Matthew, somewhat coyly, in her "Sermon on The Mount" (Matthew 5.1-12) says "Blessed are they" if they do the right thing, Luke, in his corresponding "Sermon on The Plain" says "Blessed are you".

In reading Luke we are accustomed to noting his concern for women and for outcasts of every kind but we are in danger of reducing this to social theory, marking him as different from the somewhat Ethereal John, the didactic Matthew and the cinematographic Mark, but if we simply characterise his unique stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the rich man and the pauper and the woman taken in adultery which has somehow found its way into the Gospel of John as outrageously idealistic, we lose his sense of moral outrage.

In Luke there are no half measures. Compare what you have heard with our stuttering, stumbling, grudging half measures to deal with what we characterise not as a crisis for the refugees but as a crisis for us.

Today 84 of our bishops, on our behalf, have released a letter to the Prime Minister which they wrote six weeks ago. In it they specifically mention the death of Alan Kurdi; but even though we often say that a picture is worth a thousand words, did we really need the image of that boy washed up, dead, on a Turkish beach to prompt us into action? Before then there had been thousands of pictures and hundreds of thousands of words. The poor refugees must have wondered how long it would be before we would emerge from our Summer torpor to notice.

Anyway, out bishops have called for the Government to raise our refugee quota from 20,000 over five years to 50,000 in that time with the first 20,000 over the first two years.

In the light of what Saint Luke has told us of the teaching of Jesus, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether that is enough.