Are you ready for some Pentecost? Season of Pentecost, that is?
We’ve started into the longest season of the church year calendar, Pentecost, running from Pentecost Sunday, this year on May 23rd, until November 27th, the day before the 1st Sunday in Advent. We’re talking 27 weeks! Some say Pentecost season is the rest of the church year after experiencing all of the really meaningful parts of the year--from the leading up to and birth of Jesus in Advent and Christmas, through His life and ministry in Epiphany and Lent, His death and resurrection in the Easter season, and the birth of the church at Pentecost Sunday. Maybe that is why they also call it “Ordinary Time!” The color of this Pentecost season is Green, as you can see in our hangings around the church; this is supposed to symbolize the growth and life of the church. And that is what this season is hopefully about for us at St. Mark’s—our ongoing “normal”, but not necessarily exciting life of the church—whatever that may be!!
In this season of Pentecost, with the Lectionary readings we’re using this year, all of the Gospel readings starting today will come from the Gospel of Luke. We have been studying the history, makeup and context of the Bible in our weekly Bible study on Wednesday mornings. The four gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--present different narratives, with different intents on the parts of their authors. In the Gospel of Matthew, apparently written for a Jewish audience, Jesus is repeatedly called out as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. In Mark, apparently written with a Roman audience in mind, Jesus is a heroic man of action, given to powerful emotions, including agony. The Gospel of John represents Jesus as an incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos), and the Savior of all who believe in Him. And, in Luke, apparently written for the Gentiles, Jesus is especially concerned with the poor. Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit in Jesus' life and in the Christian community. Luke insists that salvation offered by Christ is for all, and not the Jews only.
So, who was this Luke?
It is believed that Luke was a Greek-speaking Syrian physician who lived in the Greek city of Antioch in Ancient Syria. His earliest mention is in Paul's Epistle to Philemon, verse 24. He is also mentioned in Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:11, two works commonly credited to Paul. It is generally accepted that this Luke mentioned above is the author of the Gospel bearing his name and also the Acts of the Apostles. Many speculate that Luke was a Gentile. If this is true, it makes Luke the only writer of the New Testament who can clearly be identified as not being Jewish. Luke appears to have spent considerable time with Paul during his travels and ministry to the churches—in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossi, Jerusalem, and he even accompanied Paul to Rome. Luke is always represented by the calf or ox, the sacrificial animal, because his Gospel begins with the account of Zachary, the priest, the father of John the Baptist. He is called a painter and an artist, at least to the extent that his graphic descriptions in his writings of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Shepherds, Presentation, the Shepherd and lost sheep, etc., have become the inspiring and favorite themes of Christian painters.
Luke is one of the most extensive writers of the New Testament. His Gospel is considerably longer than Matthew's, his two books are about as long as Paul's fourteen Epistles, and Acts exceeds in length the Seven Catholic Epistles and the Revelation to John. The style of Luke’s Gospel is superior to any New Testament writing except maybe Hebrews. The author of the Third Gospel and of Acts is the most versatile of all New Testament writers. Luke’s great command of Greek is shown by the richness of his vocabulary and the freedom of his writings.
In the earlier chapters leading to today’s reading from Luke, he describes the early days of Jesus’ adult life and the start of His ministry—his baptism by John the Baptist, his 40 days and temptation in the desert, his rejection by his own town of Nazareth, his start of healing people and driving out spirits, and the calling of his disciples. Jesus even started doing our favorite thing as he preached to the people he encountered—he started telling stories AND PARABLES! In the first part of Chapter 7 before our reading today, in Capernaum Jesus had healed a servant of a Roman centurion. This leader had such a faith that he asked Jesus just to tell him his servant was healed without even seeing him. Jesus was so impressed by this faith that indeed that is what he did.
After this, Jesus and his disciples came to a small town called Nain, about 9 miles south of Nazareth. Bonnie, Mary, Yo and I visited what was once likely the location of this town during our pilgrimage to Israel. Now, IT IS a very small place next to a larger and much newer city. Nain is never mentioned anymore in world religious events, and this small area is now called Naim or Nien. Almost no tour buses or visitors travel there (except those with our guide Iyad), but we were taken there for a brief stop on our way to the well traveled destination of Mt Tabor. Nain was just ¾ of a mile or so down a back road past the McDonalds off the main highway. Yes, there are McDonalds in Palestine and Israel! The road we took basically dead ends at a small but beautiful church (that has no congregation and no priest anymore), and has been owned by a Muslim family for the past 40 or more years--who just felt this church should be preserved. We even got to meet this family. We held a short service and read a couple of Bible passages concerning the raising of the dead—I wonder why we would do this here?
Jesus and His disciples met a funeral procession as it headed for the little cemetery on the hill near Nain. The only son of a widow there had died. Having compassion on her, Jesus brought her son back from the dead, and in doing so, performed His first recorded miracle of raising someone from the dead.
Why is this action so important for the ministry of Jesus and to those who saw it? Hundreds of years earlier nearby Elisha had raised the son of a woman who had earlier given him hospitality. Those mourners at Nain walking with the widow may have made a connection between these two similar miracle events. (Our first reading today also brings up yet another raising from the dead, this one of a child of a widow by Elijah.) Luke writes, "Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited His people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.” This single event in this little village opened up His ministry and he could not go anywhere after this without crowds of the curious and believers.
How was this action important to women of that time, and especially this widow? Jesus interacted with women during a time and a culture when women had few legal and financial rights. The patriarchal system at that time gave the responsibility of women to their fathers, husbands, and male children. Women, who through natural circumstances became older, widowed, and childless, such as the widow in today’s text, found their very survival at stake. The widow lived in a culture where women encountered gender inequality in property ownership, job opportunities, and access to resources. How would this woman care for herself and any remaining members in her family with no husband and no son?
First, Jesus had compassion on this emotionally wrought and financially vulnerable grieving widow and mother—a women who represented the overlooked and undervalued in His society. Second, when Jesus entered this woman’s reality of death and grief, he did not find her alone; her community was with her. The actions of the community Jesus encountered remind us of our responsibility to walk with those suffering among us. Finally, Jesus was moved to bring life where there was so much death. The divine response of Christ who saw a weeping woman and had compassion, and a community that did not abandon its brokenhearted is life-giving action. It is important that Jesus saw this woman in need, comforting that he showed compassion, and encouraging that her community was present. But this woman was in need of more than presence; she was in need of a miracle! And she got one! A son was brought back to life, and a mother got a restored relationship, peace of mind and a means of survival. Finally, a community that walked with her in her pain came to know a prophet among them and the character of God that looks favorably on God’s people who are in crisis.
How does this story speak to us today here at St. Mark’s? Montesano is a virtual metropolis compared to that village of Nain, and yet Jesus chose that out of the way place to perform His life-giving miracle there for that widow and her small community. What great things are being and can be done here among us at St. Mark’s and in our Montesano community? If we are looking and listening to one another and are truly aware of our church and greater community’s needs and pains, from this story from Luke we should know that we can pray and ask our God for His help and expect good things to happen. What these good things (His response to our prayers!) are is unclear, but we can know that the Holy Spirit is there with us, and we can be confident in His response when we ask. Let’s keep this in mind as we proceed in this Pentecost season of “Ordinary Time”—let’s see how extraordinary it can actually be!