“…Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…Only Luke is with me.” (NRSV 2 Timothy 4:10,11)
Apart from the fact that St Luke wrote not only the Gospel which bears his name but also the first history of the Church – the Acts of the Apostles – we know very little about him. However, St Paul’s description of him as the beloved physician (Colossians 4:14) tells us not only that he was a doctor but also that he was a very lovable sort of person. And it is that side of his character which emerges in his writings. There he is revealed as a gentle, friendly, happy soul who has left an example for us all to follow in his true love for Our Lord Jesus Christ and in his trusty loyalty to his fellow Christians.
Those attractive qualities were the fruit of that virtue which is the essential foundation of the Christian character – the virtue of humility and self-forgetfulness. Although he himself had so large a share in the events which he describes, yet he never once mentions himself. When in the Acts of the Apostles he cannot avoid betraying his presence, he does so simply by changing the word “they” in the narrative to “we” – never I, never Luke.
St Luke lived in stirring and momentous times. He witnessed the vigorous and inspired advance of Christianity along the great lines of communication of the Roman Empire and he played his part in blazing the trail. He joined St Paul on the second missionary expedition, and as the wave of hostility to the new Faith mounted to bursting point, he became Paul's ever closer friend and medical attendant.
He has left us his own vivid, first-hand account of that hazardous voyage from Caesarea, the port of Roman Palestine, to Rome, the capital of the world – the voyage which was the prelude to Paul’s first imprisonment. And now Paul is in prison in Rome for the second and the last time and, as he writes, “Only Luke is with me” (NRSV, 2 Timothy 4:11).
It is the late summer of the year 65 AD. It was in the previous September that the great fire of Rome had broken out. People thought that the fire was engineered by the Emperor Nero in one of his madder moods, and in order to divert the rising tide of popular indignation from himself, he promptly put the blame on the Christians. That was the beginning of the first persecution which was to continue until the end of his reign, years after the original charge of fire-raising had been forgotten.
That persecution has been going on now for nearly twelve months. Many have already given their lives for the Faith, and now it is St Paul’s turn. Of all the old friends who had accompanied him to Rome, Luke alone remains.
Some have been martyred, others are planting the Church in the provinces of the Empire, others have deserted. Among the latter is Demas, who was with the Apostle during his first imprisonment, but has now forsaken him, lured away by the prospect of easy money in the great commercial city of Thessalonica. But Paul the aged, the prisoner of the Lord, is not alone. He has in Luke one who is loyal to the last, a man who will not quit.
The evening of the Paul’s life has come and his ministry nears its close. But he still has one last letter to write – to Bishop Timothy, giving him his final directions and urging him to come with all speed. The text of this letter is one of the treasures of the Church, dictated in the prison cell to St Luke who must have written it down with a great ache in his heart.
With this picture of St Luke at his post in the centre of danger, let none of us ever give way to the temptation of forsaking the Christian Faith. You will hear people say that they gave up the practice of religion because of the hypocrisy of those who professed it. If that means anything at all, it means that because some served Our Lord badly, they decided not to serve him at all.
The hollowness of that excuse is obvious when we compare Luke with Demas. Luke stayed because his whole life was centred on Our Blessed Lord. Demas quitted because his life was centred on himself. So one of the reasons why people leave the Church today is that they regard it as an organisation in which they can achieve personal prominence, and are aggrieved when their plans do not work out to their liking.
Others may lapse from fear, fear of the ridicule or opposition of those with whom they live or associate. Such opposition can be very real and unpleasant but it ought not to be surprising. In that very letter which St Paul dictated in his cell, he has warned us, “…all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (NRSV, 2 Timothy 3:12). Indeed, such trials have this value: by testing people’s true quality, they separate the wheat from the chaff.
Always remember that a religion at whose centre is the crucified Christ in not meant to be easy or comfortable. Indeed, it is far better not to embark on it at all, than to start on it and then to quit. As Our Lord has said, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (NRSV, Luke 9:62) but “anyone who endures to the end will be saved” (NRSV, Matthew 24:13).
And with triumphant confidence in God, St Paul echoed those words in that letter which he dictated to St Luke: “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (RSV Catholic edition, 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Let us support and encourage each other in the Christian Faith. And may we, like Paul and Luke, also be given the grace of final perseverance, so that when our time comes, as come it must, we also may be entitled to echo those same words.
Prayer for perseverance
Heavenly Father, help us to support and encourage each other in our Christian Faith and give us grace to persevere in serving you to the end of our lives. So may we come at last to share in the joys of Heaven with all those faithful souls gone before who have fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the Faith. Amen.