This Sunday’s readings: Bartholomew the Apostle

21 August 2008

by John Pridmore

Isaiah 43.8-13;

Acts 5.12-17;

Luke 22.24-30


BARTHOLOMEW is said to have been flayed alive, before being crucified upside down. Leather-workers look to him as their patron saint. In painting and sculpture, he is often represented as holding a knife, with his own skin neatly draped over his arm. Quite how such imagery is supposed to deepen our devotion is unclear.

In the absence of facts, fantasies about Bartholomew abound: that he went on a missionary tour to India; that Emma, the wife of King Canute, entrusted one of his arms to Canterbury Cathedral; that he can be efficaciously invoked if one suffers from nervous tics.

Although Bartholomew has given his name to famous hospitals, such as St Barts in London, there is no evidence that he was any more adept than the other apostles at the healing miracles attributed to all of them in our reading from Acts.

We know nothing about Bartholomew. There is even uncertainty about his name. It has been suggested that Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person. We know nothing about Bartholomew — except, that is, for the only thing that matters about him. We know that he was a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. That is all. Bartholomew himself would not have wished for anything else to be told about him.

In thinking about Bartholomew, we are made aware that the call to serve can be a call to hide. What attracted Thomas Merton to the monastic life, especially to the Trappist life, was its promise of total hiddenness.

“The thought of those monasteries, those cells, those cloisters, those men in their cowls, the poor monks, the men who had become nothing, shattered my heart,” he wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain. For Merton, it is only because of these Bartholomews, men so hidden as to be absent from the earth, that God is persuaded to stay his hand a little longer before bringing our tragic tale to a close.

Today’s Job Centres do not advertise vacancies for servants. The term is felt to be shameful and demeaning. Servants, we suppose, belong to a Victorian upstairs-downstairs world. Servants languished in the “station in life” into which they were born, by day in the scullery, by night in the attic. In the age and culture of the “service industry”, where billions are made overnight, the very notion of service has become corrupted.

The role of the servant — the role that we have come to despise — Jesus has, for all time, made his own. “I am among you”, he says, “as one who serves.” The saying, one of the great “I am”s of the Gospels, is only in Luke, but it is uttered in the accents of John.

Here is one of the moments in Luke’s Gospel where “the beloved physician” and “the beloved disciple” speak as one. When we hear these words, we are in heart and mind where John takes us, in the Upper Room where Jesus rose from the table to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13.1-20).

The disciples notice what Jesus does only because he has assumed the role of someone normally unnoticed. The household slave goes about his work, and, for the rest of the house, it is as if he does not exist. Popes and vicars who conspicuously wash people’s feet once a year have missed the point.

    To serve is to hide. He who comes from “the God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45.15) hides himself, too. On Easter Day, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus met two disconsolate disciples. Later, after he had made himself known to them, “he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24.31).

That is what is Jesus does. He still vanishes from our sight. Now you see him; now you don’t. He does not await our recognition, still less our ovations. By the time we have found the noisy hymn to sing his praise, he is off somewhere else.

We know, many of us, that we have met him. There was that moment, at the edge of an abyss, when he touched our lives, steadied us, and saved us from falling. Only later did we recognise who it was — and by then he had gone. He had moved on, as he did in Galilee. And, as in Galilee, we must drop everything and follow him.

There are the Bartholomews, whose hidden service to their sisters and brothers becomes known only when they have left us, when they themselves are lost in light. There are many more Bartholomews whose story — before the books are opened — we shall never know.

George Eliot was no believer, but, in the famous closing words of the greatest novel in our language, she honours Bartholomew. “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” (Middlemarch).


Text of readings


Isaiah 43.8-13

8Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
9Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’
10You are my witnesses, says the LORD,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
11I, I am the LORD,
and besides me there is no saviour.
12I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says the LORD.
13I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it?

Acts 5.12-16

12Many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, 15so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. 16A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.

Luke 22.24-30

24A dispute also arose among the twelve as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

28You are those who have stood by me in my trials; 29and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, 30so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel

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