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Readings: St Bartholomew the Apostle

15 August 2014


Isaiah 43.8-13 or Acts 5.12-16 or 1 Corinthians 4.9-15; Luke 22.24-30

Almighty and everlasting God, who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your word: grant that your Church may love that word which he believed and may faithfully preach and receive the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

ST BARTHOLOMEW is something of an enigma. We are not even sure of his name. If he is, as is often assumed, the Nathanael of St John's Gospel, then, we not only know that Jesus called him to be one of his twelve disciples, but we also know of his perplexity that anything good could come out of Nazareth; that he came from Cana, and thus Jesus's first miracle was on his doorstep; and that he was one of the fishermen who experienced the resurrection appearance by the Sea of Galilee (John 1.46, 2.1, 21.1-8).

Beyond this, we have to imagine him as one of the crowd of disciples who was faithfully present, through thick and thin, but did nothing notable enough to be recorded in the Gospels. Yet he did remarkable things afterwards: tradition associates him variously with mission to India, Ethiopia, and Mesopotamia, before martyrdom in Armenia. It is never too late to serve God in new ways.

The one character reference that we have for him - and it is telling - is that he was an Israelite in whom there was no guile or deceit (John 1.47). Few people are totally transparent and truthful, and yet that was how Jesus summed him up, explaining himself only by an enigmatic comment about something that happened under a fig tree, possibly a reference to study of the Torah.

Bartholomew was part of the dispute about greatness at the Last Supper (of all places). In the sharp exchange it prompted, Jesus said that the greatest sat at table, but his and the disciples' place was to be the youngest and the servant. Thoroughly rebuked, the disciples could be forgiven for being confused when Jesus promptly described them not only as sitting at table in his Kingdom, but also sitting on thrones as judges. Were they great, or were they least?

The collect, forced to be general in its description of Bartholomew, is nevertheless penetrating, as it recalls the grace given to him truly to believe and preach God's word. That took courage, even for a man without deceit. He was, in Isaiah's words, one of God's witnesses.

Bartholomew and the other apostles discovered that God did signs and wonders through them, which caused people to set them apart, hold them in high esteem, and turn to the Lord whom they proclaimed. Yet read on, and those same revered apostles were in prison, before - irrepressible after miraculous release - they returned to their place of arrest, and picked up teaching where they had left off.

As Paul wrote to Christians who were being misled by false apostles who denigrated the true apostles, God has a strange way of using his witnesses. Read Paul's inventory of apostolic trials and tribulations too quickly, and the import is lost: these people were treated as fools, and were hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten, homeless, and exhausted. They were reviled, persecuted, slandered, and treated as the dregs of the world. Who would choose to be an apostle?

But slipped into that catalogue of oppression was something to mark them out as disciples of Jesus Christ: amid it all, they blessed, endured, and spoke kindly. They were among their oppressors as those who serve. That remarkable grace was expressed by their standing by Christ in his trials, and their growing conformity to Christ in his suffering.

The faithful facing of such turbulence of praise and persecution without demur can spring only from a profoundly godly character. Some better-known disciples, such as St Peter, have their moments of shambles and success recorded for posterity. Bartholomew is different. He remains unremarked, subsumed in the phrase "the twelve", or "the apostles", perhaps naturally reticent - one of the steady, faithful, and reliable people who stay out of the limelight, but get on with things none the less.

There have been millions of such faithful people through the ages. Sometimes, when listening to lists of unpronounceable names in the Old Testament readings at morning and evening prayer (or, worse, reading them), I am tempted to switch off, or to skip them; but I find myself wondering who these people were, what they were like, and why they merited the recording of their names.

Whoever they may be, St Bartholomew's Day gives us an excuse to celebrate their inclusion, to celebrate Bartholomew's inclusion, and to be invited to follow their example of living without fuss, but with enormous fidelity. Can it be said of us that, like Bartholomew/Nathanael, we are without deceit?

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