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Saint Bartholomew

Fr John Reed

Sunday, 25th August, 2019


In my university days a friend and I used to take the train to Lewes most Sunday evenings to a church service.  My friend was called Pete, he was a quietly spoken blond-haired blue-eyed tall American.  When we arrived the minister would regularly greet us at the door.  Pete didn’t go every Sunday night, and for years the minister would greet me at the door with the word, “hallo Pete.” I always replied no, it’s John, and on the next occasion he would say again in all seriousness “Hallo Pete.”

St. Bartholomew is a bit of an enigma in the Gospels, he is mentioned by name in the list of disciples in Matthew, Mark, Luke and the Book of Acts.  But we don’t get any tales of what he said or did.  Bartholomew translates as Son of Tolmei, so some have speculated Bartholomew is his surname and that perhaps his first name was the Nathaniel mentioned in St. John’s gospel.  Others dispute this identification with Nathaniel.  But perhaps like my friend Pete who was obviously more memorable than I was to the minister, Bartholomew ended up being mistakenly merged with the Nathaniel remembered in St. John’s Gospel as someone who was very opinionated on the subject of Galileans - they were not good messiah material.

Later traditions have Bartholomew going as an evangelist to India and Armenia.  In Armenia it is said he was martyred by being flayed alive and beheaded.  Later art often records a disciple without large areas of skin, holding a large sharp knife.  Based on this iconography mediaeval guilds associated with tanners, plasterers, tailors, leather workers, bookbinders, farmers house painters, butchers and glove makers adopted the enigmatic Bartholomew as their personal saint.

Bartholomew like all disciples was a witness to the risen Jesus; a witness who was prepared to go where the Holy Spirit led to people who were not from his own country or culture.  To people who were blind to the ways of God, but had the eyes to see; to those who were deaf, but had ears to hear.  On a journey inspired by the same God pictured in Isaiah; who declares, saves and proclaims through his witnesses.  A God - all powerful and merciful whose work cannot be hindered.  And Bartholomew is there.  Making enough impact to get himself killed in a horrible way.

Disciples come in different shapes and sizes, with varying personalities, backgrounds and experiences.  Imagine twelve Peters trying to lord it over each other, twelve Johns just hanging on every word that Jesus said or twelve Judases trying to stab the other eleven in the back.  There are loud competitive people in all walks of life and a few at a time in the right place do have their uses.  But Jesus chose a variety of people a few to lead but most of all team players: the people who are indispensable, quietly getting on with what is important.  At the memorial service to Bishop David Sheppard in Liverpool Cathedral, a very memorable moment was when his daughter stood in the pulpit and thanked all present on behalf of her family for being part of David’s team over the years.  We all had a part to play.

When the disciples argued about greatness and rewards in high places, Jesus reminded them that the kingdom of God turns this world’s values upside down.  If you want to be truly great then serve, serve, serve.  We may not have servants in the way the Romans did but today In our world those who serve are still the least valued of people.  You only have to start comparing pay scales.

The words “I am among you like a servant” are emblazoned in gold letters upon one of the windows in the Church Army College chapel. I often had cause to marvel that the Son of God came to serve and not to lord it over people.  Jesus showed the way of servant-hood through his teaching and caring for the marginalized; women, children, foreigners and those with incurable illnesses.  At the last supper his practical teaching of servant-hood involved taking the servant role and washing his follower’s feet.  And where Jesus leads, disciples like Bartholomew follow, living as witnesses to the way of service. 

As we remember the unnoticed disciple, let us give thanks for those amongst us who serve and witness very quietly; who we may not notice or just take for granted.

Malcolm Guite expresses it so well in the Last Beatitude;

And blessed are the ones we overlook;

The faithful servants on the coffee rota,

The ones who hold no candle, bell or book

But keep the books and tally up the quota,

The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,

The quiet ones who organize the fete,

Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,

Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.

God knows the depths that often go unspoken

Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,

Or the slow healing of a heart long broken,

Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.

Invisible on earth, without a voice,

In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

And don’t forget the Bartholomews who are just names on a list




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