Feast of St. Bartholomew
At the time of the Reformation during the sixteenth century, there were two reactions to the catholic traditions that had been received from the Church. Now of course, when I say “catholic” I using the version of the word with a lower case “c” – a word that means “universal” and is used to describe the beliefs and practices that have been shared by Christians throughout the centuries. So, we are talking about things like the liturgy, the lectionary and the church year.
On the one hand those in the radical wing of the Reformation, and also to a large degree those who are identified as Reformed, rejected these catholic traditions. Just as they rejected the false teaching that contradicted the Scriptures, so also they rejected practices that had been handed down in the Church.
On the other hand, the Lutherans took a very different approach. They too rejected teachings and practices that contradicted the Gospel and Scripture. However, they retained the vast majority of catholic traditions and practices that didn’t fall into this category. They did this for several very good reasons. They believed that these things fostered good order and harmony in the Church. And they also believed that they taught the faith, and had been doing so for centuries.
This approach guided the way they treated the saints who had been included in the calendar of the Church. Generally speaking, they narrowed down the list of feasts of the saints that were observed to focus on those found in the Bible. But they retained these for three reasons. First, they did so because we should give thanks to God for giving these faithful servants to the Church. Second, they did so because through the remembrance of these saints our faith is strengthened as we see the mercy that God extended to them. And finally, the Lutherans saw in the saints examples in their faith and life that other Christians can imitate.
Today is the Feast of St. Bartholomew. Certainly on this day we give thanks to God for one of the twelve apostles. We do see the mercy that God extended to him as our Lord Jesus called him to faith, just as he has called us. However, when it come so to using Bartholomew as an example of life in the faith, things get a little difficult for one basic reason: we don’t really know all that much about him.
Bartholomew is included in the list of the apostles chosen by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We know that he was present at the experiences the disciples had with Jesus. But beyond that, we can’t say anything for sure. Bartholomew is usually identified with Nathaniel in the Gospel of John because in the lists of the apostles he is named after Philip, and in John’s Gospel it is Philip who goes and tells Nathaniel about Jesus. This is very plausible, but we can’t be certain about it. Later church tradition associates him with evangelism in India and also Armenia. Like all of the apostles except John, it is believed that he was martyred because of his Gospel work.
But none of this is absolutely sure. And so this morning instead of using something that has an element of conjecture, we are going to focus on our Gospel lesson and consider what it tells us about Bartholomew in his role as an apostle. We see here that Bartholomew was a sinner, just as we are. And we also learn about the surprising character of Jesus Christ’s ministry, and what this means for us.
Our Gospel lesson is part of Luke’s account of the Last Supper. Jesus has just instituted the Sacrament of the Altar. In the verses just before our text, our Lord has said that one of them is going to betray him – and of course on multiple occasions Jesus has already predicted his suffering and death.
And how do Bartholomew and the other apostles respond to all this? We hear in our text, “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” They started debating among themselves about who was the number one! We could hardly find a setting that more clearly demonstrates their lack of understanding and skewed priorities – that more clearly shows the sin present in their lives.
We see here that Bartholomew and the other saints are not saints because they were sinless or holy in themselves. They too were sinners who failed in various ways. Instead, they are saints because of the forgiveness that they received because of Jesus Christ. They are models for us in the way they lived the faith after the resurrection of Jesus. But like us, they never ceased to be saints and sinners at the same time.
As our Lord was about to be betrayed and serve us by suffering and dying on the cross, the apostles were arguing about who was the greatest. And so Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
Jesus acknowledged how things worked in his first century world. The inequality in life that existed was greater than anything we have known. Life was defined by relationships of disparate status and power. The powerful exercised authority over those under them. Life was arranged around the relationship of benefactors and clients. The benefactors helped the clients who depended on them, and in turn the clients honored and served the benefactors.
As they were reclining around the table and eating the Passover meal, Jesus asked a simple question: “For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table?” The obvious answer was “yes.”
And then Jesus added the observation, “But I am among you as the one who serves.”
Jesus was their Lord; their Master; their Teacher. And yet he was serving them! This took all the expectations of the world and turned them upside down. And it still does. The CEO of the company doesn’t serve the employees. He tells them what do. The general in the army doesn’t serve his soldiers. He gives them orders that they must carry out. And let’s face it, we know on which side of the relationship we want to find ourselves. We don’t want to serve. We want to be in charge. We don’t want to sacrifice. We want to be served.
Yet there was Jesus on the night when was about to betrayed into death in order to bring forgiveness to Bartholomew and the apostles … and to us. Just a little after our text, before they leave the supper, Jesus will say, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” Jesus quotes words from Isaiah chapter 53 that speak about the suffering Servant and he applies them directly to himself. He identifies himself as the One who is going to be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” He identifies himself as the One who will serve us by suffering and dying for our sins.
And in doing so, he provides the model and pattern for our lives. He provided this for the Bartholomew and the apostles, and they embraced it. After the Day of Pentecost they dedicated their lives to serving others by sharing the Gospel. They served the Church by feeding her with Christ’s Word and caring for those in it. Indeed, Peter told pastors to shepherd the flock of God that was among them, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
Our Lord has served us by suffering and dying for our forgiveness and salvation. And now through the work of his Spirit he uses us to serve others. He uses us to provide for the needs of our family, our friends; our congregation; our acquaintances. He uses us as the means by which God cares and provides for others.
Bartholomew and the apostles had been called to serve. Yet this service did not deny the unique status and position they held. At the end of our text Jesus says, “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
The apostles had been called as our Lord’s authorized representatives. Especially after Jesus’ ascension, they would preach and teach with his authority. And their teaching continues to exercise authority over us because it is the Lord’s authority. We are prone to chafe against this, especially in our world that often rejects the idea of authority and instead revels in the freedom of the individual to do whatever he or she wants. Our Lord’s authoritative word passed on by the apostles tells us what life is to look like. And quite often this puts us into conflict with the world. We are tempted to reject the authority of the apostolic world – at least when it comes to this issue or that issue.
But Jesus’ words this morning remind us that Bartholomew and the apostles are unique figures in the history of the world. They are unique figures because they were called by the One who is utterly unique. They were called and authorized by the Son of God who in the incarnation entered into our world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. They were called by the One who died on the cross, and then on the third day rose from the dead. The apostles’ word is Jesus’ word – and that is the word of the risen and ascended Lord.
This serving can be hard work. It is not always fun. Listening to and living God’s authoritative word can be challenging. In order to do both of these we need support. In our text today, Jesus talks about how Bartholomew and the apostles will eat and drink at table in his kingdom. He speaks these words as they were at table with him at the Last Supper – in fact, just shortly after he had instituted the Sacrament of the Altar.
Like Bartholomew, our Lord feeds us with his true body and blood. He gives us the forgiveness of sins that he won on the cross for all the times that we fail to serve; for all the times we listen to the world and disobey his word. Through this meal he sustains us in the faith as we walk through the pilgrimage of life. And at the Sacrament of the Altar our Lord provides the assurance that we too will recline with St. Bartholomew and all the saints at the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end.