Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle

The Feast of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle
(Dt 18:15-18 / Ps 91 / 1 Cor 4:9-15 / Lk 22:24-30)

Collect of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle
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 what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

ON THE FEAST OF ALL SAINTS each year, the church reads from the Wisdom of Sirach, chapter 44, a passage entitled Hymn in Honor of Our Ancestors. I find it amongst the most beautiful and inspiring of the church’s seasonal readings, a very “human” one that I refer to not infrequently. The passage “divides” thematically midway through, and I will pause between sections to reflect a bit on each part of the text.

Sirach 44:1–15 (NRSVCE): 44 Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
4 those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction;
5 those who composed musical tunes,
or put verses in writing;
6 rich men endowed with resources,
living peacefully in their homes—
7 all these were honored in their generations,
and were the pride of their times.
8 Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.

Glorious men: rulers, warriors, counselors, sages, prophets, musicians. Who in the Old Testament might we count among this esteemed fellowship? Joseph must be named — interpreter of dreams and vice-regent of Egypt. Surely David fits the bill, checking many of the boxes: warrior, ruler, musician. So, too, does David’s son Solomon: ruler, sage, man of wealth and renown. Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and a host of the prophets must be included. Surely the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), Moses the Law-Giver, and Joshua the Conqueror are among the famous men in our story. These men were honored, some in their generations and all in the generations to come. They have left behind a name so that their praises are declared.

But, there is another set of our ancestors whom we also honor. The Wisdom of Sirach describes them this way.

9 But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
10 But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
11 their wealth will remain with their descendants,
and their inheritance with their children’s children.
12 Their descendants stand by the covenants;
their children also, for their sake.
13 Their offspring will continue forever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
14 Their bodies are buried in peace,
but their name lives on generation after generation.
15 The assembly declares their wisdom,
and the congregation proclaims their praise.

Two different groups of people: one renowned and honored in their generations, their exploits and accomplishments the stuff of song and legend, and a second one little known or remembered, uncelebrated in their time, though nonetheless known by their children and by God. We sing their praises, too. Most of us fall in this second group. We’re not rulers. We’re not rich or famous. We are, most of us, ordinary folk trying to do our ordinary best in the work that’s been given us to do: in loving our friends and families, in honoring our vows and our vocations, in contributing to our communities, in helping strangers, in living faithfully toward our God. We have not made a name for ourselves beyond our own small circle, if even there. But, our children — in the flesh and in the spirit — will remember us. And, most importantly, God will remember us.

Two groups, the mighty and the ordinary. So, let me ask you: into which group would you put the Twelve, the Apostles of our Lord? Rulers, warriors, counselors, sages, prophets, musicians, the mighty and renowned or the more humble and ordinary folk like you and me? We know what Jesus intended, don’t we? The first clue comes from whom he picked: not the powerful, the rich or the elite, but fishermen, a tax collector, a Zealot and other assorted ordinary folk. Another clue — and more than just a clue — comes from words Jesus spoke to them very near the end of his ministry, on his last night with them, in fact:

Luke 22:24–27 (ESV): 24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 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.

Clearly, Jesus didn’t want them to act like the powerful, rich, and elite. To the contrary, he wanted them to be the least, the servants of all. Were they well thought of in their generation, highly esteemed? Hardly: here’s how St. Paul describes the Apostles amongst whose number he counted himself:

1 Corinthians 4:9–13 (ESV): 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

The scum of the earth: fools, weak, disreputable, hungry and thirsty, poorly dressed, homeless, reviled, persecuted, slandered — that’s how they were considered, how they considered themselves, and how they truly were in their generation. And that brings us to Bartholomew, whose feast the Church celebrates this day.

Far from being renowned in his generation and thereafter, even the Church knows almost nothing about him beyond his inclusion among the Twelve. He never speaks in the Gospels. No faithful deeds, much less any mighty deeds, are attributed to him. He is a cipher, a blank. All that we know is that Jesus chose him near the beginning of his ministry, that he accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry, and that he was still there after the crucifixion and resurrection, sitting in the upper room as Pentecost approached, waiting and praying for something that he could not even imagine. He was among those who cast lots to find a replacement for Judas, and he was there when the Spirit blew that upper room to kingdom come and fire fell from heaven and the firstfruits of the Kingdom of God came on earth as it is in heaven. After that, Bartholomew disappears from the official record.

There are some hints about him in the traditions of the church though — nothing certain, but interesting nonetheless. The book Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000 has this:

Some sources credit Bartholomew with having written a Gospel, whose existence was known to Jerome and Bede, but which is lost today. There is a tradition that Bartholomew traveled to India, and Eusebius reports that when Pantaenus of Alexandria visited India, between 150 and 200, he found there “the Gospel according to Matthew” in Hebrew, which had been left behind by “Bartholomew, one of the Apostles.”

An ancient tradition maintains that Bartholomew was flayed alive at Albanopolis in Armenia (The Episcopal Church. Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000 (2001). Church Publishing, Inc. p. 338.).

Even these few traditions are bare-boned: a Gospel by Matthew — not even by Bartholomew himself — just left behind in India and a very brief word about Bartholomew’s martyrdom. Because his martyrdom is placed in Armenia, he is the patron saint of that country and venerated there as the founder of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Also, in what seems to me an ironic and gruesome twist for someone skinned alive, Bartholomew is venerated as the patron saint of bookbinders, tanners (leather workers), and butchers — all vocations that work with skins.

Had the Church asked me about patronage, I would have suggested that Bartholomew would make an excellent patron saint for ordinary people, for all of us who are not rich and powerful, famous and influential, noble and elite. Not for masters, but for servants. Not for the celebrated but for the unknown. Not for the Peters and Pauls and the spiritual giants, but for the Bobs and Bettys who are faithful in their way and in their day. For the ones about whom Paul writes:

1 Corinthians 1:26–31 (ESV): 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Bartholomew was as much an Apostle as Peter was, as James and John were, as Paul would be. He answered Jesus’ call. He proved to be a faithful disciple. He witnessed the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. He was filled by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and he fulfilled Jesus’ commission to go into all the world making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus had commanded. And, in the moment of decision, he took up his own cross and followed Jesus to death and to life everlasting.

And though we know little about Bartholomew, we are his children in the faith and we honor him, just as Sirach said:

12 Their descendants stand by the covenants;
their children also, for their sake.
13 Their offspring will continue forever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
14 Their bodies are buried in peace,
but their name lives on generation after generation.
15 The assembly declares their wisdom,
and the congregation proclaims their praise.

This congregation proclaims Bartholomew’s praise along with countless other congregations across the globe today.

In the Gospel text appointed for the feast day, Jesus warned the Apostles against trying to be the greatest by the world’s standard. Instead, they were to be the least and the servants of all. That word was given to the Apostles and surely Bartholomew was there; we know he was because Jesus spoke those words at the Last Supper. It’s crucial that we remember that those words are for us, too; Jesus’ criteria for greatness in the kingdom of God has not changed. Seek the low place, the place of service, not at the head of the table but at the feet of the Master. It is good to recall those things every time we come to the table to eat the same meal that Bartholomew ate on that Passover. But it is equally important that we hear and remember the rest of Jesus’ words, the ones that followed immediately after his instructions about the greatness of lowliness and service:

Luke 22:28–30 (ESV): 28 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

You and I won’t sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel; that is reserved for the Apostles, Bartholomew included. But, please God, I want it said about me that I have stayed with Jesus through trials and all. And I do want to eat and drink at his table in his kingdom. I am content to be forgotten in this world, my name barely remembered if at all, if only I can be faithful unto death like Bartholomew. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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