Feast of Saint Bartholomew - 24th August 2008

Holy Eucharist – Address

Preached by Lay Leader David Fuller

Click here for Home page

Collect for Saint Bartholomew

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace to believe and preach your word:
May your church truly love what he believed and faithfully preach what he taught;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Old Testament lesson: Isaiah 43, Vv 8-13
In lieu of Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4, Vv 9-15
Holy Gospel: St Luke 22, Vv 24 - 30

Today the Western Church keeps the Feast of Saint Bartholomew. As is often the case, the Eastern Church, for reasons that we needn’t explore, keeps his celebration on the eleventh of June, while the Coptic Church remembers him on the first of January. His name comes from the Aramaic bar-Tôlmay, which means son of Tolmay, or perhaps son of Ptolemy. It can also be translated as son of furrows and his forebears may have been ploughmen or agricultural workers. Thus Bartholomew is probably a family or surname, not a given name. Bartholomew is listed by the three synoptic authors among the names of the twelve disciples, where he is always named in the company of Philip. Saint John makes no reference to him. His name also appears in the Acts of the Apostles as a witness to the Ascension, but here his name is paired with Matthew. From scriptural sources nothing else is known about Bartholomew, so you could be led into thinking that this might be the shortest sermon you ever heard from this or any other pulpit! But, not so fast. From the ninth century Bartholomew’s name became associated with the disciple Nathanael, who is only mentioned by Saint John. The reasoning used here is that the name of Bartholomew is paired with that of Philip by the synoptists, where Nathanael’s name is absent, but in the fourth gospel Nathanael is linked with Philip, whereas nothing is said about Bartholomew. I should add that some Biblical scholars refute this identification. It is interesting to reflect that, while many churches are dedicated to Saint Bartholomew, I had never, until very recently heard of any similarly named after Saint Nathanael. However, there is, I am told, a church in Bristol co-dedicated to Saint Matthew and Saint Nathanael, and you may know of others.

   Let us stay with Bartholomew for a moment or two longer. In his great third century work entitled Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that, after the Ascension of Jesus, Bartholomew went on a missionary tour of India where he left behind him a copy of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. It is generally believed that Matthew wrote his gospel in the last twenty or so years of the first century so that would make Bartholomew a very old missionary or a very young disciple. It is thought that Saint Thomas evangelised parts of India, particularly in the south; is it possible that these two apostles travelled together? Alas, we shall never know. Other traditions tell us that Bartholomew served the nascent church in Ethiopia and also in parts of Asia, such as Mesopotamia, Parthia and Lyaconia. He is also thought to have founded the Christian Church in Armenia, together with Saint Jude; both of these saints are patrons of the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are of course many myths and legends associated with his martyrdom and the dispersal of his subsequent remains. Suffice it to say that Bartholomew’s name has come to be associated particularly with medicine and hospitals; one of London’s most famous is named after him. Finally, a relic of one of his arms is still venerated today in Canterbury Cathedral.

   What of Saint Nathanael? Can he be identified with Bartholomew? To my mind this seems very likely? He is thought to have come from Cana in Galilee and it is possible that it was his wedding, or the wedding of a close relative, that Jesus, his mother and the disciples attended, as recorded by Saint John as the first miracle, or sign, as he calls them. As I have mentioned, Nathanael’s name, in John’s Gospel, is also associated with that of Philip. After Jesus called Philip to follow him Philip went immediately to Nathanael and said, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Knowing that the prophets had all foretold of a Messiah coming from Bethlehem, King David’s city, and recognising the low regard in which the northern province of Galilee was held, Nathanael replied, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Then we get an example of that innate perception that uniquely belongs to Jesus. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said to him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ I shall return to this comment in a moment. Nathanael was amazed that Jesus knew anything about him; how could this complete stranger, a man that he had never met, have any such personal knowledge? Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ It may seem strange to us in a reading of Saint John that there is no further dialogue between these two before Nathanael makes his earth-shattering revelation, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ It seems to me very unlikely that Nathanael made this reply, and if he did, he did not make it at this very first meeting, or in this word order. ‘Son of God’ was not a common messianic title of those times. John had already implied in the prologue of his gospel that Jesus was the Son of God. John the Baptist, in this first chapter, had also made this same revelation. The phrase Son of God has its antecedents in Old Testament scriptures; evidence may be found in the Psalms and the Second Book of Samuel. In contrast, the title King of Israel was commonly used and generally understood. Perhaps John, having used the former title to set the Messiah-ship of Jesus firmly before his readers, used King of Israel to avoid any misunderstandings from a purely Jewish point of view. To complete our story from Saint John, Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ It is important to mention here that the word ‘you’, which appears twice in the closing verse, is in the plural in the Greek, thus Jesus is giving this revelation to all of his listeners, not just Nathanael.

   Does this pericope, this fragment of scripture, have any significance for us, two millennia after the events recorded by Saint John? I mentioned earlier that many scholars accept that Bartholomew and Nathanael were different names for the same person. However one commentator suggested that Nathanael was an idealised form of Bartholomew: Nathanael was not a real person; he was ‘the ideal Israelite’. The name Nathanael can be translated as, ‘God gives’, or ‘God has given’. Jesus later describes the disciples as those who the Father has given to him, so perhaps we are being offered, at the commencement of the gospel, a pen portrait of an ‘ideal’ disciple. By ‘ideal’ I don’t mean ‘perfect’: the word is used more in the context of ‘typical’ or ‘archetypal’. As the Reverend Gregory Seach made clear in a sermon he preached a few years ago, the gospels are full of individuals who are learning what it is to be disciples and apostles of the faith. None of them had arrived at a full understanding, in fact, none of them ever did. Yet, in spite of their failings and their weaknesses, in spite of their very humanity, they are the heroes of the faith and thus worthy or our acclamation and approval.

   We were reminded a few moments ago that Jesus described Nathanael as having no deceit, and we note from Saint John’s account of this meeting that he knew and studied the Law and the Prophets. It has been suggested that Nathanael was found sitting under a fig tree because that was the traditional place where Jewish scholars studied their scriptures. But, by his reply we can note that he was thinking in the ways of his ancestors, seeing in Jesus that long-awaited Messiah, a latter-day King David who would overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel. This is perhaps why Jesus makes no comment on Nathanael’s revelation but tells him that he will see far greater things than he could possibly muse upon in his wildest dreams. We can learn from this encounter that, no matter how fastidiously we study Holy Scripture, and this is a very important thing to do, we must be prepared to meet the living Lord and move on. We need to be ready for an encounter with Jesus to challenge, to reshape and reformulate whatever we think we know of him and whatever we expect of him.

   A second consideration for us is the important matter of introductions. A little earlier in Saint John’s Gospel, Andrew had introduced his brother Peter to Jesus, now we find Philip introducing Nathanael. Despite Nathanael’s cynical reply, ‘Can any good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip bids him, ‘Come and see.’ As in so many stories of Christian discipleship, the encounter, the meeting with Jesus comes because someone who has already met him introduces another to him. Now, Philip had little idea of who this Son of Man was and certainly had no idea of the Kingdom of God that would be revealed to him. All he had heard was, ‘Follow me’. Yet, despite this incomplete knowledge, Philip said to Nathanael, ‘Come and see’. Christian discipleship is never about waiting until we have a full and perfect understanding about Jesus and who he is before we introduce others to him. The point is, of course, if disciples of Jesus waited until then, no one would ever have been brought to meet him; it is not possible to have a full and perfect understanding of who Jesus is, certainly not this side of the grave.

   We often see, especially in the mass media, reports that put the church in a bad light. We hear accusations of dissension and schism at the highest levels, we read of shameful abuses of power, we hear about predatory clergy; we hear and read of almost all the Commandments being broken. All of this might make us mortified about our church and our faith. But while we may be shocked and humiliated by what has been done in the church, we have no need to be ashamed of Jesus, and we have no need to be ashamed of our faith in him. The story of Philip and Nathanael shows us that we do not have to feel guilty about our ‘inadequate understanding’ of who Jesus is, nor should we be embarrassed or silenced by the imagined or even the real cynicism of our friends and acquaintance. It is our duty, and it ought to be our joy, to bring our faith to others, to tell them of our Saviour and say to them, ‘Come and see’.

   As we meet week-by-week at the altar rail of our church I believe that we have the opportunity to see, as Jesus put it, ‘the angels of God ascending and descending.’ It is a commonly held view that angels stand guard where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, although, of course, through our worldly eyes we cannot see them. Let us pray that we may meet with Jesus in his Body and Blood, in these consecrated elements of bread and wine, and, as Nathanael, or Bartholomew, was, be overwhelmed by the joy of having been found by Jesus. So inspired may we go from this place as Jesus’ disciples, talk to a friend or family member and invite them to come and join us in our weekly worship, perhaps with the three simple words that Philip used, ‘Come and see’.

Copyright © David Fuller 2008

Click here to listen to Sermon

Click here for Home page