Bartholomew the Apostle

Sermon: Sunday 24 August 2014
Trinity 10 / St Bartholomew
The Revd Pete Hobson, Acting Canon Missioner

In October 1971 I was an 18-year-old new student in Cambridge, away from home for the first time, relishing the adventure but also quite anxious.  I remember exploring the college, and then the town, with my extravagant grant burning a hole in my pocket and my mother’s words of warning about budgeting burning a hole in my head.  So I was alone, wanting to spend but needing to save.  I went to Cambridge market and bought a strange toy.  I’m not sure what it was meant to be: it looked, in my memories eye, like a cross between a koala and a dinosaur.  And it needed a name.  I cast around for something striking but holy – I was a good Christian boy even then!  And I came across a name that seemed both quirky and yet biblical.  So it was that I became the proud possessor of Bartholomew.  He lasted all my student days and beyond – but at some point in my subsequent career he disappeared from view unmarked and largely unlamented.  Until today – his day.

So, St Bartholomew – what do we know about him?  About as much as that.  Not even sure of his name – usually we think he’s the disciple who John calls Nathanael, because they both hang around a lot with Philip, but are never seen together.  A bit like Clark Kent and Superman, perhaps.

Is that a bad thing?  I don’t think so.  And I suspect the compilers of the lectionary might feel the same, as they strove to find readings for today: Isaiah 43 – one of the many passages in this art of Isaiah about the unnamed ‘servant of the Lord’, whose purpose is to be ‘my witness’; Acts 5 – where the earliest apostles performed signs and wonders, and great numbers were added to the believers – but only Peter gets a name-check; and then the classic question in Luke 22: ‘who’s the most important?’, with its counter-intuitive, pride-crushing answer: ‘the way to be important is to treat others as more important than you.’

There’s a wonderful irony in the way we’re reordering the whole Cathedral in order to create a special place of honour for the mortal remains of a king dead for half a millennium.  As we’re clearing things away for the creation of the setting for King Richard’s tomb, in the last few days we’ve started removing the top layer of flooring.  Guess what?  Underneath it we find another layer, put down by the Victorians and covered by the 20th century restorers.  Just as outside in Cathedral Gardens we uncovered countless disarticulated human bones, and laid them back to rest in a couple of ‘mass graves’ – with prayer, but no great fuss and ceremony.  Those very ‘special bones’ that you maybe saw again on last Sunday’s Channel 4 film are no more or less special than those we reburied.  It’s all about how we perceive things.

So, Jesus said, the ‘kings of the gentiles lord it over them’ – and so did the Plantagenets, the Tudors and so on, right down to the Windsors.  That’s the way the world does it.  So also do the politicians, the footballers, the WAGs and celebs.  ‘But not so with you.’  Or is it?

Because I think if we’re honest we all know the massive temptation to understand where we stand in the pecking order.  From who your friends are at school, to where you sit in the office – or in the pub – to how close to the ‘people of influence’ you feel you are.  Of course, the irony is that that desire to be ‘more important’ is never satisfied.  Even the greatest can feel utterly insecure.  And then in death, however large the tomb, we all equally return to dust.  So it’s the place we hold in the kingdom that goes beyond this life that counts.  And in that kingdom, Jesus tells us, to be great we need to make ourselves least.

Bartholomew, who might also be Nathanael, is not the best known of the apostles.  He wasn’t the greatest among them.  He didn’t need to be.  He simply needed to be one who served.  You may not feel you’re the best known of this congregation.  You don’t need to be.  You simply need to be one who bears witness.   If we do, faithfully, then we’re told something greater than a tomb in Leicester Cathedral awaits us.  We get to eat and drink in the Father’s kingdom.  

© The Revd Pete Hobson