Lord Jesus, take my words and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lives and set them on fire with love for you. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but the feast days of the Christian calendar always have very strong geographical connotations for me. Perhaps that’s not the way it is for you, and is more a function of the fact that I’m a geographer by training, and also that I did my geography degree in Brighton. Whenever the feast of Saint Bartholomew rolls round, in the dying days of the long summer holiday, usually around about the time that GCSE results are coming out, but I have a very strong memory of worshipping in Brighton. That’s partly I think to do with the fact that my primary worshipping community during those three years, was the parish church of Saint Bartholomew right in the middle of Brighton. You may know it, if you have ever gone to Brighton by train. As the train pulls into Brighton station, which is a terminus and so from whichever direction you are travelling you see the same view, the church of Saint Bartholomew rises like a huge tombstone into the sky. An immensely tall nave with nothing else, no transepts, no choir, no tower or spire. From the outside it is rather terrifying and entirely plain. Inside it is sheer lunacy. It is the most extraordinary example of high Anglo-Catholic devotion, with altars scattered all around, candlesticks 20 feet tall, and ceremonial that makes this evening’s choral Eucharist here look like an evangelical house group meeting, and upon which one website commented, “you genuinely expect the clergy to ride in on elephants.”
But Saint Bartholomew, Brighton was built for the poor. It is one of the Father Wagner churches of the town built from his personal funds and put in the most socially deprived parts of the community with, crucially, no pews. No pews meant no pew rent: the poor, the resident community of that part of town could worship there for free, and within the walls of that extraordinary building could experience the liturgy, worship and music which would point them towards the Treasury of heaven. All for free. All a gift.
This evening’s Gospel reading is interesting for a feast day because it doesn’t mention by name the Saint we are remembering. If you have said Morning and Evening Prayer today you will know that Bartholomew, or Nathaniel as he is also known, is mentioned in the readings for those services. But tonight we get the story of the disciples arguing about their status. They want to know who is best. They want to know their rankings. And isn’t that familiar? This morning thousands of 16-year-olds will have gone online or into schools to receive a piece of paper which ranks them according to their peers, in the form of GCSE results. They will have been categorised according to a letter, or indeed this year in the case of three qualifications, by number, and they will therefore know whether they are a B or C, seven, nine, or indeed U. And throughout our lives we continue to be ordered and ranked. Whether or not you get the job you apply for depends on if you are the best candidate. How much tax you pay depends on how much you earn, whether you qualify for a particular discount or credit card or membership of a particular organisation or club. Even the clergy of this Cathedral walk in a particular order during services according to hierarchy laid down in the statutes.
The gospel reading makes it absolutely clear that in terms of membership of his family, in terms of participation in his Kingdom, greatness is a measure of service. Now the interesting thing about this passage is that there are parallel passages with almost identical narrative in the Gospels, but they occur much earlier on, as part of Jesus’ teaching ministry. Saint Luke chooses to present this story much later, just after the story of the Last Supper. So keep that in your mind as you come up to the altar in a few moments time. Luke puts these words, the disciples worrying about which of them is the best, and Jesus’ reply, immediately after he’s broken bread and shared wine, and they don’t get it. Jesus says my body will be broken for you, my blood will be shed for you, and they say to one another “I wonder which one of us is the best.”
Our instinctive reaction, even in the face of a God who demonstrates the sort of power, the sort of authority that love ought to have by serving us at his table, by kneeling and washing our feet, by giving the entirety of himself, is still to wonder how good we are. This is the trap into which we fall over and over again, as Luke presents the disciples as doing.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that GCSE results are unimportant. I’m actually not suggesting that measures of achievement and progress are in themselves wrong either. Competition and aspiration are good things. But they are not definitions. Or at least they are not definitions in which God is particularly interested. It’s interesting to note that in our first reading this evening when the apostles begin to minister in Jerusalem, the other early believers are terrified and keep away, and it is the non-believers who recognise that something extraordinary is happening on the streets. That even the shadow of the ministry of Christ has the power to heal.
The church of Saint Bartholomew in Brighton towers an extraordinary 150 feet into the sky. This had the unfortunate effect of creating an enormous downdraught which caused the fires of the surrounding slum dwellings to smoke terribly. But it also cast an extraordinary shadow. Every time I hear that reading from the Acts of the Apostles on the feast of Bartholomew I think of that church building and its shadow lying, depending upon the position of the sun in the sky, over a different part of the very poorest part of that city, and I think of the shadow of Saint Peter touching those who huddled around his route, because they recognised that there was something there about wholeness and healing and belonging and a kingdom.
On this great feast day let us pray the more fervently that we may be less concerned with how great we are, and more alert to where even the shadow of the glory of God is passing, that we may run to it to receive more and more of the blessings of the God who calls us not to be served but to serve, and equips us in that task with his very self, broken and shared: a sacrament of that amazing grace.