St Bartholomew, 24 August 2023
A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
Acts 5.12-16; Luke 22.24-30
I have preached on a number of saints’ days in the last few months, and rather frequently found myself first pointing out the obscurity of the saint in question, and then moving on to draw some conclusion to make us feel better about our own obscurity.
With Bartholomew the Apostle, tonight’s star, we seem to have reached the apogee of obscurity. There is basically nothing to be said about him, other than that he is listed as a disciple in the first 3 gospels, and in Acts. There’s an ancient tradition of conflating him with someone called Nathanael, who is uniquely mentioned as a disciple in the remaining gospel; but, even if we accept that, it doesn’t much advance our knowledge.
So now I set aside this man, who left no discernible mark other than a name or two, and turn instead to the much more interesting 7 verses we heard from Luke’s gospel; perhaps consoling ourselves that Bartholomew was probably present on the occasion described.
The disciples are involved in an unseemly dispute about which of them is the greatest; Jesus points out that this isn’t the way in his community. This exchange comes at a different point in Mark’s gospel; there the master and his disciples are on the road in Galilee. But Luke has moved it to the most telling place imaginable: Jerusalem, the upper room, the Last Supper, just after Jesus has given the bread and wine to his disciples, and just before he goes out to be arrested on the Mount of Olives.
This is a meal in the context of the Roman Empire; we can presume Luke envisages these friends reclining in the Roman way, and being waited on by slaves. Perhaps Peter, James, John, and the rest of them (including Bartholomew?) were getting rather grand visions of imperial banqueting.
Jesus punctures this: ‘not so with you……. I am among you as one who serves.’ He is not the master, reclining at the table; he is the slave, serving the food.
The Lord’s Supper: which Luke and his readers would have known and shared, decades after the Resurrection; and which you and I know and share tonight, centuries later. The most central and sacred act of the Church which sprang from those gathered on that occasion. Luke has Jesus telling his friends that this is no imperial banquet, it’s the complete reversal – in Roman terms, it’s Saturnalia, the one day a year when the slaves sat at the table and the masters served. But this isn’t one day a year; it’s every time we keep this feast, until the Lord comes.
For Luke this, our meal tonight, is the world turned upside down. We may be wearing the fanciest clothes, and hogging the most prominent parts, but Kenneth and I are the lowest of the low here – we are serving you, faint echoes of Jesus, the waiter at his own table. John, who never mentions tonight’s saint, Bartholomew, also doesn’t describe Jesus giving the bread and wine at the Last Supper. But he does describe an equally humbling scene at that meal: Jesus, the master, does the most menial of servile duties, and – brushing off their protests – goes round washing the filthy feet of his disciples.
No one is great in the community of Christ; no one is great in Church. As in a few minutes we share the bread of Christ’s life, and the cup of his salvation, our calling is to live as he lived: not emperors, not petty princes, but willing servants of all.