Saint Bartholemew The Apostle


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(August 24) 

O Almighty and everlasting God, who didst give to Thy Apostle Bartholemew grace …
For the Epistle
Acts 5:12-16
Luke 22:24-30

Very little is known about St. Bartholemew the Apostle except that he is listed in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14 and Acts 1:13. He is not mentioned in John but he might be the same person as Nathaniel (John 1:45-51; 21:2), spanning the period from Jesus’ initial call to his last post Resurrection appearance. There are a wide variety of traditions about where he preached, none substantiated, and he is said to have been flayed before inverted crucifixion which is why he is sometimes portrayed with his own skin in his hand!

Again (cf Saint Thomas The Apostle), we are faced with the astounding sequence of events experienced by ordinary, moderately educated men who abandoned their normal occupations to follow Jesus, witnessed the climax of his ministry, fled at his arrest, were absent at his Crucifixion, were bewildered by the Resurrection but were then inspired at Pentecost to preach, first in Judeah but then in places far afield. The reading in Acts describes the quite extraordinary self confidence and power of the Apostles after the coming of the Holy Spirit; not only can Peter cure people, his very shadow is efficacious. This is so distant from the picture in the Gospel which is Luke’s follow-on account of Matthew 20:20-28 (cf. Saint James The Apostle) which emphasises the importance of service and how it will be rewarded.

The account of discipleship from call to martyrdom represents the most extreme variety of contexts and emotions which generally follow a “u” shape with high optimism at the beginning of the mission and again at the end with bewilderment before the Crucifixion and after the Resurrection part way down and the Good Friday events at the nadir. It is a pattern that we should always bear in mind when we have temporarily lost that sense of inner assurance and are feeling bewildered. We might, worse still, sometimes experience a radical separation from God, the spiritual equivalent of Good Friday. Good discipleship is not constituted in easy success and glowing testimonials but in perseverance in the knowledge that we will always be sustained by God no matter how we feel. If we look at the lives of the Apostles we can see that there is such a conformity of pattern that it has a compelling logic. We may not know how precisely many of them died but the traditions are reassuringly uniform: those called by Jesus might have experienced doubt but they were ultimately filled with the Holy Spirit so that they might bring the Good News and, ultimately, die as its glorious witnesses. We are hardly likely to die for our faith but our witness should be no less glorious; we are asked, perhaps, to be steadfast rather than heroic, to cheer the sick rather than to cure them, to give hope rather than inspiration to the weak; but we are still bringing the Good News.

Sometimes it is difficult to work out what is expected of us in a religious culture that seems equally to resent self doubt and self confidence. On the first point, we are somehow supposed to maintain an even tenor of faith, quite separate from our individual experience of God, of the varying quality of our personal relationship. The imperative for a kind of uniformity of response lies in the tendency to see God as a collection of doctrines—an ontological package constructed from largely Greek ideas—rather than thinking of god as a person with whom we have a relationship—a dialogue process derived largely from the Old Testament experience of the Chosen People—which is subject to variations for which we can not always adequately account. We describe the ontology and the dialogue as mysterious which then makes self confidence look suspect. The way to handle this set of contradictions is to recognise that one’s doubt is ultimately not in God but in oneself as a person coming to terms with the mysterious whereas any confidence we have arises from God’s grace. That may appear to cast us in a ‘no win’ situation but what it really does is to help us to understand our creaturely position. The problem of using the concept of mystery is that we are easily lulled into using ‘god talk’ in a very human way and into using talk about ourselves in a way that makes us more powerful than we are.

What we all dread is the nadir, the emptiness, the fear that the dialogue which has faltered and died will never be resumed. Again, it is easy to think ourselves into a ‘no win’ situation whereby we are at fault because the dialogue has stopped and we are powerless to resume it. Yet again, the way to think about this is in terms of our role as creatures. For Bartholemew the matter was much more direct, much less theological, as the contrast between the Master and the Disciple was sharp and real whereas we have to rely upon the working of the Holy Spirit within us. His presence would naturally lead alternately to feelings of inferiority and admiration, of dialogue faltering and springing back into life but it was a human drama whereas ours is much more tentative. Yet we need not falter but should take comfort from the passage from Acts, noting how the uncertainty of following even the concrete Jesus was replaced by utter conviction; Like Peter and his followers, teaching and healing, we are children of the Resurrection.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Bearing in mind the “U” shape from calling to Martyrdom, can you graphically depict the spiritual life in any other ways?
  2. Do the Bartholemew and Nathaniel stories fit together?
  3. Consider different aspects of self doubt and self confidence
  4. Consider the idea of God as an ontology package and a dialogue process
  5. Think of your own spiritual nadir or that of one of the saints.

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