The Feast of St. Bartholomew, Martyr (August 24)
August 23-24, 2008
Text: John 1:43-51
Dear Friends in Christ,
Saint Bart. We used to play against them in the county baseball league. These teams were usually known by the location of their home field. They had only a small connection to the church. They did nevertheless have “St. Bart” on their uniforms. St. Bart, or St. Bartholomew is a Wisconsin Synod congregation about ten miles north of where I grew up. My Aunt Caroline and Uncle Harold were members there. The location known as the four churches corner. I don’t remember the all other churches, but in addition to St. Barts, there was a Catholic Church there.
Where does this name, St. Bartholomew, come from? Bartholomew was one of Jesus twelve disciples. The name is a curious however. In Aramaic the name is actually Bar Ptolemy or son of Ptolemy. That just deepens the mystery. Why do we only have a last name or more properly a patronymic? And it is a curious one as well. Ptolemy is a Greek name. We know that some Jews of this period did take Greek names. They are called Hellenic Jews. The ancient Church Fathers tell us that his full name was Jesus or Yeshua Bar Ptolomy. Since he shared the same first name as our Lord, the Scriptures may have chosen to simply list him as Bar Ptolomy or Bartholomew. Bartholomew is closely associated with Philip, and so may have been a brother or kinsmen. The Gospel of John, sometimes changes names to a more common Greek form. So one of the Judases is called Thaddeus by John. Likewise, Bartholomew is called Nathaniel in the John’s Gospel.
Scripture only gives us one brief glimpse of Bartholomew or Nathanael. We find this in out text. Christ describes Bartholomew as a man without deceit. From this we could conclude that he was a man who was bold in his speech, who spoke his mind without holding back. Perhaps we could say brash or even tactless. Knowing the customs of the time, Bartholomew was probably a young man in his twenties. Since Christ was in His early thirties, it likely that all the disciples are younger than this. This boldness and quick judgement is confirmed when Bartholomew confesses that Christ is indeed the Messiah. Christ seems to almost laugh. It’s like the old expression - you ain’t seen nothing yet. Christ promises that they will see His full heavenly glory.
Beyond this one incident, all our information about Bartholomew comes from the ancient fathers. He traveled to India and carried with him a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in the Hebrew language. This is confirmed by second century missionaries who discovered Jewish Christians in India who only had in their possession, from the New Testament, the Hebrew version of Matthew. He was martyred in Armenia by begin flayed alive, then crucified upside down. In artwork, St. Bartholomew is often depicted holding his own skin.
What are we do learn from St. Bartholomew? What is the value of remembering the saints in general? First, we must remember that no man does anything for God. God works through men. So when we do Godly things, it is not us, but God working through us. So we do not give St. Bartholomew glory, but we give Christ glory for working through this man. Secondly, we are reminded that these were ordinary men. Bartholomew was an ordinary young Jewish man when Christ called him. He was a sinner. He was no different than you or I.
In remembering the martyrs, those who bore witness to Christ by their blood, we are remembering the cost of discipleship. Ten of the faithful eleven disciples would die violently, as would St. Stephen, St. Paul, St. Mathias, and numerous other early Christians. Still today, many give their lives for the sake of Christ. Lutheran Bishop Andrew Elissa of the Sudan literally walks around each day with a price on his head offered by Islamic radicals. Like the martyrs of old, Bishop Elissa refuses to back down even for a moment.
Martyrdom is about the First Commandment - You shall have no other gods. These are deadly words. For it is this exclusive claim - that the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is God alone, that most often gets people killed. But this more than just being willing to die for the truth. It is because the truth sets us free, that men are willing to give their lives. Free from what? Sin and death. At the root of this is that we are sinners. We are lost to God. We don’t know, of our own power, who God is. God must be revealed to us. But seeing a Holy God is not really such a good thing. In fact it is death to us. How can sinners ever be in the presence of a Holy God? It would seem to not be possible. But God found a way to hide behind a mask and still be present. Christ, God the Son, came into our world under such a mask. He came as a human being - a baby. He came to be present in grace - to give us forgiveness and life. He did not come, on that occasion, to be present in wrath and judgement. That day will come. But it hasn’t come yet. Any place that Christ is present according His human flesh, He is present in grace to deal with us in grace. Why is this true? Because that flesh was given on the cross as payment for the sins of the world. So it is not only that we say that Yahweh, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is God alone. God the Son, Jesus Christ, God revealed, God present among us, is also our Savior alone. And so to deny Christ is to deny our very life. Our life in this sin filled world is but a brief portion of the life that God intends for us. So what of it if our earthly life is forfeit. Our earthly life, because of the death and resurrection of Christ, is only beginning.
We live in time when the Christian faith is under assault. Actually, it’s always been under assault from one thing or another. The enemies of Christ include our own sins, our own self centered piety, false doctrine, self glorifying human reason, as well as the heathen world. Some enemies seek our lives while leaving the shell of our flesh in tact. Others would seek to destroy our lives by destroying the shell of our flesh. St. Bartholomew and all the martyrs teach us that we must not waver. No matter what threat is made against us, Christ is greater. At the last judgement, while those who persecuted Christ are condemned, those who clung to Christ will be vindicated. They will be welcomed into glory - the glory won for us on the cross by our Savior, Jesus Christ.