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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the life of St. Bartholomew, the Apostle and Martyr.
Pastors are not used to receiving compliments, unless they are backhanded. A popular preacher got sick on a Sunday morning, and he called a retired pastor to lead the service. The substitute agreed, but he felt inadequate in the task, so he decided to find an appropriate metaphor to describe the challenge. He entered the pulpit and exclaimed apologetically, “Your pastor,” he said,” is like a clear pane of glass that lets the light shine through. In contrast, I am merely a piece of cardboard.” After the service, an elderly woman came to the substitute pastor. “You don’t have to apologize,” she said. “I can assure you, you are a real pane.” I wish I would have been offered such a compliment. Instead, I have experienced the brazen honesty of Sunday school children and confirmands. As I stepped up into pulpit to preach, I heard a little 5 year old blurt out loudly, “Oh no, not again.” Not exactly my finest moment. Perhaps that most backhanded compliment, though, was the mother of the high school girl in my last congregation, who said, “Your son is so handsome; he doesn’t look anything like you!”
St. Bartholomew, on the hand, is offered one of the finest compliments in all of scripture. Jesus saw in Nathanael a man free of the torturous complications that so often affect pious people. Nathanael had the prized virtue of simplicity; Jesus called him “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Bartholomew had no hidden agenda. What came out of his mouth was what he held in his heart.
Unfortunately, Bartholomew is also one of the most overlooked and least noted of Jesus’ 12 disciples. He is mentioned only a few times in Scripture, and the evangelists cannot seem to agree on his name. The problem begins with his name. In the synoptic gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke, all mention a disciple named Bartholomew among the list of 12, but never a Nathanael; in John’s gospel, on the other hand, a Bartholomew is never mentioned, but instead he refers to a twelfth disciple as Nathanael. How can this be you may wonder? Well, the name Nathanael is a proper first name meaning “Given by God,” while Bartholomew is a, actually and Aramaic surname, like Simon Bar Jonah, Bar Tholomew means “Son of Tolmay.” All of the other disciples are referred to by their first names except for Nathanael Bartholomew. But still we have this beautiful and inviting call narrative. It teaches us how we are to invite others to know Jesus.
St. Nathanael Bartholomew was a native of Cana in Galilee and a friend of the apostle Philip. Like Andrew, who had followed the wanderings of John the Baptist as a disciple, Philip seems to have been closely associated with John as well. He may have been one of the friends who spent time with Jesus. He certainly knew the words that Jesus spoke to Andrew, “Come and see.”
According to some traditions, Nathanael Bartholomew was a rabbi learned in the Scriptures. Others suggest that he was a lawyer because of Philipp’s mention of Moses and the law. Still others suggest that since all his friends were fishermen, perhaps Nathanael was a fisherman too. Nathanael was certainly a seeker of God’s purpose in his life. The tiny phrase “under the fig tree” gives us that clue. In ancient the world, “under the fig tree” described a disciple on a spiritual quest. Under the fig tree was where the rabbis gathered with their students and taught. Beneath the outstretched branches and shade leaves of the fig tree, a student of scripture could sit peacefully, undisturbed. Beneath the fig tree, the student could pray quietly in intimate communion with God. Beneath the fig tree, seekers could reflect and meditate upon their relationship to God and to their neighbor.
As much as the story is about Nathanael Bartholomew, it is also the story of Philipp. The disciple Philip came to Nathanael and told him about Jesus. Nathanael might never have met Jesus if it weren’t for his friend Philipp. “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, the Son of Joseph of Nazareth.” Philipp couldn’t keep Jesus to himself. He had to share his excitement with his friend. Philip knew that Nathanael was searching for something beneath his fig tree. Nathanael, however, knew the scriptures and that the city of Nazareth was never mentioned in the Old Testament. Nazareth was a provincial city only 100 years old. What wisdom could come from such a place? Besides it was also small town in a region where small town rivalry was great. Bartholomew’s disparaging remark was certainly no compliment. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Philip was a wise friend. He knew that if he had gone on discussing and arguing the matter with Nathanael, and had tried to prove that something good could come out of Nazareth, his friend might have never become a disciple at all. But instead, Philip replied, “Come and see,” and he brought Nathanael to Jesus. You see, the most important invitations to Jesus are always for the souls to be brought directly to him. Arguments, disputes and debates have no purpose; it is the experience of Christ that convinces.
We all have our fig trees. My friends, what are you pondering beneath your fig tree? Perhaps in the sleepless hours of the night, or in the quiet prelude of a worship service, you may be whispering to yourself, “Lord God, what’s my aim and goal in life? What am I really trying to get out of life?” Of course, the world does have its answers. Beneath your fig tree, you may be searching for security. You would like to find work where you are safe, where the money is sufficient to meet the needs of life and where you may put some away for the time when work is done. There is nothing wrong with such an aim. It is a respectable and honest goal, but my friends, it may also be a low aim. Security, as treasured as it may be, simply may not be an inadequate and challenging goal for which you should direct your whole life. Are you looking for something more? Let me you offer Philipp’s invitation to meet Jesus, “Come and see.”
We do not know exactly what had happened under that fig tree. But it was obvious that it was a decisive moment in Nathanael’s life. His heart was moved by Jesus’ simply answer to his question, “Where did you get to know me?” He responded, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philipp called you.” At last Nathanael felt understood, and he recognized, that, “This man knows everything about me, he knows and is familiar with the road of life. Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen my inmost intimate and secret longings, longings which I have never even dared put into words! Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul! This must be God’s promised anointed one and no other, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” In this confession we see the first important step of discipleship. Jesus knows God’s divine purpose for life, and human purpose in this world.
And Jesus complimented Nathanael Bartholomew, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Here is a man in whom there is no complicated hidden agenda. Here is a man who longs to share life and purpose with others. With such a wonderful invitation to discipleship, we might expect to read more about Nathanael Bartholomew in Scripture. After all even Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Unfortunately, the only other scene in scripture where is Bartholomew is clearly present is after Jesus’ resurrection, when a handful of disciples are eating breakfast on the Sea of Galilee and appears to them.
Perhaps, that is a reminder to all of who dare to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Our work may go unnoticed in this world, but we live with the inner satisfaction and confidence, that we have ushered others into Jesus’ presence by inviting them to, “Come and see.” We simply do our work without deceit in plain and simple words and actions.
According to Christian tradition, St. Nathanael Bartholomew spread the good news to India, and to Armenia. There are three stories regarding his martyrdom. One speaks of his being kidnapped, beaten unconscious, and cast into the sea to drown. Another account states that he was crucified upside down. The most frequent account, however, and the one most portrayed in art, including in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, states that while preaching in Armenia, he was arrested and consequently, skinned alive with a flaying knife.
No, the exact form of martyrdom, we do not know. But we do know that a single conversation with Jesus changed the disciple’s life forever. Philip’s simple invitation to meet Jesus, transformed Nathanael Bartholomew- all because there in Jesus’s presence, he discovered who he had truly been created to be. My friends, perhaps that is what is waiting for you as well. “Come and see.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.