Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. Oddly, as important as the disciples were, there are few churchgoers today who can even name them. Thus far, we have heard the story of Andrew, Jesus’ first disciple, as well as John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus who prepared the way. We have meditated on James the Less and Philip, two apostles who are often overlooked, all because of their names are so common. We have explored the life of the most well-known apostle, Simon-Peter, and the most misunderstood, Thomas. Today we turned to another overlooked apostle, so overlooked that even the evangelists can’t agree upon his name. It is St. Nathanael or St. Bartholomew?
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 the 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!”
Nathanael, on the hand, is offered one of the finest compliments in all of scripture. Jesus saw in him 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.” Nathanael had no hidden agenda. What came out of his mouth was what he held in his heart.
Unfortunately, Nathanael is also one of the most overlooked and least noted of Jesus’ 12 disciples. Mathew, Mark and Luke all mention a disciple named Bartholomew among the list of the12, but never a Nathanael; while in John’s gospel, Bartholomew is never mentioned, but instead he refers to a twelfth disciple known as Nathanael. Historians believe he is one in the same. The name Nathanael is a proper first name meaning “Given by God,” while Bartholomew is actually an Aramaic surname, like Simon Bar Jonah, Bar Tholomew meaning “Son of Tolmay.” Oddly, all of the other disciples are referred to by their first names except for Nathanael.
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 of Andrew who spent time with Jesus. He certainly knew the words that Jesus spoke to him “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 Philip’s mention of Moses and the law. Still others say that since all his friends were fishermen, perhaps Nathanael was a fisherman too. One thing is clear. Nathanael was seeking 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 man on a spiritual quest. Under the fig tree was where the rabbis gathered with their students and taught. Beneath their outstretched branches and shady leaves, a student of scripture could sit peacefully, undisturbed and pray quietly in intimate communion with God. Yes, beneath the fig tree, seekers could reflect and meditate upon their relationship to God and to their neighbor.
Now, as much as this call story is about Nathanael Bartholomew, it is also about Philip. Philip was the one who came to Nathanael and told him about Jesus. “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, the Son of Joseph of Nazareth.” Nathanael might never have met Jesus if it weren’t for his friend, and. Philip simply couldn’t keep Jesus to himself. He had to share his excitement, especially since he knew that his friend Nathanael was searching. Nathanael, however, knew the scriptures, and he knew 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 a small town in a region where small town rivalry was great. Jesus’ Nazareth and Nathanael’s Cana in Galilee were only about 3 miles apart. Was it any wonder that he questioned whether anything good come out of Nazareth?
Philip, however, was a wise and patient 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.
We do not know exactly what happened that day. But it was a decisive moment in Nathanael’s life. His heart was moved by Jesus’ simple greeting. “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” At last he 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.”
With such a wonderful confession and invitation, you might expect to read more about Nathanael Bartholomew later in Scripture. After all Jesus said, “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 Bartholomew is clearly present is after Jesus’ resurrection, when a handful of disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus appeared to them.
Nathanael Bartholomew certainly did see and hear great things, just as Jesus had promised. He saw Jesus heal the sick and perform other signs. He heard Jesus speak of the Kingdom of God that was open to everyone believed in him. He saw Jesus suffer and die on the cross, and he saw the Risen Lord walking among them, who told his disciples that they should go and preach the good news to the ends of the earth. And with a quiet, selfless confidence, Bartholomew did just that.
According to Christian tradition, Bartholomew travelled first with his friend and fellow apostle Philip and his sister Mariamna to modern day Turkey. There, together with Philip, he was crucified upside down in Hierapolis for converting the Roman consul’s wife to the Christian faith and for causing the death of a great serpent that the people worshiped. Although Philip died on the cross, Bartholomew was removed during a great earthquake which the people thought was God’s judgement on them. Bartholomew later preached in India where he left behind a copy of the Gospel of Matthew. Tradition also records him as serving as a missionary in Mesopotamia, Parthia and Ethiopia. Finally, together with his fellow apostle Jude “Thaddeus”, Bartholomew brought Christianity to Armenia. For this reason, both saints Jude and Bartholomew are considered the patron saints of the Armenian Church.
The martyrdom of Bartholomew is complicated. It is speculated that Astyages, the King of the Median Empire in greater Armenia ordered him to be flayed alive and crucified upside down for converting his brother Polymius, King of Armenia. This is the method of martyrdom most portrayed in art, including in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Another legend states he was kidnapped, beaten unconscious, and cast into the sea to drown. Still others add that he was decapitated.
According to tradition, the relics of Saint Bartholomew made their way from Armenia to the Isle of Lipari near Sicily in the seventh century. From there, they were moved to Benevento northeast of Naples, in 809, and finally came to rest in 983 in the Church of Saint Bartholomew-in-the-Island, on the island in the Tiber River in Rome.
My friends, pastors are not used to receiving compliments, and like the apostle Nathanael Bartholomew, we can often be overlooked or confused for another pastors. It happens far more often than you might think. I can be congratulated for a sermon I didn’t preach, and my words can be remembered as being spoken by someone else.
Perhaps, that is the most important lesson that we can learn St. Bartholomew and all those who dare to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and faithfully share the gospel. Your work may go unnoticed in this world, or it may be attributed to someone else, but you live with that inner satisfaction and confidence of Christ’ recognition and blessing. In plain and simple words and actions, you simply do your work without a hidden agenda or deceit- and you do see great things that others may never see. Yes, and what a privilege that is. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.