I am among you as one who serves

Isaiah 43:8-13
Luke 22:24-30

As I’m sure you all know, today, 24 August, is the day when the church celebrates St. Bartholomew. Of, to us Nonconformists, it’s indelibly etched onto our DNA as the date upon which the Act of Uniformity came into effect in 1662, forcing our spiritual ancestors out of the Church of England, becoming dissenters. Hence, it’s known in our tradition as Black Bartholomew’s Day.

However, it seems more appropriate in the modern ecumenical age to think about Bartholomew himself. Who was he? What did he do? Why does he matter?

I’ll answer that by turning back just a few weeks to the recent Commonwealth Games. I’m not thinking of the rather bizarre opening ceremony, but the competitions themselves. We were forced to watch some of this because the people we were staying with insisted on having it on the television – I don’t normally do sport, except for The Boat Race – and it struck me how intense the competition was: who would be the best diver? The best pole vaulter? The best sprinter? The best relay team? Who found competing outdoors in blinding rain least distracting? That seemed to be the advantage of the Welsh!

Whoever it was, they were all superb achievements, which arise out of a mix of great natural ability and enormous discipline and dedication. But there’s still something in human nature that makes us want to ask, for better or worse, how do we compare to others?

A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.

For me, one of the most appealing and convincing aspects of the Gospel narratives is the realism with which they present us with the disciples. They are not plaster saints. We get them in their passion and commitment to following Jesus, but we also get them making a mess of things, vying for the top jobs, jostling for attention with that mix of confidence and insecurity which is only too real. The passage we heard from Luke’s Gospel today presents that mix in its starkest terms. The setting is the Last Supper, that most intimate gathering of Jesus with those who have been closest to him during his earthly ministry; those whom Jesus says “have stood by me in my trials”, though we, from our detached position of judgment, might say that collectively and individually their track record in that regard was distinctly patchy. And here in these moments when Jesus reveals to them what it means to serve and the true cost of generous, self-giving love, with painful irony, we find them arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest.

At the end of John’s Gospel, we find a similar story. It’s the intimate breakfast on the beach, when Jesus, in an echo of his denial Jesus three times asks Simon Peter “do you love me?” Knowing Peter’s fallibility, Jesus still gives him the responsibility of leadership, of feeding his sheep. And just when it seem Peter’s reconciliation is complete, he sees one of the other disciples near by and asks Jesus “what about him?”. It’s a story that feels so painfully real that it makes me want to cringe, laugh and cry all at the same time. Peter both knows his calling by God, and at the same time, is racked by the doubts and insecurity that someone may take his place or do it better, or just be that bit more important than him.

A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.

Today the church remembers one of those twelve gathered with Jesus in that upper room: Bartholomew. Bartholomew is mentioned in the lists of disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke and in the first chapter of Acts. John’s list of disciples doesn’t mention his name but does mention Nathanael, the Israelite in whom there is no guile, and so the two are often taken as being one and the same person, though we can’t be sure of that. That’s all the Bible tells us about Bartholomew. He is one of the hidden ones.

The stories of the early church tell us that Bartholomew is supposed to have taken the Gospel to Armenia in the company of another largely anonymous disciple, Thaddeus; and Bartholomew is reported to have met a violent death, in the particularly unpleasant manner of being flayed alive, and in works of art he is portrayed with a knife and carrying his own skin – quite how that helps anyone in devotion I’m not entirely sure. His remains were taken to Italy, and eventually found their way to a church founded on the site of an old pagan place of healing; hence Bartholomew’s association with medicine and his patronage of what is now known as Bart’s Hospital, in London. But most of those stories about Bartholomew are conjecture. What we know for certain about him is almost nothing, yet what we do know is that most important thing of all – he was a disciple of Jesus Christ.

You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen. Rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. But I am among you as one who serves. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Bartholomew’s very hiddenness, juxtaposed against the words and example of Jesus as being among us as one who serves, remind us powerfully that the call to serve is often a call to a life of hiddenness; that the call to be God’s witnesses is a call to a way of life that is often unnoticed, unheralded, and yet of infinite importance. A call to a life that is of value in its very being, not because it is bigger, or better, or busier, or more noticeable, than anyone else’s, or because it wins medals or public recognition.

The modern “service industry” generates billions of pounds in revenue each day, yet we hold the term “servant” in very low regard. That which is despised, Jesus has made his own, when in word and deed he says “I am among you as one who serves”. Jesus speaks those words at the Last Supper, where Jesus takes off his garments and kneels to wash his disciples’ feet, enacting his words in flesh and blood. That act of service takes place on the ground in dust and in the dirt, and because it does so, it does not make for good theatre. It’s not meant to – service is not meant to draw attention to those who serve. The call to service is meant to bear witness to the God who is among us as one who serves.

You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

The call to discipleship is a call to bear witness to a God who is often hidden in the dust or the dirt, or the mundane or routine, or the things that no-one else wants to do, or no-one notices that are done. In the things that never get included in books, either 2000 years ago, or now, because in their very ordinariness they don’t make good stories. The church and the world, and the hidden and anonymous kingdom of God, is built on the Bartholomews who through the ages have put aside disputes about who or what is best; on those who have wrestled with the human need for recognition, their doubts and insecurity and who have been lost among us as those who serve.

At the end of her novel Middlemarch, George Eliot reflects on the character Dorothea in these words:
For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen. But I am among you as one who serves.

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