(for St Bartholomew’s day)
Today is St Bartholomew’s Day. He is mentioned in each of the four lists of Jesus’ twelve apostles (e.g. Mt 10:3). In Matthew’s gospel he is paired with Philip. In John’s gospel Philip describes Philip finding a friend called Nathanael, who also became a follower of Jesus. Many believe therefore that this is the same person. ‘Bar’ actually means of ‘son of’, so the the saint would Nathanael, son of Tholomaeus. Outside the New Testament we don’t know a great deal about him. But there are strong traditions that he went preaching the gospel to India and Armenia and that he died in Armenia as a martyr. Because we don’t know much about him the lectionary readings focus on the apostles as a group. The Acts reading portrays the growing church and its healing ministry and says how ‘the people held the apostles in high esteem’. Somewhat ironically the gospel reading portrays the apostles as having an argument about status, the opening verse (Lk 22:24) said, “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest”. This shows a great paradox, it was only when the apostles had learnt that status didn’t matter that they were able to move on and become people help in high esteem. And our saint, Bartholomew, is a great example of this. There is so little about him in the NT and yet thousands of churches are now named after him. So let us this morning think a bit more about this gospel reading and as our patron saint took Jesus’ lesson to heart let us seek to do so as well.
1. How the world sees greatness.
The Message version translates v.25, “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles”. I think this helps us to see what Jesus was concerned with. The abuse of power and an obsession with status. Of course it is a sweeping statement, but like many generalisations too often there is truth in it. Like the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Many years ago, a book was written about what the author saw as the three great temptations for Christians, it was called, “Money, Sex and Power”.
And just as money itself is not sinful, but the love of it is, so also power in itself is not sinful, it is the ability to get things done, to make things happen. But love of power for its own sake can easily take over. I recently read a biography of Margaret Thatcher and it was fascinating to see how her leadership as Prime Minister started out with having consultation with co-leaders as a key part of it, but that that deteriorated over time. For all of us, the fact that we can exercise power does not mean it is necessarily always right to do. It is always good to get the opinions of others. The best corrective to the abuse of power, is the humility to listen to what others have to say. A challenge for all of us is do we listen to others when we have decisions to make. The second failure of much leadership is an obsession with status, “Do you know who I am?” The problem with status is that we seek to get it from the wrong things - family background, social class, our job at work, our position on commitees or in leisure activities. There are many problems here. One is the very temporary nature of the status in many of these. The other is that what gives us status in one area of life, does not necessarily mean we should be treated with deference in other areas of life. For the Christian our primary status is that we are children of God. If we keep that central, we should keep other sources of status in perspective.
2. The leader who serves
Jesus goes on to talk about his followers having a servant heart. He says that he was among them as one who serves (v.27). This reading comes from the account of the Last Supper, and we know from John’s gospel that Jesus gave a very practical demonstration of this by washing the disciples feet. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says (v.26), “the greatest among you should be like the youngest” - this was said in an age where old age brought you respect and status, and where to be a child was to have no status at all. Jesus was subverting the society’s values. So there is a clear call to serve others and particularly those that have the least value in society’s eyes or more personally, in our own eyes. Who do you think is the least important member of this congregation? How can you serve that person? That is quite a challenge.
But even if we think about serving more generally. What does it mean to serve one another in this congregation? I think it means to try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to try and see church from their point of view and ask how ourselves how can I help church be good for that person? What about the new person who doesn’t know what page we are on, or when to sit or stand? What about the younger person who enjoys hymns with a bit more rhythm and bounce? Or the older person who loves the comfort of old familiar hymns known from childhood? Or the young mother struggling with her child who needs encouragement to keep coming? Or the person surrounded by noise all week who longs for some quiet and stillness? We are all different, we all have different spiritual, emotional or practical needs. We are all at a different point in our spiritual journey?
Can I make a suggestion? Either when you arrive at Church on a Sunday morning, or when you come up for Communion, look at 2 or 3 other people who are here and ask yourself what it would be like to be those people, what their needs might be? and, of course, one way to find out, is to talk to them afterwards and find out what church had been like for them that morning.... and then we might be in a position to know how we can ‘serve’ that person. And, of course, once we are learning how to serve one another in Church we will then perhaps be able to learn how to serve our neighbours and colleagues. But let us start with being better at serving one another.
3. The reward is more responsibility
Finally, let us notice what Jesus says at the end of our reading which may feel a bit odd after all the negative things Jesus has said about “kings” and how is disciples are to serve one another. In verses 29 and 30 he says, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
It sounds almost as if Jesus is saying, “if you are humble and serve now, then you will get to be kings with incredible power in the end”
But that just doesn’t fit with the whole tenor of what Jesus is saying, and especially about the fact that he is “the servant King”.
If we think that servanthood now means power later, then we have completely misunderstood what Jesus has said about the call for leaders to be servants. What he is saying is that once his disciples have learnt how to serve one another, they will then be qualified for greater opportunities for service. And we so often misconstrue what ‘judging’ is. It is not deciding in our own power what the right thing is. It is bringing justice to a situation. It is to get to a depth of truth about a person or situation, that the right thing can be done. To be a skilled judge in that sense, is to have the ability to understand a person, their motives, their actions and so to be able to establish justice. So you see in the whole of the passage Jesus is saying that he wants us to stop focussing on ourselves, and make better attempts at understanding others so that we can bring justice to his kingdom.
As I close let me just read to you the last verse of “The Servant King”
So let us learn how to serve,
and in our lives enthrone him;
each other’s needs to prefer,
for it is Christ we’re serving.