All Saints Margaret Street | St Bartholomew the Apostle – High Mass Sunday 24 August 2014

Sermon for St Bartholomew the Apostle – High Mass Sunday 24 August 2014

Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie

St Bartholomew

We’ve been given that gospel today because we’re being asked to see Bartholomew as a representative apostle. We don’t know who he is, biographically, so he stands for apostolic ministry – the priestly office of Bishops, our leaders in the faith. His name comes down to us in a list of ‘the twelve’ apostles because it was important to Jesus to choose twelve of his closest followers as a way of demonstrating his new deal – the new Israel. Israel is defined by having 12 tribes, a perfect Jewish number, repeatedly hammered home in Jewish scripture. He is one of those representative twelve. Verse 30 makes the point concisely:

30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

But there were other apostles as well. We know a lot about some, like Paul: to be honest some of us would like a little less of him and a little more of the shadowy figures like Bartholomew. And then there are others, as little known as Bartholomew – including Junia, again just a name to us, but a female name, recorded by Paul as an apostle: Romans 16.7

7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

So we are invited to consider apostles, those who are sent out by Jesus as leaders in the faith, a wider group than ‘the twelve’ and represented by our bishops to this day.

First a word about where we find this incident in Luke’s gospel and how it relates to the other gospels: some context. That gospel probably sounded familiar to you, and indeed the sayings of Jesus contained in it are very familiar, but we rarely hear Luke’s version.

This incident, and the teaching about leadership and service, is found in Matthew and Mark, but in a very different setting. In those gospels it happens much earlier, during the journey up to Jerusalem and is focussed on the jockeying for position of James and John (or, according to Matthew, their mother) about their status in the community.

But as we heard it today, from Luke, it is part of the Passion narrative. It follows directly upon the story of the last supper, the institution of this sacrament, the Mass. That’s interesting for two reasons. One is obvious – the link between apostleship (priestly leadership) and the Eucharist, which is fundamental to how the church is made.

There is also a link to John’s gospel. There, you may remember, while we have the last supper, we don’t hear about the Eucharist at all; by the time John writes it is already the basis of Christian worship and doesn’t need describing. Instead John offers the story of Jesus washing his followers’ feet, an acted parable of leadership as service, which has a number of phrases in common with Luke’s gospel this morning.

So we can be confident from these two quite different strands of our tradition that this incident and the teaching of Jesus which it relates is very close to the heart of the good news which unsurprisingly is also near the heart of the Mass. The Good News here is Jesus’ customary topsy-turvy world-view: Leadership as service. It was a novel idea then, and political leaders have been assimilating it, taming it and resisting it ever since.

Now for the application. I see something very telling here, which is partly obscured by our translation this morning. It began

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

The word ‘dispute’ is common in English. It is also common in Greek, but the word used by Luke is not the common Greek word. This word is PHILONEIKIA, literally ‘love of winning’. The commentator Raymond Brown translates thus:

Then an invidious dispute arose among them…

That just about gets it, though something more Sun-headline might help us – ‘Bishops brawl over biggest mitre’, perhaps. There is an implication of self-serving and wilful contentiousness. This word economically encompasses the emotions of competitive jealousy and status anxiety. A little less dry than a ‘dispute’.

And there’s another word here which is at the heart of many of our current disputes in the wider church – ‘authority’.

Those ‘in authority’ over them are called benefactors…

This is precisely the word to use of the authority of a king or ruler; authority in the sense of having the power to enforce a decision. And that’s at the heart of the teaching, isn’t it. As Jesus says, also in the passion narrative, his power is not that sort of power; his authority does not come from an army or vast wealth, but from who he is, from his truthfulness, humility, self-sacrifice, discipline and integrity. If he looks for back-up it is simply to God who, again, does not enforce his wisdom by sanctions, force or economic edge. His authority is innate, and in a way, powerfully helpless. He can look to God in that way because he comes among them as one who serves – authority without power as we understand it, in the political or economic sense, authority simply derived from the truth.

A final thought: what else does Jesus say about these friends who are so distastefully jockeying for position at this last meal before his execution?

28 “You are those who have stood by me in my trials;

 29 and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom,

 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Remember that this follows directly on the last supper, so Jesus is still talking about the Eucharist and how it expresses our relationship with God: eating and drinking at his table in his kingdom, where all are equally loved and valued and there is no need for anxiety about status. That’s what we do here: this and every Eucharist is another acted parable, an act of prophecy that we are intended to take out from here and apply in the rest of our lives. Sharing and service with and for God who gives himself to us in utter vulnerability in bread and wine.

And notice who is addressed: ‘those who have stood by me in my trials’. The message is clear. Stand by Jesus and don’t dispute about trifles. Those who stand by him are more likely to be found in quiet conversation or prayer than in headlines and brawls about who’s a real Christian. An authentic Christian is not someone who agrees with a doctrine or has a right view about human sexuality. Those things are important but they do not determine whether or not someone is a Christian: they are conversations we have as Christians. An authentic Christian is one who stands by Jesus – and by any who, in this transitory life, are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity; for he is to be found in them especially. We can all do that.