A Lesson in Genesis
You probably haven't celebrated St. Bartholomew's Day before, and as you listened to the Gospel being read you didn't even hear Bartholomew's name, did you? So what gives? Matthew, Mark and Luke mention Bartholomew in their Gospels, and he is always mentioned in connection with Philip. John doesn't mention Bartholomew at all, but does mention Nathanael in connection with Philip. The name 'Bartholomew' means "son of Tolmai." That's not a personal name. He more than likely had a personal name. Most scholars since about the 9th century think the personal name of Bartholomew was Nathanael.
What do we know about Bartholomew/Nathanael? You heard just about all that we know in the Gospel reading except for the fact that John tells us in his 21st chapter that Nathanael was from Cana and that he was one of the disciples that accompanied Peter when he dolefully returned to his nets. A 4th century church historian tells us that Bartholomew preached the Gospel in India. Church tradition says through his preaching the king of Armenia was converted. The king's brother was so angered by this that he had Bartholomew skinned alive, crucified with his head down, and then beheaded. His symbol is 3 butcher knives.
Why do we celebrate this particular day? Actually, the Eastern Church celebrates St. Bartholomew Day on June 11. We in the Western Church celebrate August 24 because this is the day in 500 AD that the relics of St. Bartholomew were transferred by an Emperor to their present resting place.
Not a whole lot of hard facts to go on, is there? Seems like there's hardly enough to make a festival out of. But in the text before us, Jesus takes us through a fascinating lesson in Genesis. Hopefully, you remember the story of Jacob because that's the backdrop of Jesus' words to Nathanael, a.k.a. Bartholomew.
Jesus' first words to Nathanael are, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false." Jesus says Bartholomew is an Israelite who is not a Jacob. Remember how Jacob got his brother to sell him his birthright for a bowl full of red lentils when Esau came in from the field hungry? Remember how Jacob deceived his father to get his brother's blessing? Remember how
Jacob ask his father-in-law to pay his wages in spotted and speckled sheep, and then devised a scheme to make the sheep produce more of them? The Greek translation of the Old testament describes Jacob as deceitful. Jesus uses that same Greek word and says Bartholomew has no deceit in him.
Bartholomew is not a Jacob. Bartholomew calls them as he sees them. When Philip boldly says they have found the One prophesied about in the Law and the Prophets and identified Him as Jesus of Nazareth, Bartholomew blurts out, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Bartholomew did not have a high opinion of Nazareth, and he didn't hide it or spin it. He had no interest in being politically correct or sparing Philip's opinion. He responded honestly and openly to Philip.
Furthermore, when the Lord first meets Jacob, Jacob is fleeing for his life from Esau who is mad at him for tricking their father out of a blessing. Bartholomew meets the Lord for the first time not running for his life but looking for the Messiah. He was waiting, longing, aching for the One promised by the Law and the Prophets. Imagine how deeply Bartholomew desired to find the Messiah. He was willing to accompany his friend Philip to meet someone who had no better credentials than being from a city that he looked for nothing good to come out of.
Upon first meeting Jacob, the Lord gave Jacob wonderful unconditional promises and showed him a wonderful vision of a ladder stretching to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Jacob was somewhat impressed by this, but not enough to claim the Lord as his God. Nope, Jacob put a test of sorts before the Lord saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father's house in safety, then the Lord will be my God."
Contrast this reaction with that of Bartholomew's. He meets the Lord and wonders how the Lord knows him. Jesus answers, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you." That simple statement blew Bartholomew away. "You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." Jacob saw so much more and confessed nothing of the sort.
Bartholomew is an Israelite, a son of the Promises, a member of the Old Testament Church who was not deceitful or skeptical like Jacob. But this is not what led this man to leave house, home, and country to preach the Gospel. His genuine faith is not what enabled him to endure being skinned alive and then crucified. He was not able to die for the faith rather than to give it up because He was such a noble, upright believer of Jesus. It was not what was in him that gave Bartholomew the wherewithal to speak of the Lord's statues before kings and not be put to shame. It was none other than the King of kings Himself who did this miracle in him.
Bartholomew had come fact to face with the King of kings in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He realized this when Jesus said, "I saw you under the fig tree." This blew Bartholomew away because a common place for Old Testament believer's to pray was under a fig tree. Bartholomew might have been saying his prayers there as Philip came up. Here's a man longing for the Messiah praying like you do when you are oppressed and depressed by the fallen world around you. He's pouring his heart out about how bad things are when Philip says he has the answer to all that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Bartholomew is not impressed. But then Jesus tells him that He saw him under the fig tree before Philip even got there. One of the titles of Jehovah in the Old Testament is "Thou who hearest prayers."
The calvary had arrived. The answer to his prayers was here. But you know when the calvary arrives they generally proceed to rescue the settlers by killing all the Indians. The answer to prayer the calvary brings is power and might. What sort of power or might did Bartholomew feel as his bloody carcass hung upside down on a cross? Why didn't Bartholomew despair then?
Notice that Bartholomew confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, but Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man. Bartholomew through the rest of his seminary training under Jesus would hear Jesus say, "Birds have nests; foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head." "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many." God the Son became the Son of Man to carry the sins of all mankind on His back all the way to the cross. God the Son took on flesh in blood as the Son of Man so that He might give His holy flesh in behalf of our very unholy flesh and to pour out His holy blood to wash our bloody sins away.
Bartholomew correctly confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, but Jesus points him to Himself as the Son of Man. When Bartholomew hung on the cross, bloody, beaten, in searing pain, He found comfort in the Son of Man not in the Son of God. He found comfort in that Man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. He found comfort in that Man who gave His back to the whippers and His beard to those who pulled it out. He found comfort in that Man whose stripes on His back healed the sins on his own.
The Son of Man is where your comfort is too. You have physical griefs and trials just like Bartholomew did. You bear in your flesh all manner of afflictions and temptations just like he did. You suffer in death and in life just like Bartholomew did, but neither Bartholomew, nor you or I suffer like the Son of Man did. When He suffered, heaven and hell were on the line. Jesus suffered to pay for sins. Jesus had to suffer perfectly, without sinning, every ounce of God's eternal wrath. When Bartholomew suffered and when you and I do, heaven and hell is a done deal. Hell has been paid for; God's wrath has been quenched by the blood of the Son of Man. Heaven is a done deal too. We don't get into heaven based on how well we suffer here on earth. Heaven stands open before us for Jesus' sake.
Jesus showed this to the New Testament Jacob, Bartholomew, by taking him back to his Sunday School lessons in Genesis. Jesus promises him, "You shall see the heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." Heaven is open once and for all where Jesus is. Jesus is in your Baptism because Paul says, "As many of you who have been baptized you have put on Christ." Jesus is in the Absolution because in the Word that forgives your sins the pastor speaks in the place of and by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ. And Jesus is most certainly in Communion because it is the Body and Blood of Christ for us to eat and drink surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Jesus tells Bartholomew that heaven is open in Him. Heaven is open to all in the name of Jesus for it is the only name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. An open heaven leads to a wide open earth. Bartholomew couldn't keep the wonderful news that heaven is open in Jesus to himself. So off he went to India, Armenia, and Lycanoia with the wonderful news that heaven wasn't closed to sinners but open to them in the name of the One who bore their sins and carried their sorrows. How sad it would be to have sinners piled up at the door of heaven because they thought it wasn't open to them. Sheep will do that you know. If sheep are use to a gate being closed, they will pile up before it even if it's open. They will pile up unless a shepherd goes before them to lead them through the open door.
Bartholomew was one such shepherd, and he preached and taught and led and suffered as he pointed to the Son of Man and heaven's open door. I would like to think, although I can't prove it, that he saw exactly what Christ promised he would as he hung skinned and crucified on the cross. Though his head was pointed downward I would like to think he saw upward. He saw heaven once and for all thrown open, and the Son of Man as a ladder between heaven and earth so that angels could come down to minister to him and go back up with his prayers. Surely Bartholomew saw more than his bloody flesh, more than his pain, more than the end of his life. May we too see beyond the fears, beyond the tears, beyond the years we spend here to an eternal king and kingdom that is worth not only dying for but living for. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Bartholomew (August 24, 2003), John 1: 43-51