A Weighty Holiday
Today is a weighty holiday or holy day. It's the Feast of St. Bartholomew celebrated in the church since the 500s. Gregory of Tours, 6th century, said a large piece of Bartholomew's skin washed up on the island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily. The people made a silver statue of him weighing many kilograms. In WW II the Nazis wanted to melt it down, but weighing it they found it weighed only a few grams, so they left it alone (www.catholic.org/saints). This legend doesn't make today a weighty holiday; our text does.
They can't even get his name right. Does it fry you when that happens? The more unusual your name the more you experience this, but it can also happen that someone you've met never calls you by your right name. Our text is all about Nathanael but this is Bartholomew's day. How come? Bartholomew is mentioned in the Synoptic Gospel and Acts always associated with Philip. John doesn't mention him, but does Nathanael, and associates him with Philip. Bartholomew means "son of Tolmai," so Nathanael is probably his personal name. The Eastern Church accepted this explanation since the 9th century, but some say the Western church didn't till the 12th or even at all. St. Bartholomew would say, "That figures."
The alternate Gospel reading for today, Luke 22, was chosen with a view to his anonymity. In Luke 22 the disciples argue about who is the greatest, and Jesus settles the dispute by saying discussions about greatness are focused on here not the hereafter. The 19th century sermon hymn about St. Bartholomew also references his anonymity. "Many a name, by earth forgotten, / Lives forever round Thy throne."
Still we hate to be forgotten. We hate meeting someone who doesn't remember they ever met us before especially if they're important. Yet who are we to be remembered? What will we ever do or suffer in the grand scheme of things that's worth remembering? I doubt we will like St. Bartholomew be skinned alive. That's the picture on the bulletin cover. It's Michelangelo's painting of St. Bartholomew holding his own skin.
Now that's Christian art. Now we're getting to something weighty, aren't we? No not quite. Christian tradition has 3 stories of how Bartholomew died. One has him kidnapped, beaten, and cast into the sea to drown. One has him crucified upside down. Probably the most popular is that he was skinned alive (Ibid.). None of these are in the Bible, so none of them can be all that weighty. From the Bible we know he died since it's appointed for men to die once and we know from Jesus' promise to His disciples that he died hated and persecuted by the world. In other words, he died like every Christian will. Now we're on to something weighty.
"I believe help his unbelief." That's not what the man with the demon possessed boy prayed, but that's what most do. They focus on someone else's believing not their own. This is you if when you're hearing a sermon you think, "So and so needs to hear this." No, you do. That's why you're here. It's your unbelief, your misbelief, your other great shame and vice that is being addressed, not someone who is not here.
What does this have to do with our text? This is the first time anyone is explicitly said to believe in Jesus. Jesus says to Bartholomew, "You believe." I'm not saying that John the Baptist, Joseph, Mary, or Philip didn't believe. I'm only saying here is the first time the Gospels state someone did believe. You'd think Jesus would move on to someone else. Someone who hasn't confessed to believe, "You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel." Bartholomew could have thought, "Lord I believe help his or their unbelief," but Jesus stays focused on him and his believing.
Jesus tells him why he believes, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Bartholomew's belief was based on Jesus knowing what only an omnipresent, omniscient God could know. Jesus knows his heart: Here is an Israelite in whom there is no falsehood, and Jesus saw him when he was nowhere near him, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." This is all the more powerful if the fig tree was a Jewish place of prayer in Jesus' time as we know it was later (Morris, 167). That means Jesus saw him at prayer as only God does.
But faith in God being present everywhere and knowing everything is not enough. Romans 1 says all people know God's eternal power and divine nature, yet that only ends in their worshipping a god made in their own image or in the image of some other creature. Faith in the almighty, omniscient, omnipresent God doesn't save. You must know such a God in the Son of Man. That should startle you. If you read the rest of John 1 others call Jesus the Word, Lamb of God, Son of God, the True Light, the only Begotten of the Father. Yet what does Jesus call Himself? The Son of Man.
Knowing the invisible God in the Person and Work of Jesus is what saves. Believing that the Son of God came to give His life as a ransom in place of the sins of the world saves. The skin of the Son of Man is the connecting point between heaven and earth. Jesus says in John 5, "Just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son to have life in Himself." Jesus is more explicit in John 6. "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I give for the life of the world is My flesh." It's our skin that needs redeeming, forgiving, saving. The Son of Man has skin. He gave His holy, unblemished skin in place of our unholy, blemished skin.
Can I get an "Amen" here? I don't mean that seriously, but you know what I mean. Lutherans don't have a give and take between preacher and people as the Baptist do at least we didn't use to, but whenever you hear the Law exposing your sin or the Gospel showing you your Savior, your heart should automatically respond "Amen" even as the skin of a drum struck by a drumstick automatically sounds.
"Amen" comes from a Hebrew verb meaning "to confirm." Jesus alone introduces His own words with "Amen," or "Truly," or "Verily," or "I tell you the truth." So many people have copied this over the centuries we don't realize it started with Him. Jesus is making a mind-blowing statement when He says, "I tell you the truth." Only the One who is the Truth can say, "Truly." In the first three Gospels Jesus always says just, "Truly." In John's Gospel Jesus always doubles it. Your insert misses this but KJV, NASB, ESV all catch it. Jesus says, "Truly, truly."
Jesus promises that faith in the Son of Man sees greater things than even God's presence everywhere and His knowledge of all things. It sees a forever opened heaven. "Amen, Amen, Truly, Truly, you shall see heaven forever opened." This is a Greek perfect. Faith in the Son of Man never sees heaven closed to sinners, closed to their prayers, grey, cold, and uncaring. Faith in the Son of Man sees a heaven open to it because of Jesus' holy life and His unholy death. Faith sees that it can no more change its sinful, fallen skin then a leopard can change its spots, but faith doesn't cling to its own skin but to Jesus' spot free, cleansing, covering skin.
Truly, truly you will see greater things in the Son of Man than God's omniscience and omnipresence. You'll see the ministry of angels ascending and descending on Him. Where Jesus is there His angels are present says Jesus. Angels are where the baptized are because as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ. Angels are where the absolved are because whosoever sins are forgiven are forgiven in Jesus' name. Angels are where Communion is because it is His Body and Blood, and where the Son of Man is there angels must be ascending and descending. You confess as much every Sunday. You say that you sing "Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord" with angels and archangels.
"Truly, truly," Jesus says to Bartholomew before he enters a life of anonymous service and suffering, "you shall see greater things than these." It must be great things that empower a man to die in the faith for the faith. It can't be God's omnipresence or omniscience, and certainly not His omnipotence. Think about it. Say Bartholomew was really skinned alive. Other Christians were. When that happens how doesn't everything in you cry out where is the God who is present everywhere? Why isn't He here? Where is the God who knows everything? Doesn't He know this? Where is the all-powerful God? Why doesn't He stop this agony? And you're fooling yourself if you think it takes getting skinned alive before such questions come up.
No, you get to questions of God's omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence in sickrooms, hospital rooms, and bedrooms long before skin comes off your body. All it takes is a salty tear or two on your skin or a date with a surgeon's scalpel to cut your skin to take away all comfort from God's presence everywhere, Him knowing everything, and Him being able to do anything.
Truly, truly greater things than these you see in the Son of Man. God in your flesh and blood humbles Himself to do what you can't and to pay what you owe. God in flesh and blood having finished doing that is exalted to the right hand of God where in flesh and blood like yours He rules. He gives you enough bane and blessing, enough pain and pleasure, and more strength than you can imagine so that you so pass through things temporal that you lose not the things eternal. Jesus came into our skin not to redeem us from temporal suffering or death, but from eternal suffering and death. He came not to turn every glass of water into wine but water into robes of holiness and wine into forgiveness, life, and salvation by joining His Blood to it.
The average human skin weighs 8-10 pounds. Sinful, fallen, guilty skin weighs 100 times more. That's too weighty for you to carry around. Jesus skin is as light as Water and as thin as a Wafer. You can carry that weight around all day, all your life with no problem. And miraculously that super light skin of Jesus is weightier than all your sins, problems, fears, and worries. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Bartholomew, Apostle (20140824); John 1: 43-51