A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St Bartholomew, 23 August 2015:
St Bartholomew, whose memory we honour today, is the one apostle whose life-story you will not find recounted beyond his appearance in the lists of apostles in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 10.2-4; Mark 3.16-19; Luke 6.14-16), or his witnessing, in the Acts of the Apostles, of Christ’s ascension (Acts 1.13).
There are a number of reasons why this might be so. The most plausible is that ‘Bartholomew’ is not really a first name, but a patronymic—a surname. ‘Bar’ is a popular Hebrew or Aramaic prefix that, to this day in some modern Hebrew surnames, means ‘the son of’. So just as Jesus sometimes calls Peter by his patronymic ‘bar Jonah’, the Son of John (Matthew 16.17), and blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timothy, is only ever known by his patronymic (Mark 10.46-52), so Bartholomew means ‘son of Ptolomy’—not an unlikely father’s first name in a Galilee so cosmopolitan that it is, at times, disparagingly referred to as ‘Galilee of the Nations’—gentile Galilee (Matthew 4.15).
If Bartholomew is his surname, then what was his first name? Tradition has identified Bartholomew with Nathanael, the friend of the apostle Philip. Nathanael like Philip was Galilean from ‘Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter’, a city at the confluence of the upper Jordan and the Sea of Galilee (John 1.44). And since the three lists of the apostles always name Bartholomew in the same breath as Philip, this is reasonably plausible. Nathanael was not only a close friend of the first three disciples—Andrew, Peter, and Philip—and like them shared the same hometown on lake Galilee, but was also brought to Jesus by his friend Philip.
Our Gospel reading, from the opening chapter of St John’s gospel, records the encounter between the Jesus, Philip and Nathanael: taken by Philip to see Jesus, Philip remarked that Jesus came from Nazareth, a town some 50 kilometres from Bethsaida as the crow flies. Nathanael flippantly countered, ‘can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1.46). If Jesus overheard the remark, he did not react in anger. Instead he ‘heaped coals’ on Nathanael’s head by pronouncing him ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit’ (John 1.47). Amazed by this unexpected characterisation, Nathanael asked, ‘where did you get to know me?’ Jesus’ response, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’ is sufficient evidence for Nathanael to confess Jesus as the Christ, and decide to follow him (John 1.48-9).
Again and again I am struck by the simplicity and warmth of this extraordinary call of those first apostles: how Jesus who, in the rapid succession of the opening chapter of St John’s gospel, had been proclaimed both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, turned – and noticed that there are people following him. How he asked them the simple question: ‘What do you seek?’—‘What is it that are you looking for? Come and tell me’ (John 1.38). How the group of friends didn’t tell Jesus what they really wanted, which was presumably to come and to follow him, but instead responded by asking him a question themselves. ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’, they asked him. How Jesus replied, ‘Come and see’. And how they, in turn, remained with him (John 1.38-9).
As usual, St John’s Gospel here is packed to the brim with symbolism. The use of the Greek ‘opsomai’—to see—is much more telling than any of our translations could render. In the short passage that recounts the call of the first apostles, Jesus or the disciples are described as ‘looking’ or ‘seeing’ four times. Each time, the word implies the scrutiny of a situation, or a revelation. Jesus’ words to the disciples to ‘come and see’, then, can mean as much ‘find out yourselves’, as ‘let your minds be changed’.
For what Jesus talks about to the four Galilean friends Andrew, Peter, Philip and Bartholomew is both very much in the present as it is in the future. Consequently, the ‘dwelling’ at which their ‘Rabbi’ is staying is at once the physical place at which Jesus is resting, as is the home to which Jesus truly belongs; the ‘house’ of his heavenly Father. Likewise, the words ‘come and see’ echo both the intent recognition of the four friends, such as his knowing Peter to be Cephas, ‘the Rock’, or his knowledge that Philip and Bartholomew would see even greater things, namely ‘heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man’ (John 1.51) – a prophecy fulfilled on mount Calvary, when Christ died abandoned by his disciples; and confirmed on the mount of Olives, when the four he first called to his service along many other disciples witnessed his Ascension.
For the gospel writer to ‘see aright’, then, implies to see beyond the physical: to behold heaven opened; to discern Christ in his glory. That is why in verses before today’s second lesson ‘come and see’ serves not only as an invitation to the four friends from Bethsaida, but also as the response Philip gives when his friend Bartholomew questions whether the Messiah can really be someone from such humble circumstances as Jesus, whether he could possibly come from Nazareth.
In order to follow Christ’s call to come and see, means to be prepared to go out looking for those things which are not readily visible to the eye; those things that can prompt the response ‘we have found the Messiah’, or ‘we have seen heaven opened’. In our epistle reading from the Revelation of St John the Divine (Revelation 21.9b-14), we are given a glimpse of that reality which remains yet hidden from our sight: heaven stands open, and God’s holy city of peace, Jerusalem, descending from heaven to earth; radiant like a Jewel. Looking out for the things that may be visible only to the eye of faith in the here and now, and become fully revealed at the end of all time, is one way of sharpening our spiritual gaze.
At the same time, to ‘come and see’ also invites us means to look intently, searchingly at our human relationships, examine the way we look at others. Just as Jesus does on first meeting Bartholomew and knowing him to be an Israelite without guile, or on meeting Peter and knowing him at once to be a man with severe flaws and shortcomings, as well as the rock that will carry his church. We also are invited to look at those we encounter and recognise in them the God-given strengths amidst our —all too human—flaws and shortcomings. We also are invited to look intently at the gifts God gives to us, and to discern the many differing qualities that lie at the heart of each relationship with God. Christians have called those qualities our ‘vocation’ or ‘life calling’. To accept Christ’s invitation to ‘come and see’ invites us to discern our own calling and seek the company of others to pursue that vocation.
Christ’s question ‘What do you seek?’ prompted Bartholomew to abandon any shallow preconceptions—‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’—and instead to know Jesus as the Messiah, ‘the Son of God and King of Israel’ (John 1.47; 49). It motivated him to leave behind his erstwhile profession and familiar surroundings to follow Jesus beyond the cross and resurrection. Bartholomew remained a follower of Jesus even beyond the moment when the prophecy that he would know ‘heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon Christ’. Having seen that prophecy fulfilled at the Ascension, he witnessed to what he had seen by making Christ’s Good News known to others. Accompanied by St Jude, Bartholomew brought Christ’s invitation ‘what do you seek?’ to the people of Armenia; was flayed alive, tradition tells, and died a martyr’s death, testifying in life and death to the Messiah from Nazareth.
The question that underlies the story of the call of St Bartholomew and his three friends from Bethsaida in the opening chapter of St John’s Gospel—‘what do seek?’—is a question that is addressed to all of us. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Bartholomew, to allow our preconceptions to be radically challenged, and to have our eyes opened to a new reality—that of the heavens opened and the Son of God in glory. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Andrew, to confess Jesus as the Messiah, and to bring our sisters and brothers to him. ‘What do you seek?’ invites us, like Peter, to be known by Jesus, and to be given a new name, and a new task: that of ensuring that God’s good news proclaimed throughout the world.
Christ’s words of invitation, ‘come and see’, are there for all people. The words that brought St Bartholomew to the man from Nazareth, and led him to confess him to be the ‘Christ and King of Israel’, still invite people to believe that all are called, and all have a calling to serve God. Our gifts may differ, our tasks may differ—but we share the same call, alongside Bartholomew, Philip, Andrew and Peter, and all those who have heard and heeded Christ’s invitation, and are now numbered among his friends, and among the Saints.
It is my prayer for you and me that we may be given strength to respond to Christ’s call to follow him, to make him known through our own words of invitation, and so to enable many to accept Christ’s invitation to encounter him, behold him, and be changed through him: here in this Cathedral and city, here in our own generation.