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Who was St. Bartholomew, Apostle?

Who was St. Bartholomew, Apostle?

Today we commemorate one of the Twelve, an Apostle named Bartholomew, or maybe Nathanael. Or not. It is surprising how little we know about some of the Apostles. About Bartholomew, almost nothing. The reading in John (Jn 1:43-51) is amazing and important. Philip, who seems to be the fetch and carry Apostle, brings Nathanael from under his fig tree, a place rich in symbolism, to Jesus, who amazes Nathanael by prophesying where he was sitting, but also testing him by referring to Hebrew Scripture, Micah 4:4, where Jesus is telling him that he is a righteous man, and the promise of the peace of God has been fulfilled. (I wrote about this and how Jesus uses a similar test with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, see, “Be Nathanael, Be the Woman. Sow the Good News.” EC, March 18, 2019). But we don’t really know if Nathanael is Bartholomew.


All we know is that he wrote a now lost Gospel according to Jerome and Bede, and, according to the 2018 edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Eusebius said that, in circa 150-200 CE, Pantaenus went to India and found a Hebrew text of Matthew left by the Bartholomew. In Armenia, there is a legend that he met a sticky death by being flayed. I hope not. Saints’ legends tend to be gory. We can’t smirk, given the popularity of zombie and post-apocalypse stories today. But Bartholomew is an Apostle, and maybe a martyr, so we commemorate him, and with red vestments, just in case. All the other readings for this commemoration, however, do have a common theme. Pilgrimage. Seeking vocation. Seeking God. 


Genesis 28:10-17 tells of Jacob’s ladder, or more accurately, Jacob’s ziggurat. Jacob was on the run. He had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and been exposed. He now had pretty much nothing. He fell asleep, using a stone as a pillow. And he dreamed, and saw angelic beings moving up and down a staircase or ziggurat. Why the angelic messengers were traveling back and forth between heaven and earth is never addressed. But then the Lord appears next to him and promises him this very land and blesses him. Jacob sets the stone as an altar, renames the place Beth-El, or House of God, and promises to follow God. And thus begins his long servitude for his two wives and eventually his return as Israel, patriarch and father of the Twelve Tribes. Jacob is now going to a land which is not his, Haran, although it was where Abraham had dwelt. And he serves. Perhaps a stretch for Bartholomew, the Apostles scattered after the Resurrection, going to India to serve, but the theme is there. 


Isaiah 66:1-2,18-23 (the missing verses are mostly God’s indignation against the ungodly) is a prophecy and teaching that God does not reside or require sacrifice, but will send survivors far and wide to gather the nations to see God’s glory. One verse, 66:21 says, “And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the Lord.” In this gathering, the Lord will expand the Levitical priesthood, or as it reads in Canticle 18 (BCP) “And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, for with your blood you have redeemed for God, from every family, language, people, and nation, a kingdom of priests to serve our God (Rev 5:9b-10).” Not only does Isaiah celebrate a foreign mission to spread the Word and gather all to God, but it suggests a way to maintain the liturgies and ceremonies of the people. In the case of Bartholomew, a way that he could go to India and establish a church, much as St. Paul did, by raising elders to bless and break the bread.


Bartholomew wasn’t the only Apostle to go to India. It is suggested that Thomas went to Malabar, while Bartholomew went to an area around Goa. But this is all apocryphal, and further muddied by a lack of any archeological or literary evidence, except a non-canonical Gospel which sends Bartholomew off with Philip and Philip’s sister. And there we have it. A man who was called to be an Apostle, one of the Twelve, who lived through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and then, poof, disappears from history. And one can imagine these men and women hanging onto their faith, encouraging each other with sermons and teaching, and practicing the gifts of the Spirit. Until they, no longer going in pairs, were far from home. That is not to deny that in the First Century there was lively trade. Tin from Britain, spices and fine fabrics from the South and South East, even China. But still far from the Mediterranean, and the unifying culture, for good or ill, of Rome.


I think we are in the same place today, despite instant communication. Certainly until the almost missionary underlying message of the Democratic National Convention, with a strong return to ethics and character deeply molded by Christianity. The Episcopal Church is facing such changes that, at times, we feel that we are hanging on to the faith. The way we raise leaders is again a challenge. Will we focus on a new church, a changing church? Will there be time for deep reflection on the history and depth of the Spirit in the Church? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Many who are called in the Spirit are overlooked, or ignored. Dull and safe is more likely to be raised up than prophetic and courageous. Or drowned in the tsunami of voices demanding that their vision is the One True Way. Where are those who went to the world to bring the Way to the world? Do we have room for them in the contemporary struggle to stay relevant and interesting? And safe? How do we live out the Great Commission today? Bartholomew set out with little. The doctrine of the Trinity was nowhere near settled. And none of the great writings of the Church Fathers (and a few Mothers), or the great shared experience of two millennia of Spirit driven spirituality (and here, more women’s voices) existed. All he had was a copy of the Gospel according to Matthew, if that, prayer, and his memories. 


And finally we have 1 Peter 5:1-11. The author exhorts, as an elder himself, that “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly (1 Pt 5:2),” and that the young listen and learn, both young and old in humility.


That first letter attributed to St. Peter is especially deserving of serious prayer and study. So much so that Archbishop Justin Welby, as Archbishop of Canterbury, chose that letter to be the foundational theological text for the next Lambeth Conference, now postponed until Summer 2022, where the primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion come to try to find common ground. In a quote, The Rev. Dr. Jean Strawbridge wrote, “The Christians addressed in 1 Peter are not aliens and exiles because they have been forcibly displaced, but in choosing to follow Christ, it had led them to be at odds with the political and socio situation of their day.”


In the words of 1 Peter 5 of today’s Gospel, we are enjoined to bear suffering in faith, for God will support, strengthen, restore, and establish us. Perhaps here we can see Bartholomew alone, a stranger, preaching what may at times have seemed so far away, praying for the wisdom and uplifting of the Spirit to endure, to be faithful, to serve his people. As we all do.


Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.


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