St Bartholomew - a Faithful Servant

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard in the United Benefice on the Feast of St Bartholomew, 24 August 2014

Over the last few months we have had some superb sporting events to inspire and entertain us – the Football World Cup, Wimbledon, the Commonwealth games, England’s recent successes against India at cricket, and, of course, the Tour de France. This was a bit of a disappointment for the British team. In such events stars are made and they become household names: Nadal, Murrey, the Williams sisters, Tom Daley, Claudia Fragapane winning four gold medals in gymnastics, Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, and in the cycling world Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins. We are surrounded by greatness, of people who have endured and committed themselves to years of training, of discipline and who have reached the top of their sport. But the question is, in a few years time, will we remember the names that now so easily trip off our tongues?

I suppose there is something within human nature that desires to have heroes because we also have them in the Christian tradition – saints like Peter and Paul, Mary Magdalene, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. Only this week the great South American martyr and champion of the poor Oscar Romero has been put on the track towards sainthood by Pope Francis. And thanks to Ivo we are able to read about them each week in the notice sheet. Today is different, however. In contrast to these sporting or spiritual superstars, today we remember someone from 2000 years ago whose achievements are pretty much lost to history. Today we remember St Bartholomew whose only sure claim to heroism is his appearance in the list of apostles.

In church history he doesn’t get a citation until the great ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, in the early fourth century, mentions that he preached in India and gave the church he founded there a Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew (I would have thought Sanskrit would have been more appropriate in India, but I’m sure he had his reasons.) According to legend, he was flayed alive and then crucified upside down.

It is often assumed that he is the same person as the Nathanael of St John's Gospel – if this is the case, then we know that Jesus called him to be one of his twelve disciples. We also know of his perplexity that anything good could come out of Nazareth; that he came from Cana, and thus Jesus's first miracle was on his doorstep; and that he was one of the fishermen who experienced the resurrection appearance by the Sea of Galilee (John 1.46, 2.1, 21.1-8). The one character reference that we have for him is that he was an Israelite in whom there was no guile or deceit (John 1.47). Very few people are totally transparent and truthful, and yet that was how Jesus summed him up.
Beyond these scant details we have to imagine him as one of the crowd of disciples who was faithfully present, through thick and thin, but did nothing notable enough to be recorded in the Gospels.

All of which isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to write a sermon. What more is there to say about someone who we know so little about? Yet he was, as it were, a faithful foot soldier. And that, perhaps, is his significance.

Reflecting on this got me thinking about the Tour de France. We have just returned from holidaying in France – doing a little bit of cycling there as a family (but without a hint of lycra, you’ll be please to hear!) – they are much more courteous towards cyclists than in this rather aggressive city of London. There were plenty of Tour de France inspired cyclists on the road. The tour is one of the most physically demanding of sporting events – three weeks covering over 2000 miles, in and around France, through the Pyrenees and Alps. As one sports writer put it, ‘This isn’t a race: it is an exercise in sustained, credulity-defying heroism’.

In the race there are those in the various teams who are described as domestiques, or servants. A domestique is a rider that serves the team leader. His purpose in this gruelling race is to sacrifice himself in any way possible to help the team leader: fetching high-energy food and drink from the support cars; surrounding the leader to keep him from crashing into other cyclists or being trapped in the back; they ride in front of him, allowing him to spend 40% less effort riding in their slipstream, a huge advantage for the leader, yet at a significant cost for the domestiques, who sometimes finish last on a given day. If the leader crashes and damages his bike, they will give him their bike. Putting the team together also takes considerable planning. Some domestiques are better on flat terrain, others in mountains, and they serve the team accordingly. And yet domestiques are generally unknown to the public, and yet they sacrifice everything for their leader.

Could anybody deny that the role of the domestique adds a profound beauty to this extraordinary race? The Time’s sport’s writer, Matthew Syed, describes how it includes a moral dimension, the sense that teamwork and altruism can coexist alongside the Darwinian imperative of competitive sport. He adds a caveat by noting: insiders might say that I am romanticising the case — after all, many domestiques receive a share of the prize money and some have ambitions one day to become a general-classification contender, the queen bee among the drones. But that should not detract from the symbolism of these remarkable men. They prove that glory, while important, is not everything. They prove that there is honour in being a foot soldier and nobility in contributing to a team effort. Perhaps, in that, they provide a lesson about life.

Although we know so little about Bartholomew we know he was one of the faithful followers of Christ, one of the many in the early church who experienced persecution. Yet amid oppression, they blessed, endured, they served and they and spoke kindly.

The faithful facing of such turbulence can spring only from a profoundly Christ-focused character. There were better-known disciples like Peter who have their moments of shambles and success recorded for posterity. Bartholomew is different. Like one of the faithful cycling domestique, he remains unremarked, subsumed in the phrase ‘the twelve’, perhaps naturally reticent - one of the steady, faithful, and reliable people who stay out of the limelight, but get on with things none the less.
There have been millions of such faithful people through the ages. Whoever these foot soldiers or domestique may be, St Bartholomew's Day gives us a chance to celebrate their inclusion and to be invited to follow their example of living without fuss, but with enormous fidelity. We must remember too that we can't just be spectators in the Christian faith; our baptism means we are called to serve, that we must follow Bartholomew’s example of unmarked yet remarkable heroism.

As we heard in today’s Gospel, among disciples arguing about who was the hero, who was greatest: ‘The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.’ To be a Christian is to live out a sacrificial heroism, committing like those Tour de France athletes to a lifetime’s striving, but not for worldly glory, rather for Christ-like compassion, love, justice and peace. We can all be heroes if we, like Bartholomew, are numbered among that great company of saints who have striven on behalf of the sad, the lost, the lonely and the marginalised. To that service, Jesus calls us anew this St Bartholomew’s Day. May his prayers help us to live out that vocation, to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice