Today we remember a saint about whom we know next to nothing. Bartholomew is listed in the first three gospels as being one of the apostles. John doesn’t mention him, but then John is not that interested in the 12 as such. Some think that Nathanael who is mentioned in John is the same person, just with two names, but I’m not convinced. He might be but the fact that Bartholomew is not mentioned is not in itself sufficient reason for assuming they are the same person. As an apostle he was present at various stages of Jesus’ ministry and would have been sent out on missions. He was therefore an eyewitness and we are left wondering if those who are named in the gospels are named because they were known to the earliest Christian church. Their mention in the gospels would then be an appeal for the authenticity of the accounts. These people were there, so what we are talking about is based on their reputation. We have now lost all other references to Bartholomew and a number of the others similarly named, and are only left with the shadow of their presence in their names being mentioned in the text. Bartholomew is one of these shadow people.
There is a tradition that Bartholomew went to India and founded a church there. The 5th century Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, mentions another tradition of Bartholomew having taught in Asia Minor. Presumably there was something local that was associated with him. Despite these traditions his is still a very patchy record and rather thin on detail to say the least. He therefore stands for the countless millions of followers of Jesus whose deeds and activities have shaped the heritage of faith that we have, but we do not have a record of what they did. Most of us will fall into that category. We will be unknown to history but nonetheless the passing on of faith and influence that we give will be a brick on the road and a light that flickers in the darkness.
Bartholomew is said to have been martyred by either being flayed alive and/or being beheaded. The latter gives him a topical feel with events this week in Syria and the brutal beheading of the American photographer and journalist James Foley. Beheading sounds like something from a violent and gruesome past, and thankfully to us it is, but according to a report in the Independent yesterday 19 people have been executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of August. It is by no means unusual in certain parts of the world.
We like to think that martyrdom is something from past centuries too, but it is all too current. There is a movement at the moment to display the Arabic equivalent of the letter ‘N’ and we have the poster on our noticeboard outside with the statement ‘We Are N’. As the note in our pew sheet says, ‘N’ stands for the equivalent Arabic letter, which has been daubed on the homes of Christians (often called 'Nasrani' in Arabic) in Mosul to identify them as targets for persecution or execution, rather like the Nazis identified Jews in the Second World War. Nasrani stands for people who follow the Nazarene, that is Jesus of Nazareth. This symbol has been picked up around the world as a way in which we can identify with those from all religious and ethnic communities who are being targeted by the extremist group called ‘Islamic State’, IS. But being named after ‘N’, the Nazarene, Jesus, is an honour and it is indeed the name we follow and are proud to be identified by. This is the flickering light that we shine with them in the darkness. We are turning a label for abuse and persecution into a badge of honour. This is because the name of Jesus is the name we honour above all names, so all who follow Christ are ‘N’. “We are N.” We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering and also all our brothers and sisters in humanity who are suffering. We do this because it is a fundamental to respect all people.
While presiding at the Eucharist during the week I was struck by a phrase in the post communion prayer for the past week. It prayed that people of every race and language will be gathered to share in the eternal banquet of Christ (Trinity 9). The aim we have is not to destroy others but draw all around the same celebration table. It is a desire to be drawn and bound closer together not pushed apart or to annihilate anyone who is different. The differences between us are profound at times, but where the desire is this greater union and cohesion, we have a common ground on which we can build. We bring together our flickering lights in the darkness and light always fills darkness. I am pleased when I hear Muslims saying they disown the actions of the extremists who claim their name, who shame their name. These are voices we need to hear more from and our media need to give them greater airtime.
Dying for faith is not in itself the central point with martyrs. It is how this happens and what someone is doing when they die. What is it about their witness that makes them worth remembering and counting as an example rather than just noting their death? What is the light they shine for us? The ones who have the most influence are the ones who proclaim the gospel of peace over one of hatred. What can we learn from them that inspires us today?
One inspirational figure is a Muslim professor of law at Mosul University. Mahmoud Al ‘Asali said that the brutal attacks and duress Christians were being subjected to was against Islamic law. For this he was killed by the group IS (formerly ISIS) last month. A Muslim with courage to stand up for people of another faith. We should honour him with thanks and acknowledge his courage and his flickering light; a light that still shines out to us with hope for he stood with our fellow people of ‘Nasrani’.
We face a dark moment. That we have people in this country linked to the murders and who are known to support them means we need a concerted approach. We need all of good will, who know and stand for justice to stand together. We need all who can be flickering lights to shine in the darkness that peace, concord and a shared good will prevail.
We don’t know much about Bartholomew but he is remembered because he inspired others even though the stories of that inspiration are now largely lost in the shadows of time. The light though continues to travel in that even though he died for his faith that gospel of peace, good will and hope continues to this day. It continues because of the countless ‘shadow people’, not seen or named today but whose influence is felt. The brutality of Mosul will not extinguish the light today and we mustn’t let the hatred win either. There are many people of good will, of all faiths, and together we can find a way through. Dr Who last night brought together a surprising cast of strange aliens united in common purpose, together making a stand for unity, good will and concord, even in their differences. Bartholomew in his shadow portrait stands for those whose light is seen even though we don’t know them very well today. No one’s light is lost in this cause.
Sermon preaching at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th August 2014
Sermon preaching at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th August 2014