Sermon by Kenneth Padley in St Michael’s St Albans 25th August 2019
Saints of God! Lo, Jesu’s people
Age to age your glory tell;
In his name for us ye laboured,
Now in bliss eternal dwell.
Twelve poor men, by Christ anointed,
Braved the rich, the wise, the great,
All the world counts dear rejecting,
Rapt in their apostolate.
Thus to earth their death-wounds witnessed,
Hallowed by the blood therefrom,
On her bosom bore the nations,
Laved, illumined, Christendom.
On this day, almighty Father,
May we praise thee with the Son,
Evermore his love confessing,
Who from Both with Both is One.
Immediately before this morning’s gospel, we sang a hymn about the saints – about Jesus’ twelve disciples in particular. But did you spot the particular saint who is hidden in the hymn? Pick up the sheet again and have another look. The words can be sung on any saint’s day but they were written for Saint Bartholomew, a disciple whose feast fell yesterday. Look at the first letter of each line and you will see that the poem is an acrostic, each line beginning with a letter from his name, S-A-I-N-T-B-A-R- and so on.
This literary conceit is appropriate for Bartholomew because Bartholomew is very much a hidden saint. He’s one of those early followers of Jesus about whom we know very little. His name occurs only four times in the New Testament. It is buried in the list of disciples, alongside the other eleven. He is sometimes identified with Nathaniel in John chapter 1, with whom Jesus has a dialogue, but assuming that this is just a later conflation we actually know nothing about Bartholomew.
We know so little about this man’s identity that we do not even know his real name. This is because ‘Bartholomew’ simply means ‘Son of Tolmai’. He seemingly made such little impact that he was known only as his father’s son. He was a bystander, a figure in the crowd, a nobody.
Despite knowing so little about Bartholomew – indeed perhaps because the Bible says so little about him – extensive and lurid speculation developed in the early Church around his ministry after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Bartholomew was said to have travelled to Armenia and even to India. This would make him one of the earliest missionaries to the east. Of course, to the westerners writing his hagiographical myth, India was an unknown and mysterious place, entirely fitting for a disciple about whom they had no factual information.
And then we come to Bartholomew’s death. A vengeful pagan king is said to have had Bartholomew flayed alive. The saint’s skin was peeled off before he was finally beheaded. Now this is the sort of fate which makes a chap noteworthy, a gruesome end to capture the public imagination. Perhaps Bartholomew’s dramatic death starts to explain why, despite his obscurity, 165 churches were dedicated to his memory in medieval England alone. It certainly explains why he was popular as a patron among tanners, shoemakers, even bookbinders – pretty much any sort of artisan who worked with skin.
Countless painters, stained glass artists and sculptors – down to the contemporary Damien Hirst – have depicted Bartholomew with the knife that flayed him or, better still, with skin dangling from his arms and side. In death, and through art, the obscure apostle has become visible, stepping into the limelight for the first and only time. Stripped to the bone, the presence of Bartholomew the martyr demands our attention.
Tragically we know that it is moments of atrocity, suffering and death which grab the public focus more than the everyday events of humdrum lives. It is the stuff which feeds the 24-hour rolling news channels.
Coincidentally, the feast of Bartholomew, 24th August, became the backdrop for two historic outrages. The first was the St Bartholomew’s Massacre in 1572. The setting was a great Parisian wedding. It was a wedding destined to go wrong, a celebration turned catastrophe, worse than the recent terrorist assault at a marriage in Kabul, worse than the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. The marriage in question had meant to unite the Catholic and Protestant factions of the French nobility. However, suspicions were running high and the royal faction ordered a pre-emptive strike. Troops slaughtered Protestant nobles and ordinary Parisians joined the bloodbath. Perhaps 5000 Huguenot Protestants were murdered.
And then, exactly ninety years later, there was another and much more genteel British disaster. Charles II had been restored to the throne and Royalists sought revenge on the puritans who had flourished under Oliver Cromwell. The result was an iron reimposition of bishops on the national Church. Any vicars who during the Civil Wars had not been ordained by a bishop were forced to be reordained by Bartholomew’s Day 1662 or lose their livings. Many felt this as an insult and more than 2,500 clergy + their congregations chose to walk away from the national Church. This Great Ejection (as they saw it) on Black Bartholomew’s Day (as they called it) marked the foundation of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches in this country. It also had the effect of turning the Church of England into one faction among many.
We too, in our own age, know a little of what it is to be pared back, flayed of all that makes us human, times when we are drained and have nothing to offer – nothing to do, nothing to be. Think of those times when you have felt incapable, a bystander in a greater drama.
Sometimes we feel pared back, flayed of all that makes us human. And this, of course, was the occasion in which Bartholomew found courage to bear witness, to stand up and say, despite it all, I am a Christian. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish eco-warrior, has authored a book called No one is too Small to make a Difference. St Bartholomew, the invisible Son of Tolmai, would agree.
Let me give you an example. I was grabbed as few years ago by an interview with Helen Bamber, a woman who dedicated her life to advocacy and rehabilitation of the victims of torture. In the interview, Bamber described the origins of her work when, as a young woman, she entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of the Second World War.
“When I was working there among the survivors of that whole terrible system of annihilation, I realised for the first time, in the face of my own helplessness, that the survivors of man’s inhumanity to man, then and today, require a witness.
“To have a witness is very, very important. Once I realised that, I felt better able to offer the very little I could. I remember one woman – sitting, rocking with her – and saying, ‘I can’t change history. I cannot bring back your dead. I can be your witness. I can tell your story, and the world will hear it. It will be known.’”
Bamber’s words bring out the power in the face of powerlessness which testimony can offer. They commend to us the work of journalists, researchers and all those with an open and honest desire to discover and share the truth.
To be a martyr is to be a witness. That is what the word means. And to be a martyr is to be a witness to the future. Such was the death of Bartholomew – whoever he was. And such is the testimony of our faith, hope and love despite (and in the face) of evil and brokenness.