January 15, 2012

ON NATHANAEL BARTHOLOMEW

                 Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                          at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie on 15 January 2012

                                                                Reading for the Gospel: John 1: 43-51

 

Perhaps it is because the parish church that I attended when I was a boy was named for Saint Bartholomew, and that when a new stained glass window was put into the empty space over the altar, to replace one that had been blown out by the blast from a Luftwaffe bomb during the blitz, it depicted Bartholomew sitting under a fig tree holding a barber’s razor, that I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this particular apostle of our Lord.  It was explained to us back then that the Nathanael of this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to John, and the Bartholomew in the other Gospels, were one and the same.  Nathanael was his given name and Bartholomew was his patronymic.  How true that explanation might be is open to discussion, but nevertheless I for one liked it as a boy, and by and large, I still accept it.

We can conjecture who might have given him the name Nathanael.  Nathanael is a Hebrew name – Nathan means gift and El means God. Is Nathanael a gift from God or a gift offered to God?  Let us put that another way.  Should we see him as a gift offered by God to the Church and the mission of the Church, or is he a person who offered himself to God and the mission of the Church?  As he is portrayed in this morning’s reading he is a man blessed or cursed with a certain amount of prejudice.  Was he merely quoting a popular adage when he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”?  Did Nazareth have such a bad reputation, or is this an example of what might be called racial profiling in today’s terms? 

Then Jesus follows Philip into Nathanael’s front yard, where he sees him resting under the fig tree.  And what did Jesus say?  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  We are so familiar with this story that we might miss something of the humour or the irony in the words of Jesus.  It was, and perhaps still is, the dream of many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern men, including the men of Israel, to spend their retirement days just resting in the cool of their front yard in the shade of a fig tree and a pistachio, planted either side of the pathway to their front door.  To reach such a state of blessedness in former times one had to have lived a pure life, or so it was claimed.  Jesus’ words reflect that popular notion about old men resting in their gardens, much as Nathanael’s words reflected the prejudices popularly held against people from Nazareth. 

But there is a lot more to be discerned behind the words of Jesus.  If Nathanael is a rare representative of Israelites in whom there is truly no deceit, what does that say about the majority of the Israelites and Jews of the days of Jesus?  Might there not lie behind Jesus’ humorous and ironic words the notion that most of his contemporaries were not like Nathanael?  Later in his ministry he was to liken supposedly respectable Jewish leaders to white-washed sepulchres, tombs distempered over to give them a nice appearance although they were the repositories of deadness.  What we might well have here is a recognition on the part of Jesus that here was a man, who despite what others might think of him, was truly a gift from God, a Nathanael, and one that Jesus could use effectively for God in the mission that would later be given by him through the Holy Spirit to the Church.  Ancient tradition has it that Bartholomew took the faith and the Bible, or at least the Gospel of Matthew, to India, and that he died a martyr in Armenia. 

If what we have been taught over the years is indeed correct, that Nathanael and Bartholomew are one and the same, then the words of Jesus are even more ironic.  Nathanael might well be a Hebrew word, but the patronymic that he bore reveals that he was not an Israelite by descent.  Bar means “son of” in Hebrew, but the name of the man of whom he was the son is not Hebrew, at least not originally.  Tholomew was the nearest an English transcriber could get to the Greek version of how Hebrew-speakers uttered the Egyptian name Ptolemy.  Nathanael’s mother might have been an Israelite, which would have made him technically an Israelite, but his father was probably an Egyptian. What is significant about all this is that the first person, according to the Fourth Gospel, to recognize Jesus for who he really was and is was one who was not a descendant of Jacob or Israel, but an Egyptian’s son.  And there is something else ironic about all this, and that is the last Pharaoh of Egypt, the brother-husband of Cleopatra, had been named Ptolemy.

Were the Synoptic evangelists playing with the minds of their readers when they called this apostle Bartholomew, the Son of Ptolemy?  It had been an ancient Pharaoh who had refused to recognize the sovereignty of the God of Israel in the time of Moses.  Here we have a man, bearing the name of the last Pharaoh, although not necessarily of Egyptian royal blood, being the first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God!  Truly such a man might well be regarded by Jesus, or his apostles, as a Nathanael, a gift from God.

How often we miss recognizing the Nathanaels, those who are gifts of God, among us!  And even a Nathanael may miss a Nathanael!  After all, the Nathanael of the Gospel reading allowed a common prejudice to get in the way of seeing Jesus for who he was at first.  Far too often, far too many of us, for reasons that we might not wish to own up to, are all too ready to dismiss a fellow believer who is not like us.  We all too readily look at the outside and do not see what lies in the inner potential of a person.  Oh how glibly we will say that you cannot judge a book by its cover, and then turn right around and judge other people by their outward appearance, be it their ethnicity, their culture, their language or some other merely accidental characteristic of their being.

I was born in rural Southern England, and I was immersed at a very early age in all the biases and snap prejudices of a child brought up in that era and that environment.  It was somewhat akin to living on an island of perpetual bigotry.  Of course men were more important than women – why that is in the Bible, or so it was thought.  Englishmen were better than everybody else, after all the British Empire covered nearly a quarter of the world’s land surface, as the pink bits on any map indicated, and Britannia ruled the waves, and we lived in the Land of Hope and Glory!  Only wretched foreigners did not speak English and we all knew that the Word of God, the Authorised Version of the Bible was in English!  But this was not just England, this was Southern England, and we all knew in the south that anyone born north of the Thames was born in Eskimo country!  They spoke English, yes, but it was with an accent!  Need I go on?  I think you get the picture.  

For years I was taught to think and speak like Nathanael before he met Jesus, or before Jesus met him.  And I guess that most of us were brought up in a similar manner within our own cultures.  I have travelled far and wide and I have seen similar behavior in most cultures, and have been on the receiving end of remarks similar to “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’  At one point in my career I had to supervise two Iraqis.  They were far from their native land, but they behaved just like two Englishmen from different parts of England.  One was a Kurdish Shi’ite Muslim from northern Iraq, and the other was a Nestorian Christian from the south.  They thoroughly detested each other, and about the only thing that they had in common was a prejudice.  They both hated Saddam Hussein, and their reason for doing so was that he was perceived by them both as a Sunni! 

Some of us wonder if human beings will ever learn to open the book and see what is hidden between the covers.  Occasionally, very occasionally, a figure comes along who takes to heart very seriously the implications of our racist, sexist, ageist, cultural, linguistic prejudices.  Such a person dares to be different from his or her upbringing and reaches out across the artificial barriers that in our narrowness of thinking we build up around ourselves.  A few, a very few, will gather around them men (and these days women) whom they see as the Nathanaels of their time.  Like Jesus, whose twelve closest disciples bore names that were Greek and Egyptian as well as Hebrew, they take seriously the teaching of the Beatitudes.  They turn the other cheek.  They are reviled, even by followers of God who read their Bibles, and yet they do not seek redress for themselves, but they will go out of their way and their own comfort zone to reach out on behalf of others who are reviled.  And, like Jesus, their lot may well be to meet an untimely and violent end, often at the hands of those whom they seek to help. 

At this time of the year many of us recall with thanksgiving the life and witness and words of Martin Luther King, one of many who down through the centuries  have recognized Nathanaels in their midst and have been a Nathanael to their contemporaries.  But I would dare to suggest that recalling someone with thanksgiving should not lead to reverence as so often it has in the past for other Nathanaels.  I still have in my mind’s eye that stained glass window at Saint Bartholomew’s Parish Church in the small town in which I grew up.  There is Nathanael Bartholomew, but he is in the panel at the bottom right.  As I said, he is holding a barber’s razor, for legend has it that he was martyred by being flayed alive, at a place called Albanopolis, literally White City, in Armenia, which is a much more painful end than the assassin’s bullet.  But he is not the focus of the window.  His eyes are drawn to the figure in the central panel of the window, the crucified Christ, the same one whom Nathanael had been the first to recognize as the Son of God. 

Yes, let us recognize with thankfulness the martyrs of all eras who have borne their witness to the Son of God in their eras, but never let us take our eyes off the one who died for our sins, who was reviled but never reviled, who turned the other cheek, and gave his back to the smiters, who gave his body and his blood in order that we might live as one, not in our own personal little islands of prejudice and hatred, but with eyes open to see the Nathanael, the gift of God, in each other no matter from where that Nathanael has come.