Sermon for the Feast of St. Bartholomew
Proverbs 3:1-7 + 2 Corinthians 4:7-10 + Luke 22:24-30
(Front cover of service insert: St. Bartholomew (referred to by St. John as Nathanael), one of the twelve apostles, was from Cana in Galilee. He was one of the early disciples of Jesus, invited by Philip to come and see “the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth” (Jn. 1:45). At first skeptical because of Jesus’ home in Nazareth, Bartholomew was immediately convinced by Jesus’ word and made a bold confession of faith, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn. 1:49). According to some early Church Fathers, Bartholomew took the Gospel first to India, where he left them a copy of the Gospel according to St. Matthew; then to Armenia, where some say he was beheaded, while others claim he was skinned alive and then crucified upside down. Regardless of how he died, we celebrate St. Bartholomew’s day in thankfulness to God for the faithful witness of Bartholomew and of all who have served and suffered in the Office of the Holy Ministry so that the kingdom of Christ may be extended.)
If you read the front cover of the service insert this morning, you know what the legends are surrounding the martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. They may be true, or at least there may be some truth to them. But honestly, it shouldn’t matter to us. It didn’t take long after the death of the apostles for Christians to begin glamorizing and sensationalizing the Church on earth, and especially the history of her apostles and bishops and clergy in general. It led to an unhealthy focus on men and their great achievements, even if those achievements included facing an especially horrific death. How foolish. The kingdom of Christ has never been about exalting men. It’s about Christ. It’s always been about Christ, Christ and His suffering for our sins, Christ and His resurrection from the dead. And it’s always been about the Word of Christ. Whether or not the legends are true about Bartholomew or any of the apostles, the word of Christ that they proclaimed is true. The Christ to whom they bore witness and for whom they gave their lives is true.
That Christ, on the same night in which He was betrayed, taught His disciples a valuable lesson about what it means to be a Christian, and specifically, what it means to hold an ordained office within His kingdom, within His Church; what it means to occupy the office of Christ, the office of the holy ministry. It means serving as Christ served, and it means suffering here in this world, as Christ also suffered.
We’re told that, on that Maundy Thursday, soon after Jesus had established the New Testament in His blood and instituted the Lord’s Supper, right after announcing to His disciples that He would be betrayed by one of them, they started arguing with one another—first, about who the betrayer would be. But then, they started arguing about which of them was the greatest, which one was the most important, which one should be able to give orders to the rest.
So Jesus very patiently instructs them about what it means to hold office in His kingdom. It’s very different than holding office in the secular realm. The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Now, understand, this isn’t a bad thing. There is a secular realm, established by God, and God approves of it. In the kingdoms of this world, in the secular government, there are kings, lords, rulers, governors whose office it is to rule, to give orders, to force those beneath them into obedience using the strength of their authority. The earthly authorities have power, some more than others. They hold the power of the sword, and that, not in vain, but to punish the evildoer and to protect the righteous. Those who rule well and give orders well and govern well in the secular realm are called benefactors—doers of good. They are generally rewarded in this life with glory and fame. Those with earthly authority often live in mansions and are treated with reverence and get to be served by others. That’s generally the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong with it, in and of itself.
But that’s the secular realm. That’s earthly authority and worldly power. Christ’s kingdom—the Church—is much different. Not so among you, Jesus said to His disciples. On the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. Christ has a kingdom that’s separate from the State. In it, He alone reigns as King, and He has, through His Church, set certain men into offices of authority in His kingdom. Like Bartholomew. Like the other apostles. Like their successors—all who hold the office of the holy ministry. But unlike in the secular realm, all office-holders in the Church are equal, with the same authority. Unlike in the secular realm, office-holders in the Church are not given the sword, are not given the right to use force or physical threats to get people to do things. Instead, they are given only the Word of God, to preach, teach, correct, rebuke, encourage, to threaten sinners with God’s wrath, and to comfort the penitent with God’s forgiveness. Unlike in the secular realm, the greatness of the office-holders in the Church is not in exercising authority, but in serving, as Christ served.
For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.
How did Christ serve? He didn’t live in a mansion, or have people waiting on Him hand and foot. Instead, He devoted His life to serving mankind. Serving, not by taking orders from people and doing whatever they wanted Him to do, but by giving His life to the people and for the people, by saying what they needed to hear, even when it hurt their feelings, even when it hurt His own popularity. He served, not by the power of the sword, but by the power of the Word. He identified sin, and rebuked and condemned it. He showed the people God’s grace and love in sending His Son into the world to be a sacrifice for sin, once for all. He walked into the hands of those who hated Him and gave His life to make atonement for our sins. He did it all in service to mankind, which includes you and me. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. The chastisement that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
Now, Christ says to His dear disciples, all those who hold office in My kingdom must serve, as I served, and will suffer, as I suffered. If you’re looking for earthly splendor, for a comfortable life, for the praise of men, then seek it somewhere else. You can’t have that in My kingdom. Yes, of course, there have been countless priests and pastors in the world who have not been faithful to Christ’s Word, who have told lies in Christ’s name, who have sought earthly greatness, who have not used their authority in the Church to serve God’s people, but rather to serve themselves. To them, Christ will say on the Last Day, “Depart from Me. I never knew you.” But those who carry out their ministry well in Christ’s kingdom will have trouble, toil, and often ingratitude in this life. So be it. That’s the ministry that Christ instituted.
St. Paul’s life as an office-holder in the Church was a striking illustration of Jesus’ words. You heard in the Epistle of the service and the sufferings of Paul, together with his fellow ministers. The weakness of Christ’s ministers only serves to highlight the treasure of the cross of Christ and the power of God in gathering a kingdom to Himself, not by force or compulsion, but only by the power of His Word.
But, who would submit to such a life—to hold the office of Christ, to shun earthly glory and comfort, to live a life of humble service and to suffer in this ministry? Hear again the promise Jesus attached to this ministry: But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials.
And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me,
that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. You are those who have been with Me in My trials. You are those who have seen Me suffer as a result of My ministry. You know what it will be like for you. You get to be like Me. Like Me in sufferings. But also like Me in glory. For all your trouble, toil, and earthly misfortune, you get a kingdom, the authority to reign, not separately from Me, but together with Me. But not in this world. Not here. Here you serve. Here you do not rule and reign and sit at the table. But there, in the next life, you will. You will sit with Me at My table. You will have thrones there, to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.
It was this promise that sustained Bartholomew and all the apostles in all their future hardships, and finally, in their martyrdom. It’s this promise that sustains all faithful pastors and preachers. And actually, it’s this promise that sustains the hearers of the Word, as well. Because, while not all Christians are office-holders in the Church, all Christians are clothed with Christ and called by the name of Christ. All Christians are called to serve one another in love. All Christians are children of God, and coheirs with Christ, and fellow sharers in the sufferings of Christ. As Paul said, not to the pastors in Rome, but to all the Christians in Rome, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.”
So the promise to sit with Christ at His table is for all believers in Christ. The promise of an end to earthly shame and suffering and of an eternal banquet of glory and peace is for all who walk by the Spirit, who persevere in faith until the end.
Until the end, Christ continues to serve His whole Church through the mouths and hands of weak, sinful men. That’s what this office of the ministry is for in the first place, not to exalt the minister, but to serve Christ’s holy people and to hold out to them the Word of life, the water of life, and the New Testament in the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. This office of Christ is the way He has chosen to serve you here on this earth, to teach you, to correct you, to forgive, comfort, and strengthen you. Don’t take His ministry for granted or allow the other items on your long to-do list to bump Christ’s ministry down out of first place, where it belongs. Instead, rejoice that Christ wants to serve you and guide you through this life and feed your soul for eternal life.
Let us give thanks to God today, first for the service and the sufferings of Christ, our only Savior, and then also for the service and sufferings of Bartholomew and of all Christ’s chosen ministers throughout the ages who have borne the office of Christ faithfully. The best way to thank God for these gifts is to make use of these gifts, to the glory of Christ Jesus, and to the edification of His holy Church. Amen.