Singing a song of the saints of GodThere are hundreds of thousands still; The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea; For the Saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.
John 1:43-51The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.“Come and see,” said Philip.When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”
For a number of years, I served at a church named St. Bartholomew’s. I’m reminded of that church today, the Feast of St. Bartholomew. Some churches make a big deal about the saint for which the church is named. At St. Bart’s, we didn’t make much of the observance. Partly because it fell at the end of August when many of our folks (including clergy) were on vacation. We also downplayed the day, because the truth is we don’t know a lot about this saint.
There’s a hymn created for use on saint’s days. It has an intro and closing stanza, but then some stanzas pertinent to any number of saints. You can plug in that stanza for your feast day. Customized hymn. Great idea. Here’s the stanza for St. Bartholomew:
Praise for the blest Nathaniel, surnamed Bartholomew;
We know not his achievements but know that he was true,
For he at the Ascension was an apostle still
May we discern your presence and seek, like him, your will.
I always get a chuckle out of this stanza, not only because the writer found a rhyme for Bartholomew. It essentially says that we don’t know anything about this guy, but because he gets mentioned in the gospels, we assume he was a pretty good guy. Apart from the rather gruesome way that he was martyred (I’m going to let you look that up on your own), we find almost no other information about Bartholomew in scripture.
As the hymn suggests (and some scholars doubt) Bartholomew and a character named Nathaniel may be one and the same. What we know about Nathaniel comes from the first chapter of John’s gospel (see column on the left). Jesus calls his first disciples and in the process, has an exchange with Nathaniel. Nathaniel’s friend, Philip, is all excited about meeting Jesus, the one promised by Moses and the prophets. He tells Nathaniel about Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel responds: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus soon meets Nathaniel and commends him for being a straight shooter.
Kudos to Nathaniel for his freedom to ask questions, bordering on impertinence. In that regard, he reminds me of many Episcopalians. I love that his story is preserved in scripture. He models honest, holy conversations. And he discovered what we all must learn: God can handle our hard questions, our skepticism. We need not try to hide or disguise them, as if God didn’t know we had them.
Then join me in thinking about that question: Can anything good come from Nazareth? How do you translate that question into your own context? I suspect we all find it easy to put people into categories, to help us make sense of the world. We all have preconceived notions of how God can work, or what kind of people God can use. We are tempted to limit that group. We may be totally surprised by who might be our teachers, our guides. I’ve had Episcopalians look down their noses at folks from other denominations, even those that are clearly attracting many people. I’ve had evangelicals tell me that Episcopalians don’t love Jesus as much as they do. We may be inclined to look in the mirror and wonder: Can anything good come out of me, out of my life? Can God work in my shambles of a life?
Let’s let Jesus answer. He said that children could be our teachers. He noted that a hated Roman centurion had more faith than anyone he had met in Israel. He indicated that the most educated religious scholars of his day were blind guides. He commended a foreign woman for audacious faith. He held up despised lepers as models of gratitude. He told a thief on the cross that he would join him in paradise.
And then there’s this quiet, unsung saint, Bartholomew or Nathaniel or whoever he was. He teaches us that God’s saving work for all people for all time can begin in podunk, backwater towns. It can happen through the most unlikely people.
Even you and me. Celebrate that this Monday. Live into it.