Nothing, really, is known about Bartholomew, who is mentioned in the list of disciples in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). While John does not even mention Bartholomew, the fourth gospel does however, refer to a Nathaniel. Many scholars conclude that Nathaniel and Bartholomew are the same person. Nathaniel is present at the shore of Lake Tiberius in John 21, on hand when our Lord Jesus appears in John a final time. Bartholomew, one tradition holds, was flayed alive and martyred, crucified upside down. He is so portrayed in Michelangelo’s (holding his own skin – gross) Sistine Chapel masterpiece The Last Judgment. Bartholomew, though seemingly a “lesser” disciple, has a legend that endures.
Bartholomew is definitely not considered a “first-tier” apostle like James, John, Peter, and Andrew. He has no major storyline in any of the gospels, only a moment of introduction to Jesus by Philip (if he is also the Nathaniel of John’s Gospel). Bartholomew is, for me, a friendly and powerful reminder that answering the call of Jesus does not typically bring us fame and fortune.
We can often ask, as I certainly do, “What is so special about me? How might the Savior of all the world, Jesus, use someone as broken, flawed, and seemingly insignificant as me to speak his truth and love into such a broken and struggling world?” The very magnitude of Jesus’ ministry can leave us feeling small, helpless, and paralyzed when faced with the call to be his love and blessing in the world.
I recently spent a week at a beach in North Carolina with my wife, children, and extended family. I was reminded of a sermon I gave many years ago, after a return from a similar trip. During that “beachtide” I gathered shells with the help of my youngest daughter, now sixteen, only a little girl then. Olivia and I decided we were not going to look for the “best” shells, the shells that were whole, but for the ones that were the most “imperfect.” We proceeded collecting broken shells, some only fragments of what must have originally been a magnificent specimen, holding inside it a wonderful creature of God. As we gathered more and more remnants of once intact shells, my daughter and I were mesmerized by the beauty and shapes of these sometimes small and always broken pieces. They were purple and blue, pink and white, black and grey and so smooth in our hands, worn by years of powerful tides and winds.
I repeated this collecting of broken shells on our most recent trip, and the feelings I had before returned. Yes, I am still awed after all these years in Christ’s facility with using the broken pieces of our lives, the uniqueness of our imperfect but powerful spirits to speak his love in the world. We are all broken; we are all far from the whole creations God made us to be. But because of God’s overflowing, endless, and mysterious love we are able to stand in the world and embrace the reality that we are loved by God.
We may feel small and insignificant like our Saint Bartholomew, but in God’s kingdom, we are all valued, loved beyond measure, and blessed eternally. We can share, with time and practice, God’s love with others who may not yet realize that they, too, are wonderfully made and precious to Almighty God.
Paul cries out to us in Corinthians, “To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless…When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly…” We may be challenged as people living in the world, especially now, with the ravages of COVID, racial injustice, and the loss of employment or a hundred different things. Yet, God would bless us and we, though unknown and perhaps unsung, like our forebear, Bartholomew, are God’s instruments in building a world more fully aware of God’s blessings.