1 Corinthians 12:27-21a
“Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
“But strive for the greater gifts…..”
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Christ’s incarnation informed Last Sunday’s sermon—and especially some of incarnation’s more troubling dimensions: like, for instance, Nazareth. Today’s Gospel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, yes: Jesus Nazareth, the crucified and risen Jew. But his goodness is not the whole story. A first century Jew, he bears some (if not all) the marks of racial, gender, and religious bias toward gentiles, women, and Pharisees. Last week, we heard that the incarnation of Christ involves everything human—even the ugly stuff. You may recall the Canaanite woman and Jesus referring to her and her people as “dogs” with whom it would be unfair to share the children (of Israel’s) bread; you may recall the woman’s subversive response to Christ’s offensive language; how she parries Jesus’ slur to reveal divine subversion in surprising terms: “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” God’s grace abounds even in ugliness.
The readings for St. Bartholomew’s Day advance the incarnation argument: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members.” Not only has God entered history as a human person, a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, says St. Paul, the baptized assembly of believers is the incarnate body of Christ. In other words, Christ’s incarnation is not diminished by death, but by his resurrection, is now extended in the Eucharistic assembly: “You are the body of Christ, and individual members.”
What does this have to do with St. Bartholomew? Last Wednesday’s Bible Study observed that none of today’s readings mention Bartholomew. Though unmentioned in John’s Gospel, Bartholomew is listed among the apostles in the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, and usually next to Philip. Why, then, not read from those citations? Moreover, in St. John’s Gospel, the person Philip found and told of Jesus is not named “Bartholomew,” but “Nathanael.” What gives?
Throughout the centuries, many have suspected that John’s Nathanael is Bartholomew in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. Be that as it may, as Professor Barrett might have said, whether named Bartholomew or Nathanael, the person in question was known to Jesus and associated with him.
Moreover, at least in John’s Gospel (as “Nathanael”), he exhibits a kind of brash courage. As he approaches, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” At this, (we shall call him “Bartholomew”) he inquires, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In astonished reply, Bartholomew says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus apparently finds such assertions surprising. He asks, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” He then promises, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
At least since St. Augustine, commentators have noted parallels between this saying and Genesis 28.12, “the angels of God ascending and descending” on Jacob’s ladder. That is, Augustine and others have noted the parallel between angels ascending and descending both in Jesus’ promise to Bartholomew and in Jacob’s dream. But it’s also remarkable that the Genesis dream includes these words, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants.” In addition to angels ascending and descending, both passages bear divine identity: in Genesis, the Lord (“I am” the God of your fathers) identifies himself to Jacob; and in John Bartholomew identifies Jesus as “Son of God” and “King of Israel,” that is, as “Messiah.” In other words, John seems to use the Genesis reference to confirm Bartholomew’s confession of Jesus as “Son of God” and “Messiah.” Moreover, the citation may argue that the God of all creation enters human life and history at precarious times, and by unlikely means: Jacob, fleeing his brother’s wrath; Jesus of Nazareth suffering rejection and crucifixion.
Bartholomew was apparently well acquainted with Christ’s precarious life. Some traditions hold that he was martyred in Armenia; flayed alive, and crucified upside down (some say he may have been beheaded). In any case, by his suffering, and death, Bartholomew bore witness to Jesus of Nazareth: “the Son of God,” and “Messiah of Israel.” Tradition also says that Bartholomew made it all the way to India and there preached Christ before suffering martyrdom. Over the centuries, various relics of Bartholomew’s mutilated body found their way into the faith and devotion of the medieval church. So that, whether in Canterbury (an arm), or in Frankfurt (fragments of skull), or Rome (remaining members) Christians have venerated Bartholomew as an example of faithful courage and witness to the crucified Jesus of (unlikely!) Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Astonishingly, yes: the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, at length, the church.
What does it mean to be the church? What does it mean to be an apostle? What does it mean to be a Christian? If Jesus of Nazareth is both “Son of God,” “King of Israel” (Messiah), it means the church is the body of Christ enfleshed in us for the sake of the world. If Jesus of Nazareth is the crucified and risen “Son of God” and Messiah, Paul says the church is more than a club, more than a religious organization. If Jesus of Nazareth is “the Son of God” and the “Messiah of Israel,” then the Church is not only the collective body of Christ; the Apostle says we—you and I—are individual members of Christ—we—you and I—are members of Christ’s crucified and risen body. By means of our flesh, our witness, our action, our behavior, our prayers, our service, our song, our kneeling and receiving bread and wine that Jesus Christ is incarnate for the life of the whole inhabited world. Something good can come out of Nazareth! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.