+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.
There is very little we know for certain about the details of the life of St. Bartholomew, yet this is not an uncommon phenomenon. For many of the Apostles, the particulars of their personalities, work, and ministries on either side of Christ’s Ascension have not been recorded or are a matter of lore. For St. Bartholomew and for many of his colleagues we know mainly this: that when Jesus spoke to them and said, “Follow me,” they showed us what it looks like to say yes and follow Him.
In its Greek origin, the term “martyr” means “witness.” We commonly associate the word with the event of someone dying for the sake of faithfulness to a person or an ideology. In the news as of late, we have heard profound and startling accounts of our brothers and sisters overseas who have remained faithful to Christ even to the death. As Christians we believe that our lives are lived under the sign of the cross, that we are shaped by the pattern established by Christ in which we live, work, suffer, and die in Him that we might rise again to the joy of the resurrected world with Him. Martyrs are witnesses, they testify to the reality of the Kingdom of God through their lives in the world. Those martyrs who die for this testimony establish an especially robust sign of this conviction. Even more so did St. Bartholomew, whose eyewitness knowledge and certainty of the legitimacy of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension led him to die for what he knew to be true. The Christian idea of martyrdom, though, is so robust that it moves outward from the point of death to assume the whole of life. All Christians are called to live out a type of martyrdom in their daily lives, one characterized by self-denial and discipline, by renunciation and simplicity, and by putting to death the temptations to sin as they come to us. This is not to suggest that there is not a difference between the common acts of self-denial to which we are all called and the experience of our brothers and sisters who even in this century are being put to the sword for their faith. Neither should we fall into the bad habit of persecution-mongering, where we unnaturally seek out persecution from others to gratify some inordinate desire. Martyrdom is not about being a hero, and it is not about indulging in self-pity. At its core, martyrdom is about life, the life of the world to come, a life so good and beautiful that it is worth using everything within our grasp, even the gifts of our bodies and mortal lives to attain it.
A life shaped by martyrdom is difficult to live, though, because it testifies to the order of God’s Kingdom in an often disordered world. This is the heart of the problem in our Gospel lesson. St. Luke records a quarrel among the Apostles over who will be the greatest in the kingdom they thought Jesus was about to bring about by conquering the Romans. It is a struggle common to us all. How many times do we consider how we rank among our peers in our jobs or in school, or perhaps even among the people sitting on either side of us at Church? By what rubric do we judge our relative superiority or inferiority? It’s probably not that different from the Apostles. We often judge ourselves and others by some measure of success arising from quantities of goods or accolades, in Church by perceived piety or volume of ministries. Yet our Lord gives us a very different rubric in his admonition to the Apostles: “He that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve…I am among you as he that serveth.” Greatness in the Kingdom of God is attained only through service and humility. Power is granted only to those whose lives are shaped habitually by the love for God and for one another. To live in the way of Christ is to follow Him in humility and simplicity on the path to resurrection and glory.
The Anglican poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless.” Humility is the proper recognition of ourselves before God and among others. In other words, it is the honest acknowledgment of what we are. The virtue of humility is at the heart of martyrdom. It teaches us to esteem God so appropriately that we recognize how much all things pale in comparison to Him. It teaches us to see others in both strength and weakness as those stamped with the image of God and thus possessing dignity and lovability. Humility leads us to an assessment of our relative weakness to follow after Christ and to live in His way, and leads us to rely on His power, His gifts, and His Church. When we do this, we will see what was seen among the Apostles in Acts: life lived of one accord and signs of the Kingdom in our midst. This is martyrdom: the Kingdom in our midst as a testimony of the Kingdom to come.
The relative historical obscurity of the life of St. Bartholomew reminds us that the recording of our deeds so as to be heroically remembered is not the point. The details are known to God, and precious in His sight is the death of His saints. For us, there is a lifetime to live in the love of God and neighbor through the exercise of humility. In so doing we testify to the Kingdom, we make ready our martyrdom. At some point, all of us will have to make a final offering of our lives. For some of us, it may be through the extreme circumstances of persecution. For the rest of us it will be through the daily habit of conversation and communion with God so that we may, by His grace, make a good end. The witness of the martyrs calls us back to the exhortation at the heart of all Christian life: “be a saint—what else is there?”
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.