Sermon at St James, Colwall, Trinity 12, 2015
Acts 5.12-16; Luke 22.24-30
Even if you happened to be here last year at this time, I’m sure you will have forgotten my talking about St Bartholomew the Apostle whose festival day it is today. However, you might remember that bit of doggerel I quoted, “O blessed Saint Bartholomew, how little there is we know of you.” With that out of the way I want to see if we can go a bit further in understanding what Bartholomew – or any of the apostles – might mean for people like us.
To do this, you need two bits of information. First bit: apostle is a title which Christians use to describe a person with a specific function. The word comes from the Greek (because the New Testament was written in Greek). That word is ἀποστέλλειν (apostellein) and it means “to send out, to send forth” a message, or a person - or a press statement. So an apostle is someone who is commissioned with a task, to carry a message, or to communicate news or ideas.
The second bit of information you need is this. Christianity is both like and unlike other religions. Each religion has features which make it distinctive. The two most distinctive features of Christianity are that it is apocalyptic and eschatological. You won’t be surprised that these words are also derived from Greek, though you’ll hear “apocalyptic” used inaccurately in quite a few contexts. For example, two old films, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Apocalypse Now use it to describe situations of extreme conflict and total war, and I’ve heard it used recently about Daesh in Syria and Iraq. It’s a graphic way of referring to matters almost beyond human comprehension – but actually they’re using it inaccurately. Anyone who has looked at the Apocalypse in the Bible – other versions call it the Book of Revelation – will realise that an apocalyptic religion like Christianity is a religion that believes in revelation. Specifically, Christians believe that God has always been revealing God’s self and God’s will throughout history; that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are a supreme revelation of God; and that God goes on revealing - to people who are willing to hear and to see - what is God’s will for our world and for us in it.
The word that those film makers should have used is the other Greek word – eschatological. The word refers to whatever lies beyond human history. It means “words or thinking about Last Things and Last Times, or the End Time”. So you could say that Hitler had an eschatological vision with his thousand-year Reich; or that Pol Pot, who also killed millions and tried to end history and start again with his Year Zero, had an eschatological vision. But Christians have one too. We get ours from the religion of the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible – roughly speaking, what we call the Old Testament. And we get it from Jesus, who was, after all, a Jew steeped in the Hebrew Bible.
The sayings and traditions of Jesus and his apostles come to us through the gospels - through, for instance, those two paragraphs I read just now. Jesus reveals – this is an apocalyptic, a revealing religion – something about what he calls God’s domain. This is not new to Bartholomew and his friends. Jesus does this – he reveals something, some new insight, at every opportunity, and the apostles are learning how to do that themselves. The topic that night was leadership. “I’ll tell you” said Jesus. “This is how it is in God’s domain: leaders serve. They do not aggrandise themselves. Look to see who serves you – that’ll be your leader in God’s domain.”
Really? Well, we know that Jesus lived that out. But elsewhere? Some other time, like now? Is selfless service revealed in what we experience in our leaders? And that is where the other Greek word comes in. Eschatology. So I am asking you to think about Last Things or Last Times. Are we all – as sometimes seems to be the case when we confront the day’s news - are we all going to hell in the proverbial handcart? Is that the inevitable end of human history? Here too, Christianity is different to other religions. Because, though we are all living in 2015, Christians also live – simultaneously – in the Eschaton, in that last time of destiny. Christians are given the chance to live simultaneously in a time which has yet to arrive. It is on its way. It is God’s domain and God’s time, where ordinary time ceases to exist and where the customs are very different. (If you want to read about those customs, I urge you to go home and read chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.) It’s a time where leaders serve and do not dominate, where all are equal, where distinctions of birth, race, colour, sexual orientation, political party, wealth – and any other distinction – are all simply irrelevant.
Now we can see what Bartholomew was being trained to do – to see for himself a revelation, an apocalypse of God. And he was being trained to live his earthly life in a new domain, God’s domain – to enter an eschatological community of people who live God’s life now – and then to accept Jesus’ commission to get out there and tell the world that this is really the very best way to live your life.
O blessed Saint Bartholomew, we have much to learn from you.