Sunday, August 24, 2003

St. Bartholomew or Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost
Exodus 19:1-6 or Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Psalm 12 or Psalm 34:15-22
1 Corinthians 12:27-31a or Ephesians 6:10-20
John 1:43-51 or John 6:56-69

Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

It is always hard to choose which scriptures to use when writing on a week with a festival. This week, do we look at the life of Bartholomew, a very ordinary apostle, and try to understand our place as disciples in Christ's church? Or do we complete the thoughts, which have been expressed over the past few weeks about Jesus being the Bread of Life? In these trying times we need both messages of God's grace.

Who is Bartholomew? It is generally accepted that he is the man in the Gospel lesson named Nathanael. We know very little about him, his name appears only in the lists of disciples in the synoptic Gospels. In John, Nathanael is mentioned in this Gospel lesson and he was among those who went fishing after Jesus' resurrection. In the story we see him as a skeptic, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" He is also quick to believe for all the wrong reasons, "Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou?"

He was unknown and a bit skeptical. He sounds a lot like most Christians I know. He wasn't like Peter, a leader and vocal preacher. He wasn't like Andrew or James or John. He wasn't like Judas. But he was chosen and called into a relationship with Jesus Christ, then given work to do for the kingdom of God. He doesn't call extraordinary people, but ordinary people through whom He does extraordinary things.

That's what happened with Israel. Who were they? They were a nation of slaves set free to wander in the wilderness. But God promised that they would be more, that in the whole world they were the ones chosen and delivered out of bondage to do something amazing. "Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." It is out of Israel that the ultimate deliverance would come. God brought them out of Egypt so that one day the Savior would be born among their ranks. Why not just do it through Egypt? Or Assyria? Or wait a few thousand years and do it through America? It is because God chooses the ordinary, the weak, the unknown to do the most extraordinary things.

Paul writes to the Corinthians about the body of Christ. That's you and me. "Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, divers kinds of tongues."

What does this mean for us in this day? It means that God has chosen us, just like Jesus chose Nathanael that day. He sees us even before we are brought to meet Him. He knows our hearts. For Nathanael, that was enough to believe. Jesus told him to expect more. Jesus said, "Thou shalt see greater things than these." Do we expect to see the greater things? Is it enough for us to know Jesus sees our hearts, or should we be looking for the miraculous? Paul's list includes gifts about which we are skeptical. Where are the healings, the miracles? Are the tongues real or are they fake? Are we truly discerning God's work and purpose for the body of Christ, or have we let our skepticism get in the way of truly believing in the power of God in this world?

That certainly happened to those who were following Jesus in the Gospel message for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. Jesus' words were highly offensive, even to the disciples. "Many therefore of his disciples, when the heard this, said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it?" Jesus answered, "No man can come unto me, except it be given unto him of the Father." Many disciples left Jesus at that moment. His 'mega church' was reduced to a few loyal followers. When Jesus asked Peter if he wanted to leave, Peter answered, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life."

Are we so sure about Jesus that we would go against the flow to stay with Him? We are bombarded by the world every day, tempted to turn from what we know is true. It is so much easier to just go about our lives and ignore the hard teachings of Jesus. I have even heard people say, "I don't care about eternal life; I just want to get through today." Satan has done his job well. He has convinced a great portion of the world that the spiritual is unimportant - even unreal. He has convinced too many that he does not exist and that life is about filling the needs of our flesh until we are satisfied and happy. That's what he did to Adam and Eve in the garden and he continues to do so today - though the fruit is much different.

Jesus knew that His words would turn some away. "But what about you, Peter?" Peter, though confused by his Lord's lesson knew there was something more than just bread, that Jesus was not just a rabbi or a friend. "And we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God."

The nation of Israel faced a similar problem to ours today - they were being drawn into the ways of the world around them, rejecting the God who had delivered them out of bondage. As they settled into their new home after the exodus from Egypt, they were turning to the gods of their neighbors. Joshua called them together to remind them from whence they came and how God got them through their trials. Then he said, "Now therefore fear Jehovah, and serve him in sincerity and in truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt; and serve ye Jehovah. And if it seem evil unto you to serve Jehovah, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah."

The people answered that they would serve Jehovah - the Lord. Yet, over the years the people failed over and over again. They were so easily swayed by the idols and the desires of their hearts, they forgot everything God had done for them. We are saved by the blood of Christ, a much deeper and more real deliverance than even the Israelites knew in the days of Moses and Joshua, and yet we fail as miserably as they did. We are skeptical like Nathanael, swayed like Peter into denial.

That's why Paul warns us that we are in the middle of a battle and it isn't just in the natural world, "For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." The greater battle is spiritual, and even though Jesus has already won the war we still have to fight. Paul tells the Ephesians to put on their battle gear, the armor of God - truth, righteousness, the Gospel, faith, salvation and the Word of God. The battle we fight is not with weapons that kill, but with prayer and words that call for courage, hope and peace for the saints.

In this day we indeed face many battles. There are wars and rumors of war, even within the Church herself. There are threats to the unity of the body of Christ. Perhaps you know of such trouble in your own local congregations, over issues as insignificant as the color of the carpet. Perhaps you are concerned about the greater issues we face as chosen and called men and women of God.

You may think that you are much like Bartholomew or Nathanael, unknown and insignificant. But just like Bartholomew, Jesus saw you under the tree, knows your heart and has called you to be one of His own. He has given you gifts and an armor to wear. You will face battles - in flesh and in spirit - for our world is a confused and messed up place and Satan is actively causing trouble everywhere.

When Christ asks, "What about you?" how will you answer? Will you be like the disciples who could not accept the hard teaching of Jesus and go back to your old life without Him? Or will you be like the men of faith through the ages who have confessed faith in the One who has fulfilled every promise of God. Will you be like Joshua, "as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah"? Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." Or Nathanael, "thou art the Son of God; thou art King of Israel"?

So, like Bartholomew we have been called as ordinary people to do extraordinary things for the most extraordinary Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, the true bread of life. I guess we don't always have to choose whether to celebrate the festival or use the normal scriptures for the day, for it all fits together to meet all our deepest needs as we face the trials of life in this world.

Thanks be to God.

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