24 August 2010

Homily upon St. Bartholomew's Day

The second to last chapter of the Bible describes the heavenly Jerusalem, the final home and abode of God’s people.  St. John saw this City coming down out of heaven from God, shining with the very glory of God himself.  It was a walled city with 12 gates, three facing in each direction.  At each gate he saw an angel, and on each gate was written the name of one of Israel’s tribes.  But below each gate, serving as foundation stones for the city, were stones marked with twelve names:  the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

That means that eternally remembered and celebrated in heaven is the name of one Bartholomew, whom the Church of Jesus Christ commemorates on this day, the 24th of August.  Early church tradition tells us that of the 12 disciples, Bartholomew (also called Nathaniel) alone was of noble birth and that of the 12 he suffered the most horrendous death.  He had been preaching the Gospel for several years in Armenia, with great miracles accompanying his preaching.  God the Holy Spirit through Bartholomew’s work even granted repentance and faith to the King of Armenia.  In return for turning the King from his idols, the King’s brother had Bartholomew arrested and martyred.  He is reported to have been flayed alive and then either beheaded or crucified.  His symbol in the church is therefore three flaying knives, by which the church remembers how much this Apostle of the Lamb was called upon to suffer for the name of Jesus.

But we are a long way from the glory of Bartholomew’s martyrdom in today’s Gospel.  Bartholomew is, however, among those sitting at the table with Jesus .  It is Maundy Thursday.  Jesus had just given to them the bread with the words:  “This is My Body, which is given for you.  Do this to remember Me.”  He had just reached them the cup with the words:  “This cup is the new testament in my blood which is poured out for you.”  He had just told them that one of those sitting there with him at the table would betray him.  He was about to die, to offer His life as the very ransom that would set them all people free, winning forgiveness for a world, and what is on their minds?  What are they thinking about?  What are they discussing?  Themselves, of course. They are quarrelling among themselves about who’s the big cheese, which one is the greatest.

With great patience Jesus lets them know that in the Kingdom of God, things operate in reverse from the kingdoms of the world.  In the way things go in this world, kings and leaders and rulers call themselves “benefactors.”  They clearly regard themselves as the big cheeses and dole out their favors to those below them who serve them in ways they approve of.  Jesus nixes such an idea for any who belong to him.  “With you,” he says “it’s different.  The greatest among you should become like the youngest, and the one who leads should be like one who serves.”  He turns things topsy-turvy.

Then to make sure they really “get it” he goes at it from a different angle.  “Who is greater, the one who reclines to eat (remember, they ate lying down in those days) or the one who serves?”  Is it the one who eats the feast, or the one who serves the feast who is greater?  Clearly, Jesus says, in their way of thinking, it’s the one who reclines and is served!  That’s what they were all vying for – to be served.  But Jesus has other plans.  He says:  “But I am among you as one who serves.”

Get a handle on that one, folks.  That’s a live wire.  What does Jesus mean?  I am among you as one who serves?  Well, who had just taken bread, given thanks, and served it to them, saying:  “This is my body, which is given for you”?  Who had just taken the cup, gave thanks and served it to them saying:  “This cup is the new testament in My blood, poured out for you”?  “I am among you as one who serves.”  That, by the way, is why we call what goes on in this assembly each week “The Divine Service” – because Jesus, the Divine One, is STILL among us as the One who serves.  He is still the One who comes to serve us.  He serves us by wiping out our sin in the Holy Absolution!  He serves us by speaking to us His life-giving Words!  He serves us by reaching to us His body and blood, with the forgiveness and eternal life that go with them!  From start to finish, the worship “service” is not about US serving God, but about how our Lord Jesus continues to be among us to serve us!

Now listen to what His service to us results in:  “As My Father has appointed Me to be King, so I appoint you to eat and drink at My table in My kingdom and to sit on thrones and rule the twelve tribes of Israel.”

What table is it that He is referring to?  Well, open your eyes and see it.  See this table for what it is!  This table, this altar, is nothing less than Christ’s table where we eat and drink with Him in His kingdom!!!  Paul describes this for us in Ephesians 2.  Do you remember these words?  “And since we are in Christ Jesus, He raised us with Him and had us sit with Him in heaven to show in the coming ages the immeasurable riches of His grace by being kind to us in Christ Jesus.”  Did you catch that?  St. Paul says that God has had us sit with Christ in the heavenly places!!!  Past tense, not future.  It’s a reality the Ephesians had already experienced.  You too.  Every time you “sit” with Christ here at His table, you are at the heavenly Table of Christ’s Kingdom and there you reign with Him, Your servant King, and thus He lifts you up to be servant kings too!

After the resurrection, the twelve apostles scattered throughout the world to preach the Good News of how Jesus has served the whole human race by bearing our sins in His body and pouring out His blood in order that we might be forgiven and given a share in God’s own life.  And everywhere they went, they established in each locality a table.  A table where the Lord Jesus continued to be among His own to serve them, and where they knew that they tasted heaven on earth, where the incorruptible and unending life of  Risen Christ was imparted to their flesh and blood by His flesh and blood.  In that confidence, the apostles of the Lamb met their deaths.  Only John died naturally.  The rest died horribly, and none so horrible as St. Bartholomew, but because into Him went the Body and the Blood of the Lamb of God who had taken away the sins of the world, He is not among the dead.  He lives in Christ forevermore, together with all who feast at the Kingdom’s table in saving faith.

Praise be to God for this table that strengthens us to serve others by sharing the Good News of Jesus with them as did St. Bartholomew and which strengthens and keeps us in saving faith so that when we finally pass through death we will enter that City whose foundation stones contain the name of St. Bartholomew and so join with him and all the redeemed in singing the praises of Jesus Christ, our beloved Servant King, to whom be glory with the Father , together with the Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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