It is as if the Epistle and Gospel were chosen to teach us that the significance of St. Bartholomew is that he almost fades into the background. He never stands out like Peter, James and John, but quietly goes about doing the work of the ministry with them as part of the team. Spectacular work indeed, healing of sickness and freedom from demonic afflictions, along with the preaching of the Gospel. And, the Gospel appointed for today closes with a promise of twelve thrones, one for Bartholomew. Yet, even here he simply fits in with the other Apostles.
And, perhaps that is indeed the message. Like John the Baptist, all of us must decrease. This is because the focus is on the Lord Jesus Christ. We all point to the Deliverer; Christ is that Deliverer. Anyone who has been a priest for any length of time has learned that it is never about us. In the Gospel we see that before Christ's Passover, namely the one saving event of his death, burial and resurrection; and, before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the Apostles argued about who would be the greatest. Their attitude in that story is far away from the teamwork we see in the reading from the Book of Acts, teamwork that accepted the obvious role of Peter as a chief spokesman and leader. The name of Bartholomew does not appear in these two passages for his feast day.
Another passage about Bartholomew uses his proper name, Nathaniel. The full name was, as we see from connecting these passages, Nathaniel Bar-Tholomew (Bar was Aramaic for "son of"). In the first chapter of John's Gospel we find this:
"Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." John 1:44-51
We learn from this passage a few little things, and then one very big thing. We learn that Nathaniel was frank, that is, without guile. "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?" His answer was straight and to the point, a hypothetical question holding back nothing of his genuine opinion about the towns of the Decapolis, the places where foriegn traders did business in the land of Israel. When given merely a glimpse of Christ's supernatural means of knowledge, he quickly believes.
The first chapter of John's Gospel can be startling, because we find that those who had been disciples of John the Baptist were quick to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah, and Nathaniel Bar-Thomolomew, arriving on the scene, quickly uses the phrase, "the Son of God." This seems premature, as it was later that Peter spoke the confession of his blessed revelation: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." It is as if, following this initial identification, no doubt with some excitement, they needed to gain some knowledge of Jesus, to hear his words and see him in action, before these proclamations about his identity could begin to take shape and have meaning. Even so, their full meaning was not clear even on the night in which he was betrayed, as we see the Apostles in competition with each other, arguing over who would be the greatest.
The biggest thing we learn from this passage comes from the Book of Genesis:
And he [Jacob] dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. Genesis 28:12-15
Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is Jacob's ladder. Upon him the angels ascend and descend. He connects heaven and earth, the throne of God to the dwelling of man. This is the image of our salvation, a connection made by the initiative of God, not by the efforts or best thoughts of man.
The disciples at this early stage are given a glimpse of something glorious, but have yet to see the labor and effort that is involved with the work that lies before them. In the few years that follow, they witness miracles and healings beyond counting, and hear teaching that comes from God, having such authority that none of the scribes and pharisees could begin to match. They can see Jesus as the ladder from heaven to earth. But, they want him to be only a glorious Messiah, and so Peter will follow the confession of his blessed revelation with revulsion and rejection of the cross: "Far be it from thee Lord. This shall not happen unto thee." And, even as they gather on that night before his passion and death, they are thinking carnal thoughts. They are in competition, each wanting to be esteemed the greatest. Ah, such purple fever!
The Lord promises these new patriarchs that each will have a throne, but in so doing makes them equals. There is no room for competition in the ministry he has for them, and no room for competition and ambition in his Church. It is enough for each disciple to be as his Master, and each servant as his Lord. They will soon learn, during their terror in the garden, their utter loss of every dream and hope when he is taken from to be tried and crucified. "But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel."
The revival of their joy and hope, upon seeing the risen Lord, is forever marked afterward by the nails, the thorns and the spear. Now they know that this work is for something greater than each man's wish to be seated at his right hand or at his left. Their faith had been the stuff of which ambition was made, but now it is the stuff of which martyrdom is made. For this reason they could now be trusted to carry on his work by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and with humility and team effort.
The lesson of Bartholomew is simple. Be content to serve among God's people in his Church.