August 23, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel, which was read a few minutes ago.
Behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted The Last Judgment. It’s gorgeous and powerful at the same time. In the very center is Jesus Christ, returning to judge the living and the dead. He’s surrounded in the sky by all the saints He’s raised from the dead who are about to receive the new heavens and earth. To Christ’s right is His mother and the men who most closely surround Christ are the twelve apostles. They all look like bodybuilder, so maybe there’s hope for me. Anyway, Michelangelo only identifies two of the Apostles. One is Peter, you can tell because he’s holding the Keys, the Keys given to the Church to forgive or not to forgive sins. The other one appears completely out of place.
If you look to the left of Jesus, down by His knee, there’s a man holding a knife. It seems almost an aggressive brandishing of a knife toward Jesus. But nothing could be further from the truth. That knife is not a sign of aggression, it’s a sign of triumph, and not Bartholomew’s triumph over his foes, but Christ’s triumph over Bartholomew’s foe, death. See, if you look in Bartholomew’s left hand, you’ll see him holding the other half of the knife story. It’s a flaying knife, not a fighting knife. And what he holds in his left hand is his own skin that, according to tradition, was skinned off for preaching the Gospel. In fact, in most artistic depictions of St. Bartholomew, he’s doing exactly this—holding a flaying knife in one hand and his own skin either in his other hand or draped around him. Often, he’s shown with his muscles and veins exposed to the eyes of the viewer.
There’s a saying, “have skin in the game”; for Bartholomew that’s more than a figure of speech. The most reliable tradition says he traveled first to India and then to Armenia. It was possibly in Armenia that he was skinned alive and crucified for preaching the Gospel to sinners in need of a Savior. That, however, is at least a couple of decades after Bartholomew’s role in today’s Gospel.
The dispute recorded by Saint Luke that has the disciples pitted against one another in competition for the title of “greatest” is not unique. Luke records another dispute among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest. Saint Mark and Saint Matthew both record such a conflict. The holy apostles, those called particularly by the Lord Jesus to follow him and then spread the Gospel, were in a heated debate about which of them was the greatest. It’s kind of petty, but not unusual. People generally want to be acknowledged, to be superior to others, to be greater. You can almost hear them arguing – Matthew announcing how he gave up a lucrative career as a tax collector, Peter claiming to be the first disciple, Bartholomew (also known as Nathaniel) being identified as Jesus as “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”
Now, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re better than the apostles because you’ve never argued over who is greatest. You’re not immune to wanting to feel superior to others. We’re all different and yet human nature is to be better than someone else. And it doesn’t have to be as blatant as what we heard in the Gospel. Don’t we look down on others? They’re poor and we’re not. They’re black and we’re white. It’s tempting to look at your own accomplishments and successes to determine your greatness. You raised a better family. You have a better marriage. People often look to their possessions to calculate the value of their life. And how often do we look at others and wish we had what they have? There’s a reason why King Solomon and Saint Paul both tell us not to favor the wealthy over the poor; we do it!
Desire for greatness is a breaking of the First Commandment. It’s idolatry because you’re worshiping yourself or what you think makes you great or what you want to make you great. Turn your eyes away from yourselves; there is no greatness to be seen there. Repent of wanting to outdo someone else, of treating your neighbors with selfish contempt, of despising those menial tasks of service the Lord has entrusted to you to do that will never win the esteem of men. Repent of seeking your own greatness.
The Lord Jesus was among his apostles as one who serves. True greatness, therefore, is not measured according to the ways of the world. In His greatness, in His divinity, the Lord was born to a lowly virgin in modest surroundings. He set aside His greatness, descended from His heavenly throne to dwell in the midst of His creation, joining Himself to our humanity. This one through whom all things were created, whose word commands the angels, who exists without beginning or end, set aside His crown for bowl of water to wash His disciples’ feet. He who commanded the wind and water assumed the posture of a criminal, getting whipped, spit on, and nailed to the cross. Jesus used His eternal greatness to become the least.
Only through the lens of the cross does everything else begin to make sense. The cross, whereupon the Lord was crucified for their sinfulness, put to rest petty, selfish squabbles over greatness. The cross, upon which the Lord won their salvation, became the message Bartholomew and the other apostles were sent out to proclaim. The cross, through which the Lord had reconciled these twelve men—indeed, all of humanity—to Himself, put into perspective the trials they would face. Those men who in today’s Gospel disputed over greatness came to understand the greatness of the Gospel, which they carried out to the world. The good news of a God who would reconcile sinners to himself by giving his Son to die in the place of sinners. Nothing is greater.
They learned a lesson in true greatness. Nearly all of those men met death for the Gospel they proclaimed. From disputes over greatness to steadfastness in the face of persecution, the cross of their Lord changed the apostles’ lives. It rescued them from sin. Their Lord, who could’ve ended their arguments by proclaiming Himself rightly to be the greatest, served them with His life. His cross changed their lives.
So for now, beloved, for you, Christ and His cross is the way of things. It changes your perspective from one of seeking greatness to one of carrying the Gospel. Even in a clay jar like yourself, the Lord displays his greatness to those around you. As you forgive your unforgivable neighbor, as you love your wife by setting your wants and desires aside for her good, as you submit to your husband as the Church submits to Christ, as you obey and honor your parents, as you change diapers and wipe noses, as you work diligently even for an unfair boss, as you endure hardship and suffering for the sake of Him who endured the cross for you, your life shows the life of Jesus. You may never be called to stop preaching Christ or be skinned alive. But every morning you wake up is a call to deny yourself and serve others; this is Christ’s greatness seen in you.
A statue of Bartholomew depicts him as just muscles and sinews, testifying to his martyrdom. But remember, the focus isn’t on Bartholomew, it’s on Christ. You can see that in the Bible that Bartholomew is holding. It’s Christ who empowered Bartholomew, through the cross, to set aside his desire to be great to be a servant. It’s Christ who empowers you, through that same cross, to set aside your desire to be great to be a servant. And really, when we do this, we’re following Jesus who though He was the greatest, became the servant of all.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen