Anne Currie
24th August 2014
I am among you as one who serves

I have to admit it… I am a great fan of Downton Abbey! I know a lot of people are not keen, but I love Sunday evening TV series, where you can just relax and watch someone else’s world unfolding before you eyes. All done through the rose tinted lens of the writer and the director. I am hooked, and live in great fear that the evening services on Sunday will go on too long and I will miss the beginning!

Of course, Downton is not the real world, at least not the one we know nowadays. But at one time for many, many young men and women the only option in life for them was to go into service. Great armies of servants to look after one aristocratic family who followed all the rigorous rules and etiquette of high society. But servants also had their own hierarchy… Butler, Housekeeper and cook ruled the roost.

The series follows the events in the life of a great house starting from just before the outbreak of WW1. Telling the stories of the family and the staff, and how world and home events changed their world. The programme tries to depict the family as one who care for their staff, they are caring and speak politely to them. Until, that is, one member of the staff, the chauffeur, has the temerity to wed one of the daughters of the house.

So during that particular series, the plot revolved around just how this terribly upper class group of people, with all their prejudices would be able to deal with this intrusion into their well ordered lives. How could they possibly accept the presence, at their dinner table, of someone who up until recently was a servant- invisible unless some service needed performing. Who now sat with them as an equal? And not of course forgetting the feelings of the ex chauffeur, and how he felt to find himself lifted out of his world and into the one of the masters.

Thinking about our Gospel reading , I wondered what it was like to sit at the supper table with Jesus and his apostles? We’ll never know whether it was just him and the twelve or all the faithful together in that room… Luke has it that it was just the twelve.

Emotions were running high, all were worried about the future. They knew that the authorities were just waiting for them to put a foot wrong, and then what? Arrest, imprisonment… what would become of them, the other followers. And their families, would there be reprisals upon them? Jesus knows full well that his time is running out… and after he has exhorted them to remember him in bread and wine, he then tells them that the one who will betray him is sitting at the table with them.

They immediately fall to asking who it could be, not one of them surely?…. and then minutes later they are arguing over who will become the successor to the leadership, who will be the greatest one among them? Whose name will echo down the corridors of history?

In our reading from Acts it does indeed seem that Peter has risen to the top of the heap…. we are told that the sick were carried out into the street so that Peter’s shadow would fall upon them as he walked by… Who would have thought that an obscure fisherman from the shores of the sea of Galilee would find himself a healer and an orator?

But I am sure that even whilst some at the table were arguing for their own elevation, some would have been thinking…. who am I to be sitting here amongst these people, who am I to think that I could carry on Jesus’ ministry in the world?

I remember a few years ago during one of our quiet days that we held in the church; we carried the nave altar down into the crossing here, and set it out with 13 places, for Jesus and the 12. All the seats were named, and you could come a sit in any place, and think about what it might have been like to be at the table with Christ and the 12.

Where would you sit? In Judas’ place, in Peter’s, Andrew’s , John’s. Or would you be brave enough to take the seat of Jesus? For me, to sit in any of those seats, was rather like elevating myself to a place that I should not be. For who was I to even imagine myself good enough to sit in the company of the apostles, let alone Jesus himself

And if we understand Jesus correctly in what he says to them… then we are all worthy of a place at Christ’s supper table.

The Lectionary says we celebrate the life of St. Bartholomew today…. so where is he in all of this? He certainly doesn’t get a mention by name in either of our readings. We’re not even sure of his name. Scholars tell us that he is Nathanael who appears in John’s gospel, called by name by Jesus. Who tells us that he is a man of no deceit.

Otherwise Bartholomew is mentioned only 4 times in the bible, only in lists of the disciples. There’s nothing to tell us anything about him, apart from he came from Cana. Bit like us really… for how many of us are known widely outside Redhill? We do what we do as members of this church, but no one tells stories of us, and to outsiders, I guess we only appear as a name in the Parish Directory.

Yet we are part of the millions of faithful people who have served God down the ages. If you read in the Bible, you will find many lists of names, many of whom we know nothing about, but who have all played a part in keeping God’s kingdom alive on our planet.

You won’t find many job vacancies for servants advertised these days. The word servant is old fashioned, thought to belong to the upstairs/downstairs world of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Servants and slaves then and in the time of Jesus were placed or born into their station in life and did not leave it. They were trained to be silent and unobtrusive, so that you did not notice them around the place.

And this is what was so strange to the disciples, that Jesus is assuming the role of someone who is normally unnoticed, non-existent. He washes their feet, serves them with food. He sits at the table with them as their leader but he also serves. Here in this passage is another ‘I am’ saying, not the great ones of John’s gospel, but still important. “I am among you as one who serves.

To be the master is to be visible, to serve is to hide.

Isaiah speaks of a God who hides himself (45.15), and I’m reminded of the story of the Emmaus road, where Jesus meets the two unhappy disciples. Later, after he had made himself known, he vanishes from their sight.

This is how it is, he makes himself known and moves on. Now you see him now you don’t! You cannot hang onto him, keep him pinned down to do your will. As he told Mary in the garden by the tomb, do hold onto me.

But we know when we have met him, our king, our saviour; when he catches us as we fall, when he comforts us when life seems too much to bear. But then he moves on, and often it is only when we look back that we recognise his presence amongst us. Invisible and servant like, but still being God.

Looked at in the context of the gospel reading, our work as Christ-focussed Christians may look like this when we…
– welcome all opportunities to serve.
– rest content in hidden-ness, God’s approval is sufficient
– don’t need to see the results of that service
– listen with tenderness and patience. When we can serve by waiting in silence
– give time to people. A valuable commodity in our modern world

So who is Bartholomew/Nathanael?

Bartholomew is us and all the other millions whose hidden service to all their brothers and sisters, only becomes know when they have left us. Often the first we hear about it is at their funeral eulogy.

Bartholomew is us and everyone else who goes quietly about as a Christian, living the faithful life, worshipping and caring for each other, friends, family and community.

Bartholomew is each one of us. And maybe only when we stand before our maker and that great record book of St. Peter’s is opened in heaven will the real story of our greatness be revealed.

I’d like to finish with a prayer, accredited to St. Ignatius. It’s a prayer for generosity in service.

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

Acts 5.12-16
Luke 22.24-30