It is safe to say that much of the world was somewhat caught off guard and deeply appalled this week by the news and the video coverage of the execution of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State militants. The footage shows him there with shaved head as he kneels before the camera next to an ominous, masked figure dressed totally in black, as he pleads for his life and asks, under duress, that the U.S. stop its air assault on the Islamic State’s forces. Seconds later, a knife is brandished and he is beheaded in chilling fashion. Even as our own heartland finds itself embroiled in race-related riots and violence for the second week in a row; even as we have endured years of similar stories from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the scene of Foley’s grotesque death seemed out-of-place. Indeed, our own President rebuked the Islamic State and its actions by saying such a group “has no place in the 21st century.”
As much as I or anyone else may want that statement to be true, and as much as I hope we could all work together to ensure the protection of innocent people and the respect of those we view as different from us, the president’s thoughtful comments on the matter did make me wonder, what century does such an act belong in? In what era would such a disgusting display of cowardice not be out of place?
|"The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" Jusepe de Ribera (1632)|
One convenient answer for that would be Nathanael Bartholomew’s, the saint the church commemorates on August 24. There is no firm data on who Bartholomew was or how his life ended, but the paraments hang red this morning because the church has long suspected blood and violence were involved. Perhaps he was beheaded. Perhaps he was flayed alive, like the tradition claims. Regardless, Bartholomew (who likely went by the other name of Nathanael), is remembered as a martyr like most of the other apostles, recalled as someone who was killed by his captors because of his witness to Jesus as the risen Lord.
I’m not certain that the 1st century was overall any more violent or dangerous than the 21st century, but the truth is that for many of the earliest followers of Christ, a horrible, gruesome death was not too uncommon. Standing up for one’s allegiance to Christ was often a very risky affair, and the church has always, for good reason, treasured their witness. Their ability to tell the good news of Jesus even in the face of violence is inspiring and becomes for all believers a sobering reminder of what it often means to stand up and speak out for the cause of the gospel, a truth that is so profound it demands a person’s whole life in order to tell it.
However, it is worth noting that Bartholomew wasn’t always standing up or speaking out. His journey to being an apostle begins in cynicism and disbelief. When we meet him this morning by his other name, Nathanael, we find him under a fig tree, doubting whether anything good can come from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. To be fair, it is an honest question. Nazareth was a rather small Podunk town that could claim no A-listers. To believe that God would choose it as a hometown for the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, was a more than a little preposterous. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is the quote that Nathanael gets remembered for, and it is often adapted to express initial skepticism about a place or a people we have come to associate with mediocrity or even bad news. One can imagine people nowadays might mutter things under their breath like, “Can anything good come out of Baghdad?” or “Can anything good come out of Ferguson?”
Yes, Nathanael Bartholomew’s life as one of the twelve called disciples begins with this air of condescension and doubt, and yet Jesus praises him for his honesty, contrasting Nathanael with Nathanael’s ancient ancestor Jacob, the father of the entire nation, who was full of deceit and trickery. Even after Nathanael joins up with Philip to find out more about this Jesus figure, Nathanael is still a little bit suspicious, wondering how Jesus would know anything about him. Eventually, however, through this encounter, Jesus transforms Nathanael into a devoted disciple. He goes from fig tree to followership, from sitting in cynicism to standing and speaking the truth in a matter of minutes. Jesus promises him he will see even greater things than Jacob did, who once had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. As a disciple, Nathanael will be stepping into a way of life where all of God’s promises will be ascending and descending in what Jesus is doing.
It’s like the message that God gives his people as they stand at the base of Mt. Sinai in this lesson from Exodus. God reminds them that they did not do anything in order to be brought into the heart of God’s presence. That was all God’s doing. God bore them on eagles’ wings. God brought them out of their slavery in Egypt, even in spite of their recalcitrance and doubt. There was no way they could revoke that love or go back to not being God’s people. Now, however, comes their response to God’s saving act. Keeping God’s commandments, living into God’s covenant is what they do in response to that. They don’t earn God’s favor by keeping the commandments and the like, but by faithful response to God’s grace they become God’s treasured possession, the jewel in the crown that shines with the truest and brightest hue. That is, they become truth-tellers about God’s mercy and grace. They, too, become apostles, people sent to spread the message in word and deed about the kind of God they have. Nathanael Bartholomew will discover what Israel time and time again discovered, and what James Foley’s bravery demonstrated: the world does not always appreciate truth-tellers. It is surprisingly difficult to stand in the midst of things and speak the truth about God and live the truth of his love.
|James Foley (photo: Globalpost/AP)|
However, God doesn’t just leave the Nathanaels and the Israelites and you and me to stand up and speak on our own. As it turns out, we have no better example of God’s desire to tell the truth about our sin and the world’s darkness and the truth about God’s repeated sacrifices for us than the rabbi from Nazareth, himself. He is executed, too, in cruel fashion by captors who are trying to send a message to get him to stop with his compassion and humility. But God raises him from the dead, and in doing so sends his own message that the powers of good ultimately triumph over evil…that the truth about human cruelty and God’s love will eventually be heard by all people, whether they can accept it or not.
Sometimes I wonder if we start to believe that the price of following Jesus, the of telling the truth about God in a brutal world, just isn’t as costly as it used to be. We convince ourselves that less bravery is required nowadays because we think our century is less ruthless and violent than earlier ones. In some ways that may be true, but the Lord of grace is still beckoning people from underneath their fig trees of complacency to stand up and speak out and witness to the wondrous demonstrations of Jesus’ love and power in the world. Let us not forget that the school cafeterias and the soccer practice fields we inhabit are, for many of us, still terribly difficult places to stand up and speak out. And yet Jesus shows up there, suffering and conquering alongside the weak.
Thankfully, the pictures of James Foley kneeling beside his executioner weren’t the only chilling images scrolling before us this week. We were also subjected to hundreds of renditions of the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social media phenomenon that has celebrities and regular folks alike pouring buckets of ice water over their heads and filming it in order to raise awareness and funds for the foundation that fights ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. At last count, the ALS foundation has received $48.1 million dollars as a result of the challenge, which is 20 times more money than the organization received at the same time last year. My Facebook newsfeed included several of you completing the challenge, and at least one staff member here has challenged me to do the same. It’s been a lot of fun to see this happen, a great diversion from all the ever-present, unrelenting negative stories.
To be honest, I’ve enjoyed watching all these people pour water on their heads but not as as much as I enjoy pouring baptismal water over people’s heads. It occurs to me that whether or not you’ve taken on the ALS Icebucket Challenge, every Sunday we essentially issue our own Icebucket challenge. Someone stands beside that basin right there and remind you that you are God’s chosen possession. The worship leader reminds you that God calls you and transforms you from fig tree complacency to faithful follower. And then the Spirit urges you to “take the challenge” of contributing your life to the cause of the gospel, in this crazy 21st century.
Bartholomew the Apostle took it. And, by the grace of God, you do too.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.