In a book that I have that was written some 50 years ago, the Editor quotes a poem written on the wall of a prison cell by an English Prisoner of War (PoW). It was written before his execution. In it he unites himself to his suffering Redeemer and prays for his murderers:
Forgive them all the tortures done,
My thirst and my starvation;
For who could suffer more than One
Who dies for our salvation?
This poem is all we know of that heroic martyr. We have no idea of his name or anything else about him. This is a bit like St Bartholomew, whom the Church remembered yesterday. We know his name, for he is mentioned in the list of apostles in the first three gospels, but that is absolutely all we know.
Some think he may be the same person as Nathaniel, but nobody knows for sure. Tradition has him going to India and that he was flayed alive in Armenia but nobody knows for sure. He has a name, but nothing left behind. Our unnamed PoW had no name but left only the poem.
Faithful to the end
What seems sure is that they were called by God, that they followed and that they were faithful to the end. They belong to the multitude who are without name or fame on earth, but who stand before the throne of God, loving and praising God for ever.
And I find this picture of an unnamed soldier, and an Apostle about whom we know nothing but his name, immensely encouraging. Why? Because they show you don’t have to be someone high and mighty, someone who has done all sorts of great things, to be acceptable in the kingdom of God.
It is not the one who is the leader who is the greatest, but the one who serves, said our Lord Jesus Christ in the gospel. It is the ordinary people of the world, those with no name and no great things to be remembered by, on whom the Father has conferred a kingdom. And it is the lowly and humble who will eat and drink at the Lord’s table in God’s kingdom. Like Bartholomew, like the unknown soldier.
All that matters is that those whom God calls stand by the Lord Jesus and are faithful through all the changing scenes of life, as we must suppose that Bartholomew and the unknown soldier did. One of the great virtues and gifts is perseverance. So as we remember this week St. Bartholomew, about whom we know absolutely nothing, we do well to pray for this gift of perseverance. Of faithfulness to our calling by God, through thick and thin, come hell or high water.
As a footnote, we had, fortunately, nothing like the massacre in France which began on the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day in August 1572. It was a targeted group of assassinations and a wave of violence, directed against a group of Protestants (Huguenots). The massacres spread from Paris to most of the country, and modern estimates of the number of dead across France vary widely from 5,000 to 30,000. One historian writes: “Though by no means unique, it was the worst of the centuries religious massacres”. Thank goodness we had nothing like St Bartholomew’s Day in this country.
Almighty and everlasting God,
who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace
truly to believe and to preach your word;
grant that your Church
may love that word which he believed
and may faithfully preach and receive the same;
through Jesus Christ. Amen
[‘St Bartholomew and the PoW’ was preached by Ralph Mallinson at St John with St Mark, Bury on Sunday 25th August 2019. For Ralph’s sermon on Heaven, please press here. For more by Ralph please follow this link.]