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It has long been assumed that Bartholomew is the same as Nathanael though it is not a certainty. The gospels speak of Philip bringing Nathanael to Jesus and calling him an Israelite worthy of the name. He is also present beside the Sea of Galilee at the resurrection. Although he seems initially a somewhat cynical man, he recognises Jesus for who he is and proclaims him as Son of God and King of Israel.
A dispute also arose among the twelve as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’
People are often surprised when they hear of disputes within Christian communities. There seems to be an assumption, especially amongst those who are not members of any sort of faith-based community, that calling oneself a ‘Christian’ takes away the propensity to disagree with others. It is not uncommon for us to hear phrases like: I thought you were all supposed to love each other and That’s not a very Christian way of carrying on.
On one level these comments are correct. Jesus commands that we should love our neighbours and our enemies. Love, that is generous and open love, should be the driving force for the way in which we live out our earthly lives. But, we are all human. Throughout the history of humanity we can find examples of an intrinsic need to be stronger than others in order that we might survive. That survival instinct is not Christian, but it is part of who and what we are as human beings.
Throughout the gospel narrative we read of Jesus being in confrontation with the spiritual leaders of the day. Those religious ‘experts’ knew the law of Moses very well indeed, and they used that law to dominate and control others. Jesus’ confrontation with such behaviour shows us just how out of place the dispute among the twelve disciples in today’s reading is. Rather than rushing for the top place in the pecking order, those who would follow Jesus should be rushing for the exact opposite position in the hierarchy. They should be striving for the lowest and humblest place.
Much of the unrest in this world has its roots in most peoples’ need to exercise authority over others. International, national and local politics, as well as our legal system, is adversarial. Such systems place people against each other in the sort of tussle that can only be won by the fittest, the strongest, the most quick witted. But those attributes do not necessarily lead their possessors, or those whom they go on to control, down the path that leads to God.
Of course, this need to be regarded as the greatest exists in every aspect of our lives, even in our church communities. People like to be thought of as the ‘best’ (whatever that may mean), the ‘strongest’ and the ‘wisest’. Sadly, such ambition often turns into a culture of bullying, rather than Christian collaboration and cooperation.
Let us pray that we might set aside our need to be the greatest, and let us honour and serve as we have been called by Christ – openly, lovingly and generously.