Anonymous apostles

By Roger Ferlo

About 50 new seminarians showed up here at Virginia Theological Seminary last week, three weeks before the start of the regular term. They’re here to get a head start on their required courses in Hebrew and Greek, and to undergo the time-honored training in the oral interpretation of Scripture that the seminary underground still refers to as “Read and Bleed.” Half of the newcomers seem to be in their twenties and early thirties, continuing the youthful swing we have experienced here in the past several years. (You have to admire these young people, committing themselves to a lifetime working in a church that too many people in my generation seem intent on tearing apart.) As to the other half of the class, a large number seem to be newly retired, in the way we baby boomers retire in our mid-fifties. There aren’t too many people in their 40s. My seat-of-the-pants demographic theory about this is that if you are going to go to seminary in these parlous times, you are more likely to try it either in your twenties (when you are still relatively free of commitments, except, of course, for that sizable college debt), or in your late fifties, after you’ve sort of completed the trajectory of your first career, maybe seen your kids through college, and sense that you now have permission to do with your life what you’ve always known you wanted to do.

I changed careers pretty dramatically in my early thirties, so maybe I’m projecting. To be fair, the best part of working in an Episcopal seminary is that you never really can predict where people might be coming from, or what brought them here. In their first session together last week, one guy introduced himself to the group by looking at his watch, and then declaring that it was now almost exactly 72 hours since he retired from the military. A woman of a certain age marveled that the student sitting next to her was young enough to be her daughter. Several people identified themselves as recovering lawyers. One of the youngest men wore a T-shirt that revealed an amazingly elaborate network of tattoos on his right arm—perhaps setting a new trend in clerical dress.

Whatever the case, here they are, part of our lives for the next three years, God bless them all. Their nametags dutifully hanging from their necks, they gathered yesterday with the rest of us for a Eucharist in the chapel at 8:10 in the morning. I suspect that they were too distracted by a looming pop quiz on Hebrew verbs to listen closely to the sermon, which might have been just as well, as I was the preacher, and it was St. Bartholomew’s Day, and St. Bartholomew does not provide you with the most inspiring of sermon texts even in the best of circumstances.

It was those nametags that set me going. I hate wearing nametags. Maybe that’s why I’m always attracted to the unnamed people in Scripture, like the anonymous woman who washes Jesus’ feet in Mark’s version of the story, or the unnamed young man who runs away naked to avoid being captured by the police who are arresting Jesus in the garden (did he too wear tattoos on his arm?). I think of St. Bartholomew as part of their company. He didn’t really have a name, at least any name the gospel writer cared to record. Roughly translated, Bartholomew just means “son of Tolmai.” No real claim to fame there, nothing really to put on a nametag. Matthew, Mark and Luke mention him only once or twice. John, on the other hand, seems never to have heard of him. As usual with mysterious figures like this, legends have accrued, the most persistent one being that he was flayed alive somewhere in Armenia (“read and bleed” with a vengeance), and that his body washed ashore on the Italian island of Lipari (a long way from landlocked Armenia), where a cathedral still stands in his honor. Colorful rumors, but not much to hang a sermon on.

This being the case, I decided to keep to that ancient principle of Episcopal homiletics–when in doubt, start with the collect. Whoever wrote it knew the score. The collect repeats all we know of Bartholomew—that he had the grace to believe and the courage to preach (and even the latter is only an inference from the scarcest of scriptural data). This being the case, we are made to ask not that we would love and venerate Bartholomew (it’s hard to love and venerate a relative cipher), but that we would “love what he believed and preach what he taught.” The feast of St. Bartholomew thus becomes a feast of holy anonymity.

I more or less said all this, and then looked out on that crowd of newly washed seminarians. I thought about my own ministry through the years, and realized that if what was said of Bartholomew could one day be said of us—that because of what we said or how we acted or who we were, others could be brought to love what we believed and to preach what we taught—well, then, maybe this priesthood thing would mean something in the end, long after our names were forgotten. The priestly life can be such an ego-trip—witness the clash of prelatial egos now bedeviling our common life. “I came among you as one who serves.” Bartholomew knew this about Jesus, and about himself, and acted accordingly. In spite of the occasional need for nametags, a little dose of this holy anonymity in love’s service might do all of us a world of good.

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).

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