Today is the feast day of St. Barnabas, so it seems only right to say a few words about him this morning. Scripture actually has a great deal to say about Barnabas. He was a ministry partner to Paul for many years, traveling with him on the first of his missionary journeys. He was a prophet and teacher. He was much loved among the leaders of the early church. They even gave him nickname – Barnabas. His original name was Joses, or Joseph, but they named him Barnabas, which in Hebrew means ‘son of encouragement’.
It’s a rare gift, being able to encourage others. When you think about it, there are so many sources of DIScouragement in the world! Illnesses, losses, maybe a grouchy boss, or a grouchy spouse, or grouchy kids… maybe what we hear on the news, or find in our mailboxes. But how often do we hear ENcouraging things? And when we do, doesn’t it tend to stick with us?
I heard a wonderful example of encouragement this week. Some of you may know Ms. Martha who has been on our prayer list. She’s currently in the hospital for leukemia. This past week was a particularly tough one for her. When word of this got out on the internet a group of around 25 people came to the hospital and took Martha to the chapel and prayed with her, shared communion, read scripture, sang songs, shared stories. If you’ve ever been in the hospital you can imagine how encouraging this would be! If healing is going to happen, encouragement like this lays the foundation for it. Sadly, encouragement like this is all too rare in our world.
Barnabas was an encourager like this. Just by way of background – Barnabas was a Levite – a member of the priestly tribe of Israel. He was born on Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean, an important stop on a lot of trade routes. As a result Barnabas grew up being comfortable with foreigners and outsiders. He became a Christian early in the history of the church and was of the five “prophets and teachers” of the church in Syrian Antioch.
But this morning rather than giving you a biography of the man I’d like to try to tell his story from the point of view of someone who might have known him, a member of the church in Jerusalem. Speaking as that person, who might say something like this:
“Life hasn’t been easy for us believers here in Jerusalem but we are a joyful group anyway. 1500 years from now a guy named Shakespeare is going to write the words, ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’. And it kind of feels like that to us. Many of us here are poor, and there are lots of needs but we share whatever we have with joy. Seeing these needs, Barnabas went and sold some of his family’s land and brought the money and gave it to the apostles to provide for our poor and our widows and our children. (Acts 4:36) He wasn’t doing this to show off, he gave quietly, happy to know his land would be producing a crop of a different kind from now on.
“Some time ago there was this Pharisee named Saul. He had nothing better to do with his time than to go around persecuting the church and throwing people in jail and accusing them before the Sanhedrin. He was one of the ones to blame for the murder of that wonderful young man Stephen. Such a gentle soul Stephen was. This Saul… he stood and watched while they killed him… and he said nothing. Then a few months later he shows up calling himself Paul and claiming he saw a vision of the Lord Jesus on his way to Emmaus! Sounds like just the kind of thing he would make up to fool the simple. But Barnabas – he listened to Saul/Paul. He asked questions. He was thoughtful. And he became convinced Paul was telling the truth – not so much convinced by Paul’s words, but convinced by the Spirit of God. Barnabas was the first believer to call Paul ‘brother’ and invite him into the church. He introduced Paul to James and Peter and the apostles and spoke on his behalf until they trusted him. (Acts 9:27) As it turned out, Paul ended up being one of the most convincing preachers our church has ever seen!
“Some time later we got word here in Jerusalem that the church in Syrian Antioch was growing like crazy – and mostly with Gentiles! We also heard a lot of the new believers were from Cyprus. Barnabas – being from Cyprus himself – volunteered to travel to Antioch at his own expense to support these new converts. And when he got there he sent us back glowing letters saying how deeply these Gentiles loved Jesus. Barnabas’ preaching was so powerful the church grew by thousands! Ended up the church got so big he needed an assistant pastor, so he sent for Paul. A few years later, when famine broke out here in Jerusalem it was Barnabas and Paul who took up a collection for us and brought it as a gift from the church of Antioch. (Acts 11:19-30) They don’t just talk the faith up there, they live it.
“But I think the thing that really showed Barnabas’ true colors was the way he always defended the underdog. Like the time a bunch of old-fashioned religious types started saying the Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved. They almost caused a church split! But Barnabas, along with Paul, went and spoke to the church leaders in Jerusalem, and told them all about the miracles and faith among the Gentiles. And after searching the scriptures the leaders decided Barnabas was right. They wrote a letter to the Gentiles putting their minds at rest about circumcision. In that letter they described Barnabas and Paul as ‘beloved [disciples] who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ And that’s pretty much how we all feel about them. They are much loved by all the people.
“Another time Barnabas defended the underdog was the time he defended the disciple John-Mark to Paul. (Acts 15) Paul invited Barnabas to revisit the cities they had preached in together and Barnabas agreed but wanted to bring John-Mark along. John-Mark had been on their first journey but never got to complete the mission – he was called home about halfway through. We never did find out why, but Paul thought John-Mark was a quitter and said so to Barnabas. Barnabas stood up for John-Mark, which ticked Paul off big-time, and they had such a falling out they decided to go their separate ways. Paul took Silas with him on his journey instead of Barnabas, and Barnabas took John-Mark on a journey to Cyprus. It was a sad day for us to see Paul and Barnabas divided against each other like that. It didn’t last though. True, the two of them never traveled together again, but Paul had wonderful things to say about Barnabas in his letters. And rumor has it that Paul, talking to Silas one night, said he was sorry for the way he had treated Barnabas, saying ‘…but love is supposed to be patient and kind, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way…’. They say that’s where it came from.
“So if you ask me about Barnabas – ask anyone who knows him for that matter – we’ll tell you he’s a man who is generous and courageous, faithful and dependable, discerning God’s truth, risking his life for the gospel, putting his reputation on the line to support others. He’s full of mercy and forgiveness. And he’s not one to fall for ‘proof-text’ arguments. You know the kind of arguments I mean: where you get caught between a rock and a hard place, like ‘should we pay taxes to Caesar or not’ – remember that one? Jesus was always good at finding a third alternative to these proof-text arguments, and Barnabas is good at that too. A better prophet and teacher would be hard to find.
“The world could use more like Barnabas, but I think they broke the mold when they made him. Still we could do a lot worse than to take a few pages from his book. We don’t all have the same gifts, but all of us can be encouragers.
“One word of caution though – where it comes to a man as good as Barnabas, people sometimes forget that he’s just the messenger, not the message itself. God, Father Son and Holy Spirit – is the best encourager of all. Not to take anything away from Barnabas, mind you – but even he would say that his life is meant to point to Jesus.
“In Scripture, the Holy Spirit says Barnabas is “a good man, full of the Spirit and of faith” – and the Spirit doesn’t say things like that about just anybody! He’s someone whose footsteps we can follow. But even better, he gives us a picture of how much God wants to encourage us with His mercy and His kindness, His faithfulness and His truth.
“A blessed St. Barnabas Day to you all.” AMEN.
Preached at Church of the Ascension, Oakland, Wednesday June 11, 2014