Sunday 10 June 2018
Commemoration of the Apostle Barnabas
This morning we are continuing our summer sermon series on saints with the Apostle Barnabas. Barnabas is not as well known as some other apostles—like Peter, Paul, James, or John—but he has a very interesting story and a message for us today.
Barnabas is introduced to us at the end of Acts chapter 4: “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’)” (Acts 4:36). So Barnabas is a Jew, but he was born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Joseph is his given name, but, even though we haven’t heard anything about him before now, the apostles have already given him the nickname “Son of Encouragement.” As we’ll see, it is quite an apt name. According to tradition, Barnabas was one of the larger crowd of disciples who followed Jesus around and was one of the seventy missionary Jesus sent out in Luke 10. So perhaps Barnabas picked up his nickname while following Jesus in Galilee and Judea.
The next thing we are told is that Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). This is during the time of that early Jesus community in Jerusalem, when they were all sharing their possessions with one another and living together in unity. Barnabas is the prime example Luke gives us of someone who sold his property in order to have the money distributed to the poor by the apostles.
We don’t hear any more from Barnabas until Acts chapter 9. Saul has been persecuting the church, but then he has an experience on the road to Damascus, and he changes from being a persecutor of the church to being a proclaimer of Jesus. He comes to Jerusalem to try to talk with the leaders of the church there, but no one will see him. They don’t trust him. They remember that he is one of the people who has been trying to out them to the authorities and destroy them. No one will speak to him. No one, that is, except Barnabas.
We aren’t told all of the details of how it happened, how Barnabas met Saul, or how Barnabas decided that Saul really had been reformed. Luke just says, “Barnabas brought Saul to the apostles and told them the story about how Saul saw the Lord on the way and that the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them about the confidence with which Saul had preached in the name of Jesus in Damascus. After this, Saul moved freely among the disciples in Jerusalem and was speaking with confidence in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:27-28). Barnabas vouches for Saul, puts his own name on the line. It’s a big risk, but it pays off. Without Barnabas, Saul is never accepted by the Christian community, and his mission never gets off the ground.
The next time Barnabas shows up in the narrative is in the passage we read this morning. After Stephen the Deacon has been stoned to death in Jerusalem, many early Christians flee the holy city, and they end up preaching message of good news in Jesus Christ in the places where they go. Most of them only preach in Aramaic. But a few of these refugee preachers offer the message to Jews in Antioch who only speak Greek, not Aramaic. When word of this reaches Jerusalem, they send Barnabas as their representative to see what is going on. When he finds a new community growing, he goes to find Saul in Tarsus. They stay in Antioch together for a year, preaching and teaching, and growing the church. Luke also gives us the detail that it is in Antioch in this time when the followers of Jesus are first called by the name Christians. We also learn that when there was a famine, it was Barnabas and Saul that took a special offering from the church in Antioch for the benefit of the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
After they have gotten back from their mission of mercy, bringing with them a new missionary named John Mark, Barnabas and Saul and the other prophets are worshipping and they have an experience of the Holy Spirit. They hear the Spirit saying that God has a special task for Barnabas and Saul. So they gather together, and they lay their hands on Barnabas and Saul, prayed over them, and sent them out, along with John Mark. This begins what is generally called Paul’s first missionary journey. However, you’ll notice that at this point in the story, it’s always Barnabas who seems to be leading the way. And you’ll notice that we haven’t heard the name Paul yet. It’s Barnabas and Saul wherever they go.
But that’s about to change. As they continue their ministry in Cyprus, Luke tells us abruptly, and with no further explanation, “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Saul, also known as Paul…,” and from then on it’s not Barnabas and Saul, it’s Paul and Barnabas. We generally have the impression that Saul has his named changed to Paul when he has his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus, but that’s not what actually happens. Saul sees Jesus on the road in chapter 9, but it’s not until chapter 13 that he starts being called Paul. Scholars think it’s just that Saul is the Aramaic pronunciation and Paul is the Greek pronunciation, like the difference between John in English and Juan in Spanish.
In any case, Barnabas and Paul make their way across Cyprus. Wherever they go, they preach, they attract followers, and then they get chased out of town by people who are upset that they are stirring up the people, disrupting the natural order of things. They go through the same pattern in town after town. When Paul and Barnabas take a boat over to what is now Turkey, their companion, John Mark heads back home to Jerusalem.
In Lystra, Paul heals a disabled man who couldn’t walk. The people think that he and Barnabas are gods in the flesh. They say that Barnabas must be Zeus, the king of the gods, and Paul must be Hermes, the messenger of the gods. It takes all of their powers of oratory to keep the people from sacrificing animals to them.
After visiting many towns, setting up many churches, and ordaining many elders, they return to their base in Antioch. While they are there, some other missionaries come from Judea saying that Gentiles need to be circumcised if they’re going to become Christians. Both Barnabas and Paul argue against this, saying that Christ’s grace is sufficient for Gentiles. And they point to their own ministry with Gentiles as proof that God’s Spirit is doing a new thing.
They end up being called to a council in Jerusalem to settle the matter. Interestingly, while it was always Paul and Barnabas out in the mission field, when they come before the leaders of the Jerusalem church, it’s Barnabas and Paul. It’s Barnabas who has credibility with the apostles, and it’s Barnabas who takes the lead. The leader of the Jerusalem church, Jesus’s brother James, ends up siding with Barnabas and Paul, and the church is opened up to Gentiles. Barnabas and Paul return to their base in Antioch with the news.
Much, but not all, of the story of Barnabas has been bound up with the story of Paul. But they are about to go their separate ways. Paul suggests to Barnabas that they go back and visit all the places they had been on their first epic trip. Barnabas is keen to go too, and he wants to take John Mark along with them, the same companion who had accompanied them on the first part of their earlier trip.
But Paul will have none of it. He feels that John Mark had abandoned them on the first trip, and he is not willing to give him another chance. Even though they have been through so much together, they are not able to resolve this conflict. Luke says, “Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace” (Acts 15:39-40). After years of working together, they split up. So far as we know, they never get back together again.
It fits with what we know of Barnabas’s character. He is the son of encouragement. He is the one who offers second chances, who mends divisions. It was Barnabas who convinced the Jerusalem church to give Paul a second chance after he had been a persecutor of the church. It was Barnabas who supported Paul in his missionary travels. It was Barnabas who defended Paul and his acceptance of Gentiles before the council in Jerusalem. It seems only natural that Barnabas would be the one who would want to give John Mark a second chance. He wants to give a second chance, and it’s Paul who is unwilling to do so. It’s interesting. Paul is known to us as the apostle of grace. And yet, his bitter disagreement and break from his close friend and partner comes because he is unwilling to offer the same grace that Barnabas offers.
It a good reminder that even the saints don’t always act like saints. Even the closest followers of Jesus aren’t perfect. They have arguments, fights, fallings out. They let their egos get the better of themselves at times. Paul and Barnabas are different, and at a certain point they are no longer able to work with each other. But they are both still strong apostles. They both continue their ministry in Jesus Christ even if they can’t agree on exactly how to do it together.
Barnabas is worthy of imitation. He was never the rock star of the early church. He doesn’t have the fame or name recognition of Paul. Even though he is the one who brought Paul into the fold, he often ends up playing second to Paul. And he seems to do so happily and faithfully. He continues to support and defend Paul, even when Paul’s actions have made him unpopular. He remains faithful. And yet, he is willing to stand up to Paul in the name of grace. He remains that son of encouragement who is always more ready than those around him to offer a second chance.
May we learn from Barnabas that kind of compassion. May we learn to error on the side of grace. May we be willing to take the supporting role when we are called to do so, and to boldly speak our truth when the spirit compels us to. May we be generous with our possessions and generous with our hearts. May we become sources of encouragement, willing to reconcile, willing to forgive, willing to offer another chance to those who ask for it. For we know that we are all here because we have been forgiven, because we have been offered grace. May we be just as willing to offer grace to sisters, brothers, and neighbors. Amen.