A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Iffley by Roger Wagner on 11th June 2023
Our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles describes the moment when the Jesus “revolution”, as it’s sometimes referred to, really began. Of course the touch paper had been lit when Jews from all over the diaspora had gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and something new had happened when Peter went to the house of the gentile Cornelius. But that had only involved a single household. What was happening in Antioch was on a different scale. The persecution that had begun in Jerusalem, headed up by a terrifying young Pharisee named Saul, had sent the followers of Jesus to different cities, where they began to proclaim Jesus in their synagogues. But in Antioch they had started speaking to gentiles, and something radically new had begun to appear. While all over the ancient world people from different ethnic groups worshipped their own gods in their own temples, there was a certain amount of mingling, of mixing and matching. But for the Jews the vision of the one God who was the source of all moral claims could only be guarded by a strict separation. Yet in Antioch alone a new community was spontaneously developing in which people from radically different ethnic and class backgrounds were coming together as followers of Jesus. We read a bit layer that the church included one teacher Simeon called who was called Niger, another Manaen, who been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch. Nothing like this had been seen before and the apostles’ understandably felt they must send someone north to investigate.
The man they chose was Cypriot called Joseph. He came from a Levite family and perhaps came to Jerusalem for the Pentecost feast. At any rate what had happened at Pentecost dramatically affected him because the first time we hear about him in Acts we are told that he sold a field he owned and put the money at the apostles’ feet. This was an act of radical commitment and solidarity and the apostles were so moved by it that they renamed him Barnabas, son of consolation, and son of encouragement.
The next mention of Barnabas comes a few chapters later when Saul, who had been pursuing the followers of Jesus to the cities where they fled, and ended up meeting Jesus himself on the road to Damascus, has come back to Jerusalem and is trying to join the disciples. They are afraid to meet him. It may well be that he’d previously identified believers by pretending to be interested, and who was to say that he wouldn’t do the same thing again. But Barnabas, we’re told, took him, and brought him to the apostles. It was a courageous thing to do. There are times when faith is, as it were, spelt R I S K. But as well as courage it also demonstrated a gift of seeing, of discerning what the Holy Spirit was doing in someone’s life. And so Barnabas was perhaps the obvious person to send up to Antioch to find out what was happening, and to work out what to do.
When Barnabas arrived in Antioch were told that “as he saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and he exhorted them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion for he was a good man, full of the holy Spirit and of faith”. But he was also a humble man and he realized that he couldn’t cope with this new mixed congregation by himself. They needed someone to help them to this think through what had happened and he remembers Paul and goes off to find him and brings him to Antioch, where they spend a year teaching this new community, who for the first time were called “Christians”.
It was an extraordinary time but even without the persecution that would come later it wasn’t always easy. We read for instance in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that when Peter came up to Antioch he participated fully in this new Jewish and Gentile community, but when James sent up people to see what was happening, Peter began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles and Paul has to publicly rebuke him. Not only Peter but “even Barnabas was led astray”. Paul says, and you can almost hear the pain in his voice, “even Barnabas”. No one gets it right all the time, but they resolved their difficulties and in almost the next chapter of Acts we learn that the spirit has chosen Barnabas and Paul as missionaries to preach the gospel and they set out with John Mark, Barnabas’ young cousin, as their helper.
At first we hear about Barnabas and Paul but almost immediately Luke begins to talk about Paul and Barnabas or Paul and his companions and it is clear that Paul is the one who does most of the speaking. At Lystra, when a cripple is healed, they’re mistaken for Gods. The crowds think Barnabas is Zeus and Paul is Hermes because “he was the chief speaker”. But there is no sense that Barnabas in any way resents this. It may be a great art to play second fiddle but it is an art that Barnabas has. He has recognized Paul’s gifts and seemed delighted for him to use them. The difficulty when it comes is not about preaching but about Barnabas’s young cousin John Mark. If as many think Mark is the young man who runs away naked in the garden of Gethsemane, it has to be said that he doesn’t do much better here. Because at almost the beginning of the journey, when they’ve only reached Paphos, Mark gives up and goes back to Jerusalem.
On their second missionary journey Barnabas wants to take Mark again but Paul does not think it wise because he had deserted them in Pamphilia. There is a “paroxysmos” a furious row. Paul goes off to Syria with Silas and Barnabas takes Mark and sails away to Cyprus, and that is the last we hear of Barnabas, but of course it is not the last we hear of Mark.
In Peter’s first letter we refers to “my dear son Mark” and the tradition of then church is that John Mark his gospel from what Peter had told him.
But it is not only Peter who questions Mark. In his letters from prison, so does Paul. In the letter to the Colossians which he writes from he sends greetings from Mark the cousin of Barnabas and says if he comes to you, welcome him. In his letter to Philemon he sends greetings from his fellow prisoners and from his fellow workers Mark and Luke. And in his last letter to Timothy when he is facing death – ‘the time has come for my departure’ – everyone has deserted him except Luke. He asks Timothy to “get Mark and bring him to me for he is helpful to me in my ministry”. You could think of that request as Pauls’ final tribute to Barnabas.
So what encouragement can the son of encouragement bring to us?
Well the first encouragement he brought to the apostles was the encouragement of his complete commitment.
Take my silver and my gold
Not a mite would I withhold
Take my intellect and use
Every power as thou shalt choose.
His example encourages us to bring to God every gift that God has given to us.
He encourages us to take risks with people to see them through the lens of faith rather than through the lens of fear to discern what God may be doing in the world around us and to rejoice in it.
He encourages us not to think that everything depends on us. To get help when we need it, and to take a back seat and to play the second fiddle when that is appropriate.
He encourages us not to be put off by failure. Not by our own failure when we get things wrong and do and say things we later regret. Not by the failure of others who may let us down and disappoint us. Not to let ourselves or anyone else be defined by failure.
Perhaps though most of all he encourages us to be ourselves encouragers: sons and daughters of encouragement.
How can we become encouragers?
Well it may be helpful to begin by thinking who has been a Barnabas to us in our own lives. Who has seen in us something that God has put there or is doing and encouraged it. And then to consider for whom we might have put in the position in the position of a Barnabas.
When Barnabas sailed back to Cyprus with John Mark he could have had no idea what the impact of his life had been. But without Barnabas we wouldn’t have the gospel of Mark, we wouldn’t have the letters of Paul, without Barnabas we gentiles might not be here today.
Barnabas could have had no idea of that and none of us can know what impact our lives might have but in a way we don’t need to.
In our gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples that “I have appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last”. And that is all we need to know. He tells them and us that he calls us his friends, he commands us to love one another, and he asks us to pray in his name and trust, as Barnabas trusted that we will be given what we need. Amen.