St Barnabas, 10th June 2018
The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
Tobit 4: 5 – 11
Acts 14: 8 – 20
Every now and again I find myself wandering through a cemetery, taking time to read the tomb-stones, wondering about the people whose names and dates of birth and death are inscribed in stone. What were their lives, faith and circumstances like? Some have very elaborate graves, with lots of writing on the stones; others are much simpler. We see similar things in many churches – including this cathedral – where plaques are placed on the walls. My father has a very simple metal plaque in a garden of remembrance, no bigger than an A5 sheet of paper. Other than his full names and dates of birth and death, there appear just two words – “Be prepared” – the Boy Scout motto, something he lived by all his life. One of the most intriguing I have come across was for the wife of a vicar in a church I once served in. Her two words were: “She tried.” What, I have often wondered, was behind those two words – and how did whoever chose them to be there say them?
Tomorrow the church remembers one of the lesser known saints of the very early church – St Barnabas. We first come across his name in Acts chapter 4. Barnabas sold a plot of land and gave the entire proceeds to the church, presumably to be used to care for the poor and needy. I am reminded of the incredible generosity of so many who give week by week to places like the Magdalene Centre. We next find Barnabas speaking up for Saul – later to become known as Paul, the great missionary apostle and writer of many of the letters found in the New Testament. Barnabas not only befriends Saul but clearly became his confidant and trusted friend who must have listened long and hard to Saul as the story of Saul’s dramatic encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was told and retold.
Skip a chapter or two in Acts and Barnabas is again in the limelight – this time being sent by the church leadership in Jerusalem to find out what was happening in Antioch. “When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all (those very first believers in Antioch, to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion.” And then comes what must be one of the most beautiful tributes to anyone, so simple and so profound. Acts 11: 21 has this to say of Barnabas: “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Barnabas sought out Saul, took him to Antioch and the two spent a year teaching and building up the church. As an aside, you will, I am sure, remember that it was in Antioch that the believers in, and followers of, Jesus Christ were first called Christians.
Barnabas and Paul (no longer Saul) then set off on their travels, returning first to Jerusalem before going on what is known as Paul’s first missionary journey. Interestingly it is Barnabas who continues to be the leader – though Paul gets the credit in the long term. Tonight’s 2nd reading speaks into this 1st missionary journey when, in Lystra, Barnabas and Paul are taken to be the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. Despite their strenuous denials, there are those who wish to offer sacrifices to them.
Barnabas, a Greek-speaking Jew who was a Levite – thus giving him impeccable credentials and the ability to speak into both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds – was clearly one of the early movers and shakers of the early church. Along with Paul he was delegated to report to the apostles in Jerusalem about what was happening in the non-Jewish world, how some Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ. The Council of Jerusalem, mentioned in Acts 15, was one of the pivotal moments in the life of the church. Had the decision been different you and I would likely not be here tonight in this Cathedral. As it was, the decision to include Gentiles in the Church, without them having to keep the whole of the Jewish Law, including circumcision, led ultimately to the breaking of the bonds of friendship between Barnabas and Paul, and they went their separate ways. Despite that, Paul is able later to refer to Barnabas with deep respect. (1 Cor 9: 6)
Barnabas disappears from the biblical record and no more is heard of him. Tradition has it that he was martyred in 61 AD in Cyprus, where he is regarded as the founder of the church.
What I have not yet mentioned about Barnabas, and that which touches me most deeply and comes back to the idea of choosing the right words accurately describing the essential character of a person on their tomb-stone, is the nickname given to Barnabas. At the very first mention of Barnabas in Acts 4 we are given some biographical detail about him. His given name was Joseph, he was a Levite, and had been born on Cyprus. And in brackets, we are told that the apostles named him Barnabas – son of encouragement. To my mind that is one of the most moving tributes one could give to a person. Barnabas, son of encouragement – one who encouraged others.
Take a moment now and think about, and then give thanks for, those who have been encouragers in your life. Who is that you remember with affection and respect as one who helped you by believing in you, encouraging you to live more fully into your potential, made it possible for you to do what you have? Who was it who first saw your potential and encouraged you to nurture it?
And then think about those who might benefit by being encouraged by you; who look to you for nurture and counsel and the gentle hand that helps one up rather than pushes one down.
As we listen to the choir singing the anthem now, allow yourself to be encouraged in your own journey of faith, as a Christian, and give thanks for St Barnabas, son of encouragement.
Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ has taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive: help us by the example of your apostle Barnabas, a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, to be generous in our judgements and unselfish in our service; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
APBA Collect for St Barnabas
A good man.
Son of encouragement.
How will you be remembered?
Almighty God, we remember today your servant Barnabas, whose great joy was to proclaim your love; grant us also the gift of your Holy Spirit, to bring others to know your goodness, to encourage the faint-hearted and to minister to those in need; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Holy and humble Spirit, we thank you for Barnabas who went to seek for Saul; grant us the integrity and perception to recognise the one you choose.
Collects from A New Zealand Prayer Book/
He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa
Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will. Amen.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola