Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. In their lifetime, they did amazing things travelling to the ends of the Roman Empire, where they preached, gathered believers and established congregations. Although the term “apostle” is generally the title only given to Jesus’ 12 disciples, there are actually 12 other men who are referred to as apostles in the New Testament, including: Paul, Barnabas, James the Lord’s Brother, Apollos, Mark, Timothy and Luke. This morning, I would like to explore the life of one of these second-string apostles, St. Barnabas.
When our children are young, we place signs and posters around their bedrooms and classrooms with encouraging reminders to do their best and to dare to do new things- ride a bike, learn a musical instrument, and try a sport. From Wolfgang Riebe, “No one is perfect, that’s why pencils have erasers.” From Dr. Seuss, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out.” As they grow older, we offer words of encouragement to inspire them to discover their passions, and to remind them that they need not be afraid of making mistakes for when you avoid failure you also avoid success. As Benjamin Franklin quipped, “I didn’t fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.” In life, we all need words of encouragement, including Jesus’ apostles.
Barnabas, who was named Joseph at birth, and later nicknamed “Son of Encouragement” by the apostles, was a devout Jew born in the year 1 AD. His family was part of the priestly clan of Levites living on the island of Cyprus. He was well- travelled, well- educated and a man of great means. Tradition states that he left Cyprus for Jerusalem in his youth to study theology and law with the great Rabbi Gamaliel, who, incidentally was also the teacher of Saul of Tarsus who would one day become the apostle Paul. Barnabas and Saul may have been friends and students together under the guidance of Gamaliel. While living in Jerusalem, Barnabas become acquainted with Jesus’ teaching, perhaps through his relative John Mark or John Mark’s mother. In some traditions, he is considered as one of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus during his lifetime. Barnabas became a devoted follower of Jesus, and was recognized as a gifted speaker. He was to the church and the ministry of the apostles and supported the church generously as it grew day by day. This is how he is first introduced in the Book of Acts where. St. Luke writes, “Barnabas, sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
Soon after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles began preaching boldly in the Temple concerning Jesus and his resurrection. For the first years, their actions went unnoticed, but as he followers of the Way, as the Christian church was first known, grew in number, the Jewish Council forbid them to preach in Jesus’ name and speak of his resurrection in the Temple. Still, they continued and their defiance in the face of the High Priest and Sadducees, angered the Council. They ordered that the apostles be arrested and cast into prison, while others threatened death by stoning. That was when the respected Rabbi Gamaliel stepped in. He persuaded the Jewish leaders against persecuting the movement as a whole, arguing that if the movement was not of God, it would end on its own. Eventually, the Jewish leaders agreed, letting the apostles go after mere beatings and warnings.
Not everyone agreed with the action of the Council, and the most vocal opponent was Saul, Gamaliel’s own student. He wanted the Christian movement to come to an abrupt end, and he delighted at the death of the first Christian martyr Stephen. So Saul went to the Council, and asked for permission to travel to Damascus to arrest the men and women there who had become followers of Jesus. They agreed to his request. As Saul was travelling on the road to Damascus with a small unit of soldiers, he was blinded by the light of Christ, with something like scales on his eyes. and he heard Jesus calling, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” For three days, Saul remained without sight, and when he was finally allowed to see again, he became a follower of Jesus. After his conversion, Saul sought to join the followers of Christ first in Damascus and then in Jerusalem; everyone there, however, was afraid of him since he had persecuted the Church- except for Barnabas. He brought him to the Apostles and reported how the Lord had appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. They reluctantly welcome him, and eventually sent him to his home village of Tarsus.
Meanwhile, the persecution of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem grew, even without Saul. Believers fled to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and to Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire which wasn’t too far from Tarsus. It was there in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first called Christians. The dispersed believers brought the gospel with them and shared it with their neighbors in the synagogues. When the leaders in Jerusalem learned how quickly the church was growing, they sent Barnabas to Antioch to verify what was happening and to organize the Church. The task, however, was overwhelming. Barnabas soon realized that he needed help to reach all the people, and he thought of Saul in Tarsus who he invited him to help him in this work.
In time, Barnabas and Saul, along with Barnabas’ nephew John Mark, were commissioned by the church in Antioch to begin a missionary journey through Asia Minor. After travelling only across the island of Barnabas’ native Cyprus, John Mark abandoned the two apostles. Barnabas and Saul travelled on through Asia Minor preaching in a handful of synagogues. In Pisidian Antioch, many believed, and they asked the apostles to return the next Sabbath. The next week, almost the entire city showed up, including many God-fearers and Gentiles, but the leaders of the synagogue were jealous of the crowds and tried to silence the apostles. Barnabas and Saul went on the next city and spread the Gospel through the whole region, but in each city, the synagogue leaders would follow them and stir up the crowds against the apostles.
When the two apostles reached the gates of Lystra, they noticed a lame man listening intently. Saul healed the man, and the crowd declared that Barnabas must be Zeus and Paul Hermes, as Hermes was the messenger and chief spokesman of the gods. The priests of the temple of Zeus themselves joined the crowds and attempted to offer sacrifices to Saul and Barnabas. As that same time, angry synagogue leaders followed them stirring up the crowds against them. The ensuing mob stoned Saul and dragged him out of the city. When the followers gathered around his lifeless body, Saul miraculously stood up completely well, and went back into the city.
Finally, returning from this first missionary journey to their home in Antioch, Barnabas and Saul were sent to Jerusalem to discuss the changing relations with the Gentiles. After much debate, the matter was settled in the Council of Jerusalem led by James the Wise, Jesus’ Brother. Gentiles were, in principle, to be admitted into the church without having to adopt Jewish customs. In reality, however, this was not always practiced. When Peter visited Antioch, it was reported that he did not abide by the council’s decision. He refused to eat with Gentiles. Saul confronted Peter face to face. It is described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. But that is another story. Saul later came to Barnabas and asked him to accompany him on another journey, but when Barnabas suggested that John Mark join them, Saul refused. The dispute ended with sharp words and Saul and Barnabas going their separate ways.
In his subsequent ministry, Barnabas traveled to Cyprus with John Mark where Barnabas is regarded as the patron saint. According to the legend, Barnabas brought the Gospel to Milan as well, and appointed his own disciple, Ananthalon as the city’s first bishop. After returning to Cyprus, Barnabas was met by a group of synagogue leaders who were exasperated at his success. They fell upon him as he was disputing in the synagogue, dragged him out, and stoned him to death in 62 AD. John Mark, who witnessed this barbarous act, privately interred his body.
According to the History of the Cyprus Church, in 478 AD Barnabas appeared in a dream to the Archbishop Anthemios of Cyprus and revealed to him the place of his burial beneath a carob-tree. The following day Anthemios found the tomb and inside it the remains of Barnabas with a manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel on his breast. A monastery was then built to house his remains.
So what does the story of the Apostle Barnabas teach us? Interestingly, Martin Luther focused on the dispute between Barnabas and Saul. He wrote, “It must have been a violent disagreement to separate the associates who were so closely united. Such examples,” he added, “are written for out consolation; for it is great comfort to us to hear that great saints, who have the Spirit of God, also sin. If Barnabas or Paul, or Peter fell, I, too, may fall; if he rose again, I, too, may rise again.”
True encouragement may seem easy, but the story of Barnabas, the son of encouragement teaches us encouragement is more than pasting placards and posters on the wall. Christian encouragement demands more. It is about walking the walking and not simply talking the talk. That may mean using your financial treasure. For where this is true encouragement, generosity is unavoidable. Where there true encouragement, sacrifice becomes second-nature and loyalty is unquestionable. As Nicole Yatsonky said, “Your truest friends are the ones who will stand by you in your darkest moments-because they’re willing to brave the shadows with you-and in your greatest moments-because they’re not afraid to let you shine.”
My friends, throughout life we all need words and gestures of encouragement. So in the ordinary times. let us remember St. Barnabas, the “son of encouragement,” and show encouragement, not simply in words of praise, but in deeds and gestures of generosity, sacrifice and loyalty. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.