Sermon at St James Colwall – Trinity 2 – 13 June 2021
Acts 11: 19-30
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
Those of you who are familiar with the Flintstones will also be familiar with Fred’s call to his friend and companion “BARNEY!” It’s Barney I want to concentrate upon today, but there is one other of the cartoon characters we ought to include and that is - “Pebbles”
What did Barney do and why was he so important to the Flintstone story? Without Barney, Fred has no-one to share ideas with, no companion on his various adventures, no one to offer him admiration and support.
Just as in the cartoon story lines, Barnabas was important to the story, the story of the early Church. Not that he ever did a lot. He was just there. He preached occasionally as a sort of warm-up act for Paul, the main attraction, but seldom in the first phase of mission did he act alone.
So where did he come from, this aide-de-camp, - this companion?
Imagine being so well known for comforting and encouraging the people around you that people stop referring to you by name, choosing instead to call you by a nickname. Suppose that nickname becomes so common that some people who hear about you don’t even know your real name!
That’s exactly what happened to Joseph, an influential leader of the early Church.
Luke, the author of Acts, introduces us to this Levite from Cyprus at the end of the fourth chapter, explaining that Joseph was also known as Barnabas. Depending on the Bible translation you read, Barnabas is defined as “son of encouragement,” “son of consolation” or “son of exhortation.”
Barnabas did not earn this nickname with a few pats on the back or “attaboys.” What he did was far more significant.
In a legal setting, the Greek parakletos, which we translate as encourager, was “a legal assistant, counsel for the defence, an advocate.”
Luke never again refers to this individual as Joseph, but calls him Barnabas 23 more times. The apostle Paul refers to Barnabas five times in his epistles, but never once by his real name.
If we want to be more like Barnabas, we will also be faced with choices about how we view our brothers and sisters. In essence, Barnabas was known not for just offering a few words of encouragement or comfort, but for standing beside people in their trials. He was not emotionally detached from them, but joined with them in their troubles. It is altogether fitting that we first hear of this man selling a parcel of land so the money could be distributed among people in need.
Several incidents in the book of Acts demonstrate Barnabas as an advocate, defending someone who was not trusted, or who had fallen out of favour.
Surprisingly, this characteristic of Barnabas actually resulted in his separation from Paul at the beginning of what we now know as Paul’s second missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to take “John called Mark,” along but Paul was against the idea of asking someone who had left them during their first journey.
And this is where Pebbles comes in.
One of the few pieces of any sermon I remember from my teenage years was when a curate Mike Vickers describing Paul’s first missionary journey told us how the evangelist accompanied by Barnabas and John Mark were travelling out of Antioch when, and I quote – “Mark got cold feet so he left them in the desert and returned to Jerusalem”. The vision of a pair of disembodied feet standing beside a desert road has remained with me ever since!
Today we do not know the reason John Mark “departed from them … and had not gone with them to the work” during that first journey. Whether or not John Mark had good reasons to leave, Paul did not want the young man along on his second journey. Barnabas did want John Mark and was so passionate that Barnabas refused to acquiesce to Paul, who also refused to yield to Barnabas. Their “contention became so sharp that they parted from one another.”
As it turned out, Barnabas recognized the potential of this young man.
Pebbles had a very different evangelistic task - to write a gospel. Most scholars believe John Mark was the author of the Gospel of Mark. Not only that, but John Mark eventually proved himself worthy to Paul, who mentions him as a companion and co-worker three times in his letters to the Colossians, to Timothy and to Philemon.
Earlier Paul himself had been the beneficiary of such support from Barnabas. The early Church did not trust Paul (previously known as Saul), who had vigorously persecuted early Christians. The first incident mentioned was the stoning of Stephen. When this occurred, “the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” And in the very next chapter we are told that Saul “made havoc of the church” (8:3), which scattered throughout the region. In his zeal, Saul volunteered to travel to Damascus to arrest “any who were of the Way” and to bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. Ironically, it was on this journey that Saul became a Christian.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Saul returned to Jerusalem, the disciples there “were all afraid of him”. They did not trust him. They believed his claim of conversion was merely a ruse that would make it possible for him to capture more believers.
Then Barnabas stepped in. Taking Saul before the apostles and presenting evidence of his conversion, Barnabas acted as an advocate. He stood by Saul when no one else believed or trusted him. He saw the potential in Saul, as he later saw the potential in John Mark.
Barnabas acted on Paul’s behalf a second time. When the church at Jerusalem heard that a great number of gentiles in Antioch had “turned to the Lord”, the church sent Barnabas there to teach. After his initial visit, Barnabas travelled on to Tarsus, searching for Saul and recruiting him to assist in this work. Together they returned to Antioch, where they spent an entire year teaching.
In all of these examples, Barnabas did far more than offer a few choice words of encouragement, while maintaining a comfortable distance from the problems of other Christians. So how did he become such an effective comforter?
To stand beside someone, we must be prepared to share the burden and to endure the struggle with that person. Barnabas looked beyond the immediate situation, evaluating not only the problem, but the needs of the people facing those trials. In John Mark’s case, Barnabas looked beyond the mistakes of a young man. Instead, he considered the potential benefits of giving John Mark another chance to serve. John Mark benefited, gaining valuable experience while travelling on a second missionary journey with Barnabas, but the Church also benefited.
In Paul’s case, Barnabas set aside any fears and distrust, focusing instead on the preaching Paul had done in the synagogues of Damascus before arriving in Jerusalem. Barnabas was not ignorant of Paul’s history, but he chose to believe that Paul had changed.
If we want to be more like Barnabas, we will also be faced with choices about how we view our brothers and sisters. If we want to be advocates, standing beside them, we must first believe in them. We must believe in their value before God, and we must choose to consider their future rather than dwell on sins and mistakes of the past.
In addressing the church at Corinth, Paul described this very trait. Love, he wrote, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Next time you watch the Flintstones think of Fred, or Paul as we should call him – the headliner - think of Pebbles or Mark the footless author and historically the most quoted evangelist and of Barney or Barnabas the advocate, companion and comforter.
To stand beside someone, we must be prepared to share the burden and to endure the struggle with that person. We must believe in the person, and we must hope for the best, always realizing that love entails risk.
When we do all this, we will be the kind of comforter Barnabas was.