St Barnabas Beckenham
11th June 2009
Barnabas the Encourager
Joses, whom the Apostles nicknamed ‘Barnabas’, that is ‘Son of Encouragement’ Acts 4:36
There are few talents in life as valuable as the gift of being able to encourage people, especially when they are feeling down-hearted and discouraged.
This was particularly true of those Allied soldiers captured by the Germans, who found themselves imprisoned in places like Colditz Castle. Although the general instruction was that any soldier who fell into enemy hands had the duty to try and escape if possible (which many did), there were some who were specifically instructed not to escape, even if the opportunity presented itself: namely, those whose good effect on the morale of their fellow prisoners was worth as much, if not more, than their fighting skills.
Barnabas was like that. His ministry was not just to his fellow-prisoners in Philippi jail, but to his fellow-Christians as a whole. Let’s look at some examples of the people he encouraged during his ministry.
The Church in Jerusalem very quickly ran out of money after Pentecost. This was because they believed that the Second Coming of Jesus (after which they wouldn’t need things like money any more) was going to happen very, very soon. They were mistaken, and things began to look pretty grim for their future. But, St Luke tells us, ‘Barnabas… owned a piece of land and he sold it and brought the money and presented it to the Apostles’.
Most of us experience being in debt, however little, at some time in our lives; (you of course may be an exception!). but few experiences in life are more encouraging than the relief one feels when someone help to clear the debt, even if it is only with a temporary loan. Barnabas went one better: he simply paid the debt off and provided the young Church with some working capital.
Of course there are situations where lending people money does them more harm than good; but equally often a small gift or loan is the simplest way of setting people or institutions on the right path again.. Many Churches have a special Gift Day, once a year, and it is both surprising and encouraging to find how many people, even those who have no connection with the Church, are willing to dip their hands in their pockets on such an occasion
When St Paul first visited the Church at Jerusalem after his miraculous conversion, St Luke says ‘the Apostles were all afraid of him’. Who can blame them! But it was Barnabas again who saved the day. ‘He took charge of him, introduced him to the Apostles, and explained how the Lord had appeared to [him]’.
‘Saying a good word for someone’ can have a miraculous effect on other people’s view of them. You have probably experienced this. You’ve been talking to a friend about a Third Party, and being rather critical of them. ‘Daphne is such a misery’, you say to your friend, ‘she never seems to smile or laugh’. But then your friend tells you that Daphne has been told that she has terminal cancer, and is in constant discomfort 24 hours a day as a result. That changes the whole picture, doesn’t it?; and you resolve to try to encourage Daphne rather than always criticize her. That’s another thing that the Barnabases of this world can do: change people’s attitudes towards others.
The Young Church in Jerusalem soon ran into doctrinal trouble. Some of them wanted those Gentiles whom Paul and Barnabas had converted on their recent missionary journey to become like Jews and keep the whole Law of Moses before they could be reckoned to be ‘real’ Christians. Barnabas and Paul insisted that this was not what Jesus had intended, and they described ‘all the signs and wonders God had worked through them among the pagans’.
Unusually in this instance, St Luke refers to ‘Barnabas and Paul’ instead of ‘Paul and Barnabas’ which suggests that it may have been his slightly less abrasive approach which decided the issue. Paul, we know, had a first-rate brain, but as so often happens, people like him just don’t understand why people aren’t grasping an idea which to them is as plain as a pikestaff. Over and over again in St Paul’s letters we find him struggling with this difficulty, and using some very strong language, especially to the Galatians, in dealing with those who couldn’t get their minds around the truth that ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free… but all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. ‘Are you mad?’ he asks them, ‘faith in Christ Jesus rather then fidelity to the Law is what justifies us’. Strong talk indeed! But there are times when it’s someone like a Barnabas, with his gentler, more patient approach, who enables people to understand the truth which Paul is being so emphatic about.
One more example: When Paul and Barnabas embarked on their First Missionary Journey, they took with them a young man called John Mark. For reasons which we shall never know, this young man abandoned them after only a week or two and returned home to his mother in Jerusalem.
Paul, understandably, was furious. So when the time came for them to embark on their Second, and more demanding Missionary Journey, when Barnabas suggested taking Mark with them, Paul wasn’t having any of it. Paul, Luke says, ‘was not in favour of taking along the very man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had refused to share in their work’. ‘After a violent quarrel’, Luke says, they parted company and Barnabas sailed off with Mark to Cyprus.’ Evidently the good-hearted encourager Barnabas (‘to encourage’ means literally, of course to ‘put a new heart into someone) could see potential in Mark which St Paul could not.
And it seems that he was right. For in one of his last letters Paul writes to Timothy from his prison-cell ‘Get Mark to come and bring him with you: I find him a useful helper in my work’.
What a turn-around for the books! But that’s not quite the end of the story…
From this point Barnabas vanishes of the scene. But scholars tell us that Mark went on from helping St Paul in Rome, to assist St Peter by writing down at the latter’s dictation the First Gospel, which we call the Gospel of St Mark.
The need for encouragement, something which might be called ‘New Heart Surgery, is as necessary today as it was in the time of the Apostles. How, I wonder, can you and I best follow in the footsteps of your Patron Saint? That’s a question we should be continually asking ourselves.
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