Saint Barnabas the Apostle


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(June 11) 

O Lord God almighty, who didst endue thy holy Apostle Barnabas…
For the Epistle
Acts 11:22-30
John 15:12-16

Barnabas, originally Joseph, is ranked, Like Paul, as an Apostle although he was not converted from Judaism until shortly after Pentecost. A Levite of Cyprus, he was frequently in Jerusalem, was related to John Mark (Acts 12:12; Colossians 3:10) and owned land which he sold for the cause (Acts 4:36-37). He was an outstanding preacher, the converted Paul’s sponsor (Acts 9:27) who brought him to Antioch where, as the reading shows, they worked together until the mission to Cyprus (13:1-3). This came about, ironically, because of the Christian Diaspora induced by Paul’s persecution. They worked under great hardship in Asia Minor (Acts 13:14-26), where Paul was almost killed (Acts 14:19). On returning to Antioch, threatened by Jewish Conservatives, they spoke at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35). When further missionary activity was contemplated, Paul and Barnabas disagreed over the role of John Mark (cf Saint Mark’s Day) and separated (Acts 15:36-40). Subsequently Paul refers to Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:5-6) which shows that their friendship was unimpaired and later John Mark was attached to Paul in Rome (Colossians 4:10) which might indicate that Barnabas had died by then. Traditions about his death are unreliable but it seems that he was highly unusual in dying a tranquil death in his home land. What we remember Barnabas for most is his generous reception of the Gentiles, his recognition of Paul and his warmth for John Mark which later yielded abundant fruit.

There is something very touching about Paul and Barnabas making a famine collection in Antioch and taking it up to the mother church in Jerusalem, not least because it was the source of many of their troubles, exporting conservatives who wanted the rapidly expanding, gentile dominated churches to adopt Jewish law, particularly circumcision. Paul was never comfortable in Jerusalem but he nonetheless never flinched from doing his duty there and bananas, according to Luke’s description of him (unique except for a similar description of Stephen, cf Saint Stephen’s Day) seems to have had the open temperament to keep Paul on an even keel. Here were the newly denominated Christians paying their respects and offering their gifts to Bishop James (cf Saint Philip and Saint James’s Day), regardless of their potential differences.

The Gospel echoes many of the themes in the story of Barnabas and Paul. It begins with the commendation of love and the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice which Jesus was to make for His friends and which Paul almost made with Barnabas during their first missionary journey. It then refers to the laying on of hands which Paul and Barnabas underwent together before the mission to Cyprus and which they were to perpetuate by appointing their successors. It concludes with encouragement that prayers to the Father will be answered, evidenced in the divine direction of Paul’s mission.

Sadly, we only see Barnabas faintly as a serene counterpart to Paul’s restlessness but that should prompt us to think of our attitude to mission. The Pauline way, goaded by the prospect of eschatological closure, is sharp and urgent, demoting such ordinary human activities as marriage to contingent status. This has been the way of most Evangelical revivals which have all had a millenarian tendency; they have attempted to foreshorten time, to urge a swift and radical response which has not infrequently involved a turning to God with a sybaritic turning away from earthly things. Yet all such revivals have ultimately lost credibility because the clock continues to tick; life goes on. While this approach may be effective in some circumstances there is surely room for the kind of approach one imagines that Barnabas might have taken; the message is no less urgent but the time we live with it is necessarily long. The witness Paul imagines is short and ends traumatically whereas the witness of Barnabas, we might surmise, is less dramatic, symbolised by the probability that he was one of the few of his generation of leaders to die in his bed. Our Christian lives are not usually dramatic, they are lived over a long period, threatened not by physical violence but by indifference or low level hostility. From the time of Confirmation to Committal we face a long haul which requires Pauline adrenalin but also a steadier source of energy and perseverance.

If we are not careful we tend to equate drama with commitment: Paul abandoned his career, went into enforced retirement and then suffered terribly before giving his life for Christ; Barnabas sold a piece of land, discerned the genius of Paul and nurtured John Mark. For all Paul’s heroism, Barnabas is the kind of figure to whom many might look for inspiration; we have not sold enough land, we have failed to discern, we have abandoned nurture for the quick fix, we hope to die in our own bed. There is also the danger that drama can become addictive, robbing us of the ability to be objective about our spirituality, externalising it, identifying it too closely with a Cross that becomes a logo rather than our Logos. Paul did not imagine this danger because his sense of time was radically foreshortened and we in turn must try to imagine what Paul could not which is why we must always provide a contemplative counterbalance to his spiritual activism.

There is a sense which is difficult to articulate that we cannot spend the whole of our spiritual lives at the foot of the cross; we may always live in its shadow but we need both to see the light of Resurrection behind it and to see the world illumined by it. Barnabas presents us with the model of a balanced spiritual life.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Consider the incidents involving Paul and John Mark
  2. What did it mean to be a Christian in Antioch?
  3. Describe the history of one of the great Evangelical revivals
  4. Can religion become addictive?
  5. Imagine the autobiography of Barnabas.

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