Fools for Christ

Sunday 10th June 2018
Barnabas the Apostle (Saint Barnabas the Apostle)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
BCP Evensong
Isaiah 42.5-12
Acts 4.8-28

What do we want to be remembered for? I pondered this question a couple of weeks ago at the grave side of Margaret's Great Uncle who had led his troops bravely into combat at the Battle of Asiago in Northern Italy On June 15th 1918 but was killed some fifty days later by a random shell; surely he would have wanted to be remembered for his bravery. A humble man like Barnabas might not have been so definite: he might have wanted to be remembered for working alongside Saint Paul but we should remember him, as an example to us all, because he stuck by Paul at the beginning when the new convert aroused deep suspicion among the nascent Christian community; he was an important figure in the staging and promulgation of the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem, the Church's First Great Council, and he was the first person in Acts to be named as a major donor to the Jerusalem community which held all its goods in common. So we might say that Barnabas was at least the first socialist, if not the first communist. Which might just explain the perverse choice of reading for Barnabas on his Feast Day; here he is, staying faithful to Paul; but that's it. We don't know whether he, like Paul, was beaten up and left for dead; all we know from this passage is that he stuck around. Later on, Barnabas stuck up for John Mark and when it came to the crunch, Paul went off with Silas and Barnabas disappears for good, to Cyprus with his protégé.

There's the same sort of problem with our Isaiah reading which only makes limited sense because the first four verses of the Chapter are missing which deal, prominently, with the issue of God's justice, not procedural justice which requires a fair hearing in court, but fundamental socio-economic justice. So here we are with the least interesting passage on Barnabas and a truncated extract from Isaiah!

When my book on the Western Church's attitude to sex and gender, procedural justice and socio economic justice was reviewed in the Church Times, I was criticised for using a methodology of tabulating all the references to each subject in each book of the Old and the New Testaments; nonetheless, I think that in spite of the criticism the statistics are interesting:

I should also add that when I was one of the leading campaigners in the General Synod for the consecration of women as bishops, one of the major criticisms aimed at us was that our case was only based on "justice and equality"; that, it seems to me, betrays a total misunderstanding of the idea of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Our understanding of the meaning of Scripture for our own daily lives has been seriously impaired by two basic misunderstandings. The first, which sprang up very shortly after the death of Jesus and which flourished in Alexandria before becoming firmly entrenched in the Western, or "Latin" Church was that every single verse in the Old Testament symbolised something in the New Testament. This led to the literal meaning of the Old Testament, in its own context, becoming seriously overlooked; and one of the casualties of this perversion was the strong Old Testament concept, enshrined in the prophets, of the necessity of socio economic justice. The second tendency has been the emphasis on both the Catholic and Protestant traditions of a "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" whose purpose was to die so that our souls should fly effortlessly to heaven, which rather does away with any notion of earthly justice and also any idea of the resurrection of the body; we are all more or less gnostics.

On these grounds, the mission of Saint Barnabas fell short but, much worse, these misunderstandings have negatively affected the mission of Jesus. For us, as a Church, the struggle for socio economic justice is a matter of personal choice not a central imperative; and we continue to say to ourselves and each other that all political views are compatible with being a Christian when the evidence flatly contradicts this. Ours is a Church of solidarity with sameness enhanced by good works for the least advantaged instead of solidarity with the least advantaged enhanced by a gentle regard for sameness. We have, to use contemporary terminology, cherry-picked our Bible to harvest the ideas that best suit us as a result of which, as I have said, we are comfortable Christians.

Tradition has it that Saint Barnabas died in Cyprus in defence of his faith in Jesus and while we would not expect to be asked to die, what are we prepared to undergo to ensure that the mission of Jesus can be made known more widely? First, I suggest, we need to be clear that the mission of Jesus is to bring good news to the poor, not in the next world, but in this one; and, secondly, we need to accept that good intentions are not enough. If we believe in the good news of Jesus but are not required to die for our beliefs, at the very least we should be willing to speak God's mind. We have, by default, accepted the secular view of us which is that religion is a private matter outside the public sphere when it is fundamentally a public matter which should be central to the public sphere. How can we think, living in the tradition of Jesus, Barnabas and the martyrs, that speaking of Jesus is somehow ill mannered or might be offensive. According to Saint Paul, it's more than offensive, it's foolish. So at least if we cannot be martyrs for Christ, like Saint Barnabas, at least we should be fools for him which might, among other things, shake us out of our pride and dump us in the dust of humility.