|Memorial of St. Barnabas, Apostle
Acts 11:21-26; 13:1-3
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6
Although Barnabas was not one of the original Twelve, he was important enough in the early Christian movement to warrant the title apostle. He is a significant presence in the first fifteen chapters of Acts, and then, after a falling out with Paul, fades from the story entirely. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he comes up for honorable and dishonorable mention. Like any important figure in the history of the Church, he has his strengths and his weaknesses, and that’s good reason to take seriously what little bits of his curriculum vitae the Bible offers.
We first meet Barnabas when Luke presents him as a good example after the description of the Jerusalem community. He is a Jew from a Levitical family and a native of the Island of Cyprus. We know he has settled in Jerusalem because he sells some property he owns and brings the proceeds to the apostles to help the poor of the budding Jews-for-Jesus movement in Jerusalem. They probably knew him as Joseph from Cyprus, or “Cyprus Joe,” but then, because he was such a morale booster, they nicknamed him “Barnabas”- which means son of encouragement. (Acts 4:36) When Saul of Tarsus, who was at first the Christian movement’s primary persecutor, has his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and the Jerusalem Christians are understandably wary when Saul comes to join them, it is Barnabas who convinces them that Saul’s dramatic switch from chief persecutor to chief promoter is for real. (9:27) When an unexpected number of Gentiles begins to join the Christian community up in Antioch of Syria, the Jerusalem authorities send Barnabas up to check out the situation. Barnabas knows the grace of God when he sees it, and, true to his nickname, encourages this new development. (11:19-26) And when Agabus prophesies a famine in Judea, it is Barnabas they send, along with Saul, with relief for the Judean Christians. (11:27-30; 12:25)
For what becomes Saul/Paul’s first missionary journey, the Antioch community is inspired to pick Paul and Barnabas from among their “prophets and teachers” to do the Holy Spirit’s work (3:1-3) In the mission that ensues—through Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, and Derbe—Barnabas is Paul’s right- hand man. His presence was impressive enough for the people of Lystra to mistake him for Zeus! (14:12) When the Christian authorities of Jerusalem send an embassy up to Antioch to challenge the practice of baptizing Gentiles without insisting that they take on circumcision and the whole Mosaic law, Barnabas sides with Paul in the defending that “liberal” policy. (15:1-2) This crisis occasions the first council of the Church, and the Antioch community sends Paul and Barnabas as their delegates to the Council of Jerusalem. Luke notes that a key part of that meeting was the testimony of Paul and Barnabas, who “told of all the signs and wonders of God had done through them among the Gentiles.” (15:12)
Paul’s own references to Barnabas in his letters confirm Barnabas’ key role in the early Church’s mission. (1 Cor 9:6; Gal 2:1, 9) But they also suggest that events did not always flow as smoothly as Luke presents them. For example, when Paul refers to the visit of the Jerusalem authorities in Antioch that Luke mentions in Acts 15, he reports that a number of Antiochene Christians backed off from the sharing table with the Gentiles and that “even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” (Gal 2:13) Further friction is indicated in Luke’s last reference to Barnabas in Acts. When Paul asked Barnabas to join him in revisiting the communities they had founded on that first trip, Barnabas wanted to take his cousin John Mark, but Paul refused to include a man he considered a deserter. Luke’s final word on Barnabas: “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.” (Acts 15:39) Tough as that sounds, Paul’s own last word on Barnabas suggests reconciliation: in the letter to the Colossians he says, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you welcome him.” (Col 4:10)
And so, when we follow this thread of references to Barnabas, what
emerges is a flesh-and-blood guy. The lesson for you and me: We too
are called to be “sons and daughters of encouragement,” and if we invest
ourselves in the work of the Lord, the Holy Spirit will use us to the fullness
of our strengths and despite our weaknesses.
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