Reflection for St Barnabas
Acts 11: 19-end
As we are thinking about St Barnabas today, we will be going on a little bit of a Cook’s tour of the first few chapters of the book of Acts. It is often useful to read the bible, not in sections as we hear it every week in church, but to read a larger portion to see the whole sweep of the story. In the case of the early church and its development, I would recommend reading from the beginning of Acts up to the first few verses of chapter 13 to get a good overview of how the Holy Spirit worked through different people over time to spread the word of God’s kingdom. We often take the example of the very earliest church in Jerusalem as a model of how a church could or should organise itself. According to the description in Acts 4, it seemed to function almost as a commune, and members were willing where necessary to sell personal belongings to finance the church and support the less well off. We might do well to also consider the church in Antioch, and we will come to that later. Antioch, which is now in Turkey, although it was then in the Roman province of Syria plays a key part in this story. It was a relatively new city having been founded about 300 years previously by a former general of Alexander the Great. It was well situated on a crossroads for international trade, and being near the mouth of a river, was also a seaport, almost certainly a meeting place for people of many races. It had become the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria, was the garrison for Roman troops defending the eastern border of the empire, and had many theatres, temples aqueducts and baths. We know from our bibles that it was the first place where the term ‘Christians’ was used.
Barnabas did not come from Antioch – in fact Barnabas was not even his real name, but a nickname given to him which describes his nature, and although he is not remembered as a leader of the early church, his importance should not be underestimated. We first read about him in Acts 4 in the account of the communal living in the Jerusalem church, under his given name of Joseph. We know that he came from Cyprus, was a Jew of the tribe of Levi which historically had no land allocation but served in various roles in the temple – anything from cleaners to musicians to guards. In our first encounter with him he is being generous, having sold some land and giving the money to the apostles. We are also told at this time of his nickname which means son of encouragement. He was already trustworthy and well liked.
Some time later we have the stories of the spread of the church, but up to this point always among the Jewish people. After the death of Stephen, a persecution begins, and people begin to scatter – and word comes to the Jerusalem church that the gospel is being preached to Samaritans. You will remember how in Acts 1: 8, Jesus gave the instruction to the apostles that after they had received the Holy Spirit, they would take the word to Jerusalem, all Judea, and the third place on the list was Samaria. Peter and John went in person to check out this new church, which must have been difficult for them given the relationship between the Jews and Samaritans at the time, but they obviously approved as they continued to preach to Samaritan villages themselves on their way back to Jerusalem.
If we read further in Acts, we learn in chapter 9 that after his conversion, Saul began to preach in Damascus and so enraged the Jewish authorities there that he had to be smuggled out at night by the church. He returned to Jerusalem, but the church there – perhaps understandably did not want to know him. To be fair, the last time they had seen him, he was supporting those who killed one of their number, and then obtaining permission to do the same in Damascus. It seems though that Barnabas was not one to jump to conclusions, and he took the time and had the courage to sit with Saul and hear his story – and then to tell it to the church himself. After that Saul was made welcome – Barnabas was the kind of person who would take time to find out the whole story, and that you would believe.
In chapter 9 of Acts there is then a description of the church which I love – ‘Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. (Acts 9:31). It almost sounds as though God has given them a time when they can heave a sigh of relief before the action starts again! The work of the Spirit continues though in Acts 10 and the early verses of chapter 11 when Peter is challenged in a vision about preaching to gentiles, and this thread of the story continues in the reading which we have just heard. Word has come to Jerusalem that the gospel is being preached to Hellenists – that is to Greeks and possibly in that cosmopolitan city to other races as well. The key phrase to note about this is in v21 – ‘The hand of the Lord was with them’. This spread of the gospel outside of the Jewish people follows the vision of Peter where he had been reminded that only God can decide what is clean and what is unclean. Surely the Spirit is preparing the church for the next step.
We often talk nowadays about a person newly appointed to a position being ‘a safe pair of hands.’ This seems to very much sum up Barnabas. And so it was that when they heard of the church in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to find out the truth, and what he found is summed up beautifully in today’s reading: ‘When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.’
It seems that Barnabas chose to remain in Antioch, we don’t know the timescales here, but while he was there, he made the journey to Tarsus, about 85 miles away, where Saul had returned home, and made a point of finding him and bringing him back to Antioch, where they both joined the team of leaders of that vibrant and growing church. Once again, the guiding hand of the Spirit can be seen at work, as it was from this church, after a time of worship, prayer and fasting the Holy Spirit guided the church to commission Saul and Barnabas for a specific work, and so after blessing them, the church sent them out. The rest, you could say is history!
Throughout this story, certain threads are clear. People were spending time in prayer and listening to God. Barnabas, on whom we have focused today was ‘full of the Holy Spirit and faith’ and so the church and God could use him. He took time to listen, to think and pray about things and was brave. I often think that the two people in the book of Acts to whom we owe a great deal for their courage are Barnabas and an almost unknown believer in Damascus called Ananias whom God sent to pray with Saul after he was blinded by his vision on the road. Ananias was not keen to go, having heard in advance of Saul’s mission, but he was obedient, and because of his and Barnabas’ faithfulness, the whole amazing mission of St Paul was made possible.
I am often reminded of the story of a revivalist preacher in the 1930s called Mordecai Ham. He preached at a meeting in South Carolina which did not seem to be very successful, but one person who made a decision at this meeting was a teenager from a devout church-going family who lived on a local farm. The boy’s name was Billy Graham and he probably preached the gospel to almost as many as St Paul. I always have to remind myself when I have the privilege of standing at the front of church to preach, that we have no idea what work the Holy Spirit may be planning for the people who are listening. Whatever those plans are, they will almost certainly rely upon us having people like Barnabas to help us carry them out.