Barnabas – The Son of Encouragement

June 10, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Acts 14.8-28 at Evensong on Sunday 10th June 2018, the Second Sunday after Trinity.

This evening the cathedral is celebrating the first evensong of “St Barnabas the Apostle”, his main feast being tomorrow. But who exactly was Barnabas, and what was it that made him so special that we give him a solemn festival every year?

Perhaps the first thing to note… is that Barnabas’ real name wasn’t Barnabas and he wasn’t an apostle –  at least not one of the twelve. Yet he made such an impact on the other apostles and the world around him that he became equal to the twelve in influence. The word apostle literally means “one who is sent”, and Barnabas was sent out by the church with Paul, undertaking many missionary journeys together.

We don’t know a great deal about his life and most of the facts we have about this fascinating man come from scripture; the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters, and some facts can be gleaned by reading between the lines and comparing texts.

The first time Barnabas appears in the bible is in Acts chapter 4, when we hear his real name. He is called Joseph, he is a Jewish Levite (from the traditional priestly tribe) and he was born in Cyprus. Thus it is that today we are really celebrating Joseph of Cyprus day. As a Levite he would naturally have spent much time in Jerusalem as he would have had duties in the temple. Some Levites sang and had duties similar to our lay clerks today, some served as guards or prepared for worship and had duties similar to our virgers today, so perhaps we can claim him on behalf of the choir and the virging team. We also know a little bit about his family. A tiny snapshot from the letter to the Colossians says “Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas.” It is believed therefore that Barnabas may have been the cousin of Mark or John Mark the evangelist, especially as they travel together at certain points in the book of Acts.

We don’t know much about Barnabas’ later life. We know he was  still living when Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians (perhaps around AD 55).  Tradition has him dying a martyr, possibly by being stoned outside a Syrian synagogue. Legend adds the poignant touch that his cousin Mark buried  him.

The reading we had this evening seems to hint that Barnabas was a good preacher. “They spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.”

Yet this evening’s reading also shows what these apostles had to go through, with a crowd first wanting to worship them, and then trying to stone them. The reading also includes these poignant words as Paul and Barnabas take time to strengthen the disciples and encourage them to remain true to the faith “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”.

We do not know how Barnabas actually came to that faith. Some say that he was one of the seventy disciples sent by Jesus, others say that he was one of the disciples captivated by the love of Christ at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came. Acts 4 seems to favour the latter as it tells us of a gesture of loving generosity   “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”

This reading also explains that it was the apostles who dubbed him Barnabas.  Some texts (including the hymn text we’ll sing later this evening) define the word Barnabas as “Son of Consolation”. This is because the title comes from the Aramaic bar neḥmā, which means “Son of consolation” but the Greek translation is nearer “Son of encouragement”. I love that title, Son of Encouragement.

But it does make me wonder. It seems to me that Joseph of Cyprus must have been a very special person in order to be gifted the title of Son of Encouragement. What was it in him that the other apostles saw that made them give him that title?

One tiny snapshot of his gift of encouragement can be found in the book of Acts. After Saul/Paul had been converted from a persecutor of Christians to a Christian himself, and all the other disciples were still afraid of him, Barnabas was the one who trusted him, who took him and brought him to the apostles, who told them how Saul had seen a vision of Jesus and Barnabas recommended him as a gifted evangelist. Without Barnabas, the world may never have discovered the gift of Paul’s preaching. That’s how important those who have the gift of encouragement are.

Encouragement is listed in the list of spiritual gifts in the letter to the Romans chapter 12. The word is sometimes translated as exhortation – and it seems to me that, unlike the more spectacular gifts of healing and prophesy, this spiritual gift is vastly underrated, but is crucial for the flourishing of the church. The encouragers are those who spot talent and nurture it, who strengthen the doubters and those who are tempted to give up, and bring much joy and creativity to the people of God. They are those who give strength to people to move beyond their own comfort zones to help to those in need or to challenge an oppressive law. Behind many works of music and art there are those who have encouraged the artist, especially those artists who have doubted their own talent. I am reminded of Sir Edward Elgar, who was sensitive about his own humble beginnings and who doubted his own talents, yet was encouraged by his wife to continue even through his doubts and mood swings. Without Alice Elgar, perhaps the Enigma variations and Dream of Gerontius would never have been written. I wonder how many other works of art would have been consigned to the bin without the encouragers. They are truly important people.

So on this evening when we remember the one who strengthened the disciples, was generous enough to sell his goods to help them, and who encouraged a preacher just beginning his mission, the best way to celebrate Barnabas is to resolve to be encouragers ourselves; to spot the seeds of talent when we see them,  and to give others the strength and support so they do not give up. For then we all reap the rewards of their labours. Amen.