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St Barnabas (observed)

My visitation today is to St Barnabas’ Church in Havana, IL, on the occasion of that congregation observing its patronal feast day. Instead of using a fully-prepared text, I gave an “expository” homily on the appointed second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles. Posted here is the working outline that I used.

[19] Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen

[recap what that was about]

traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch,

[place on mental map]

speaking the word to no one except Jews.

i.e. their own people—the whole business of Jewish-Gentile relations was fraught, and evolving

 [20] But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists

[i.e. Greeks = non-Jews]

also, preaching the Lord Jesus.

[21] And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.

What a matter-of-fact account of a phenomenal experience—a “great number” of people turning to Christ, an ever-flowing stream of new disciples. How can we not be envious? How can we not want some of that in our own experience?

 [22] The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. [23] When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, [24] for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.

The Christians in Jerusalem, the “seat” of the movement at that time, heard reports of the Holy Spirit’s activity in a place they weren’t familiar with, reports of people coming to Christ for which none of their efforts could take responsibility. They sent Barnabas to check it all out. When he discovered the reports were true, he said, in essence, “Keep on doing what you’re doing.” He was encouraging, which partially explains now he got his nickname [Bar-Nabas = son of encouragement].

And a great many people were added to the Lord.

Yet again, we are driven to envy!

[25] So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,

[remind where Tarsus is on the map, and the narrative re conversion & post-conversion of Saul]

[26] and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.

Also in Syria, like Damascus, but no evidence that Saul/Paul had ever been there.

For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people.

A “whole year.” That’s a long time! And what was the primary ministry? Teaching. Most any parish priest will tell you that one of the biggest pastoral challenges is to develop an interest among the baptized faithful in being taught. Many become so discouraged that they stop trying. This always breaks my heart. Part of my prayerful hope is always that lay people will “be Barnabas” to their own pastors—encouraging them by clamoring for frequent and in-depth teaching—teaching of the sort that probably came from Barnabas and Paul as spent a year in Antioch. The Episcopal Church still has too much of a residual culture that learning the faith stops at confirmation. It doesn’t. It’s a lifelong enterprise.

And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Nothing profound to say about this, but just let it sink in.

[27] Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.

We don’t talk much in today’s church about the ministry of prophecy, unless it’s in the generally misused (IMO) sense of “speaking truth to power,” which those who do it like to think is in the mold of the Old Testament prophets who have books of the Bible named after them. But there is evidence that, in the early church, prophecy was a charismatic ministry (i.e. a gift of the Holy Spirit) that we recognized by those who held institutional authority.

[28] And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).

Claudius—after Caligula and before Nero, 41-53

[29] So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. [30] And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

Again, engaging in a ministry of encouragement, this time by bringing material relief.

 [1] Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

Unclear here whether Barnabas is named as a prophet or a teacher—perhaps both?

[2] While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said,

It certainly seems startling and bold—does it not?—to read something like “the Holy Spirit said.” That’s not a way we tend to speak now. Yet, it’s instructive to observe the necessary pre-conditions for being able to say that: a context of worship, prayer, and fasting.

“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” [3] Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

And so begins what we now know as the “first missionary journey” of St Paul, in which Barnabas was his companion (later swapped out for Silas after a dispute during which Barnabas was a little too “encouraging” for Paul’s taste about a third companion: John Mark.

What can we take away?

  • Barnabas earned his name, both in word and deed. In this era of Facebook and Twitter flame-throwing, we could do worse than to cultivate the habit of encouragement.
  • Barnabas literally put his money where his mouth was—he sold a piece of real estate and donated the proceeds to the Apostles’ Discretionary Fund.
  • In this moment of confusion and unclarity, we can welcome Barnabas to encourage He bears witness to the constant goodness and boundless generosity of God.
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