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June 10, 2007

Glynn Cardy

St Barnabas     Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3
     Matthew 10:7-16


When I was growing up there was only one Barnabas – Barney Rubble, sidekick to Fred Flintstone. He was loyal, nice, and overshadowed by a loud and domineering friend. Barney was literally the lightweight and Fred the heavyweight.


It is tempting and erroneous to dismiss Barnabas of the Bible as a lightweight, overshadowed by Paul the heavyweight. Barnabas was a Jew of the Diaspora, a Cypriot. He probably couldn’t speak Aramaic, nor been to Galilee. He was an outsider. Yet in chapter 4:36-37 he brings the proceeds from a property sale to Jerusalem and offers it to the leaders of the emergent Church. He is willing to give, and in the spirit of that generosity the leaders acknowledge him.


Quite a lot of the Book of Acts is spent dealing with one burning issue – namely whether non-Jews can be included in the Church without converting to Judaism. The chief advocate for inclusion will be Paul who, as his critics will repeatedly point out, did not exactly come into the Church with flourishing credentials! Luke, the author of Acts, however is a great supporter of Paul. In Paul’s defence he highlights the credentials of Paul’s mentor, Barnabas. It is the credibility of Barnabas that shores up the credibility of Paul.


When you think about it, it is interesting to judge a person by their mentor. Imagine that instead of judging a job applicant by their talent, education, or personal skills, you judge them by their teacher.


In chapter 9:26, 27 we learn that Paul, following his conversion, has come to Jerusalem to join up and no one wants anything to do with him. Paul never did mundane and boring. Whether he was persecuting Christianity or proclaiming it he was passionate. I think it is no accident that he never stayed too long in one spot. Like a wind-blown spark Paul went from place to place igniting believers, enflaming passions and protest. No wonder the ‘institutional Church headquarters’ in Jerusalem was wary of such a man.


There is a different way to think of fire though. An old friend of mine, married for 60 years, one day spoke to me about love. He said, “Glynn, too many people mistake the blaze of the kindling, the passionate bright fire, for something more than it is. Of course the powerful heat is in the embers.”


Barnabas was an ember sort of guy – reliable, quietly powerful. Paul was driven. Barnabas drove himself. The incident in chapter 9 introduces this Barnabas. Daring to differ from all the wise ecclesiastical celebrities he risks his reputation in supporting Paul. Barnabas goes out on a limb for someone who is a worry to everyone else. He recognised Paul’s potential, but there was no guarantee it could be utilised.


The next time we hear of Barnabas [11:22] he is being sent to the Antioch church as its new leader. Antioch was the first church established outside Palestine. It would in time become one of the five great centres of Christianity – the others being Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome. The appointment of Barnabas was the first significant appointment by the Church to a position outside Jerusalem and shows the respect the elders had for him.


He invited Paul to come and join him as an assistant. Even with the apprehension of a new appointment Barnabas’ ego could seemingly cope with this rising ecclesiastical comet! Barnabas wasn’t threatened by talent. Indeed a year or so later Barnabas and Paul [13:1ff.] undertook a missionary journey during which Paul proceeds more and more into the foreground and Barnabas recedes more and more into the background.


It is interesting to note how the emergent Church asked its leaders – its equivalent of bishops and vicars – to leave them and go off for six months or more to converse with those outside the bounds of the Church. No ‘parishioners’ were saying “Who’ll take care of us?” or “Who’ll take our services for us?” The ‘parishioners’ just got on with being the Church. Clergy were not indispensable. Maybe we should structure our diocese so that for three months every year all clergy are not to turn up to church, in order that they engage with people beyond the institutional boundaries?


In Acts 15 the burning issue of early Christianity explodes into open confrontation. Should Gentiles/non-Jewish believers in Jesus be required to abide by the Jewish purity regulations? Do you have to convert to Judaism in order to be a follower of Jesus?


The Jesus movement was a reform sect within Judaism. While Jesus, like other rabbis, challenged rigid adherence to the rules of the Torah it is doubtful that he intended that they would be done away with. It is also doubtful whether Jesus ever realised that his movement would have great appeal to Gentiles. Yet it did. Change was knocking at the Church’s front door.


The traditions and boundaries of Judaism were basic to the cultural identity of Jesus’ first followers. It wasn’t just a case of opening the front door to the Gentiles – the whole cultural identity of the house was under threat. It wouldn’t be their house as they’d known it any more. The dietary and purity regulations had set them apart from others and defined them as belonging to the chosen. If they didn’t observe their traditional kaupapa [concepts] who were they?


Paul was very hot about this issue. While his arguments based around Abraham are pretty spurious, his motivation was clear: Jesus must be accessible to every culture without the strictures of his own.


In chapter 15:2 & 12 Barnabas defends Paul’s position before the Jerusalem Council. However in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians Barnabas is accused by Paul of being weak. It seems that Barnabas, like Peter, was trying to help the Church find some middle ways through this crisis. Paul saw this as hypocrisy.


Two brief comments. Firstly, have you ever had the experience of hearing that someone you have supported significantly over the years has been speaking ill of you? It hurts. And I’m sure Barnabas hurt too from Paul’s comments.


Secondly, weakness is an interesting accusation to make of Barnabas. I think it is more a reflection on the one who made it. Paul sees weakness as being that which is different from him. He is blind to the ember power of one who tries to hold both people and principles together.


The final appearance of Barnabas in the Book of Acts is another of these differences with his former student. In 15:36 Paul and Barnabas are planning to revisit the churches they established on their first missionary journey. Barnabas wants to take John Mark along. Paul doesn’t – John Mark had deserted them on their first journey. On principle Paul wanted him excluded. On principle Barnabas wanted to give him another chance. When Paul doesn’t budge Barnabas takes John Mark home. The great illustrious Paul was dumped for a deserter. Here again we have Barnabas prepared to think differently and see in the outsider the strange workings of God. Ironically the last time we heard of Barnabas supporting an outsider it was Paul!


The story of Barnabas holds before us the powerful ember values of mentoring; giving generously; standing alongside those who are different and threatening; and having an ego that can cope with the talent of others and their criticism. Like Barney Rubble, Barnabas of the Bible was far from being a lightweight.

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