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Sermon for the Feast of St. Barnabas – Br. Mark Brown

“And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes.” [Acts 14:11-12]

What’s your sign?  I’m a Virgo, with moon in Aries, Pisces rising, and a “stellium”, that is, a cluster of planets and stars, in the Seventh House.

One of the more curious detours in my spiritual journey was two or three years in the late 70’s when I was a fairly serious student of astrology.  I had regular lessons and learned how to cast natal charts.  A natal chart, or a horoscope, is a kind of map of the sky at the moment of birth.  It shows the position of the sun and moon and planets and some principal stars against the backdrop of the 12 signs of the Zodiac (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, etc.).  And this map is superimposed on a kind of wheel with twelve spokes, each spoke marking off one of the twelve “houses”.  The interpretation of a chart can be a very complicated affair.

But the basic concept of astrology is that the position of the sun and moon and planets at the moment of birth exerts some lasting influence over our lives and accounts for different personality types. The planets and the signs of the Zodiac are each associated with the gods of ancient Greece and Rome.  So, if at the moment of birth the sun was in the constellation Gemini, which is “ruled” by Mercury, you are predisposed to have attributes of Mercury, or in Greek, Hermes.  If your sun was in Sagitarius, which is “ruled” by Jupiter (also known as Jove or Zeus), you are likely to have attributes of Jupiter.  And so with Mars, Venus and Saturn.  The gods exert influence through the planets named for them and the Zodiacal signs they “rule”. (And, no, I don’t do horoscopes these days…)

A similar mindset may be evident in the book of Acts when Barnabas and Paul are thought to be Hermes and Zeus.  Paul apparently did all the talking, so he was identified with the winged messenger: Hermes, or Mercury.  Barnabas was taken for Zeus, or Jupiter or Jove, in human form.  This may suggest something about his physical appearance: we can imagine St. Barnabas being somewhat large, fatherly and jovial—attributes associated with Zeus, or Jupiter (or Jove).

In the ancient world-view, Gods could come down to earth in human form; and human beings could embody the attributes of the various gods.  Of course, Christian parallels easily come to mind.  God has come to us in human form in Jesus Christ.  And human beings embody the attributes of Christ.  “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’”, we read in Acts.  To be a Christian means living under the influence of Christ and embodying his attributes.

There are some rather sharp differences between astrology and Christian thinking, of course.  Christ the “Sun”, to speak figuratively, is not out there, making his way through the Zodiac.  Christ our Sun is here—here and in here.  “God set the stars to give light to the world. The star of my life is Jesus,” goes one of our hymns*.  Christ the star, the sun, in and through whom all suns and planets exist. Christ the Sun of all suns who outshines all the other lights in the heavens. This Christ, this light makes his dwelling in the human breast.

This Christ brings his influence to bear in our lives not beaming down from somewhere in the Zodiac, not bearing down from the heights of Mt. Olympus, but emerging quietly from somewhere within us.  And never in the fatalistic, deterministic way we associate with astrology.

We always have a choice. The Lord Jesus is “courteous”, as Julian of Norwich put it.  Christ abides within us, but does not force himself or his attributes upon us: we choose whether he may transform our lives.  We choose whether to embody his attributes–or not.

This is a question for each day we are privileged to be alive: How shall Christ transform my life today?  How shall I embody the qualities, the attributes, the essence of Christ today?

No one individual, of course, embodies Christ’s attributes fully.  It takes all of us—it takes all of us in our brokenness and frailty.  Christ needs all of us broken pieces together to be his body.  Such is the depth and breadth of this God, such is the brightness of his light.  It takes all kinds to embody the completeness of Christ.  The fullness of his love, the brightness of his light, the full vigor of his life, the full depth and breadth of his truth.  The fullness of his divinity; the perfection of his humanity. We, individually, embody his attributes to some small degree—and we are incomplete without each other.

What’s your sign?  What’s our sign?  He is on the cross.  He is in the manger.  He is in the tomb, and risen and glorified.  He will soon meet us again at the altar. And even now he waits in the wedding chambers of our hearts—reclining courteously.

“God set the stars to give light to the world. The star of my life is Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” *

Shine in our hearts. Shine in our lives.

Lord Jesus.

*Hymnal 1982, #490

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7 Comments

  1. Ruth West on October 11, 2015 at 23:16

    Br. Mark, this was an enlightening sermon. I liked the sum of it all with the hymn. I think of another one which says, “The light of the world is Jesus.” He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Thanks to you, and thanks be to God.

  2. Willeva Weems on October 11, 2015 at 07:24

    Thank you Brother Mark. This is a good example of why living in community is so effective. Willeva

  3. Robert Shotton on August 16, 2014 at 05:19

    Thank you, Bro.Mark Brown, I liked your sermon and it has given me new light into the questions of astrology, and genealogy.

  4. Anders on May 10, 2014 at 10:47

    You are correct that there is a sense of fatalism in astrology, but also a honoring of the individual as unique in relationship to time and place. In the same way, it takes all of us in our individual brokenness and frailty to collectively embody Christ’s light. As Leonard Cohen put it “There’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.” Sometimes it feels like Paul is still doing all the talking. Thank you for the reminder that I need to keep asking the questions and embracing the love, strength and courage I find through my wounds.

  5. Pam on May 10, 2014 at 09:54

    You very nicely articulated the mindset of ancient society… yet not so ancient. You make it clear how we still look toward earthly signs… seeking who we are and are meant to be, by impatiently searching and researching signs from astrology, genealogy, and society while Christ waits patiently for us to simply look to Him. What a simple yet profound change we can make by looking first within and then to each other, not in comparison, but in community.

  6. Barbara A Harris on December 24, 2012 at 10:19

    Thank you Br. Brown. This was perfect for today as i prepare for Christmas and the reborth of Christ in my heart.

  7. Polly Chatfield on December 24, 2012 at 08:52

    Thank you, Mark. You always have a wonderfully new and surprising way of putting things. To be Christ in the world each day is daunting and impossible, but to be a little piece of Christ today….that I might, with grace from above, be able to manage.

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