Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Barnabas, an early member of “the company who believed in Jesus.” Drawing on the Gospels and Saint Paul’s writings, we can be quite certain of at least several things. For one, he was not one of the original twelve disciples. He was an apostle – that is, someone who was “sent forth” – not unlike his friend, the apostle Paul. According to the Book of Acts, it was actually Barnabas who introduced Paul to the leaders of the Church at Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas later set out on a great missionary journey through the cities of Greece and Asia Minor (which is a good portion of modern-day Turkey, between the Black and Mediterranean Seas) and they ended up together in Antioch, for two different periods of time. On their second missionary journey Peter joined them, and he also joined a good many Gentiles, speaking freely with them and sitting at table, eating with them. Eating their food. This evoked the displeasure of some of the young Christians who were convinced that Peter was violating the Law. Peter caved in to the criticism, now refusing to eat with the Gentiles, and Barnabas followed his example. Paul was exceedingly unhappy, and criticized them publicly before the gathering of the believers because they “did not walk uprightly according to the truth of the gospel.”
The question on which they wrangled was: were they as apostles to be conservators or liberators? Were they to be conservators of the Jewish heritage and indoctrinate new converts to Jesus Christ back into the faith of the chosen people, or were they to be liberators, seeing their experience of Jesus Christ as an invitation into the future, the coming kingdom of God and the gift of salvation and liberation for all. Which was it? Back, or to the future? You may know Saint Paul’s conclusion. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”i This was not so for Barnabas. Barnabas sided with Peter, Peter who went back on his promise to treat Gentile or pagan converts the same Jewish converts. Barnabas, with Peter, saw a distinction after all. Paul and Barnabas split company, and Barnabas went on to minister (without Paul) in Cyprus. We know that he was still living and working when Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul speaks of Barnabas who, like Paul, earned his own living.ii Whether they ever came to agree with one another, whether they were ever reconciled face-to-face in their lifetimes, we simply don’t know. Tradition has it that both Barnabas and Paul were martyred.
This is not the happiest of stories in the Gospels, and for some Christians these days, the story of Paul and Barnabas’ relationship and powerfully-shared ministry, and then the at-least-temporary breakdown of their friendship and communion, may rest very close to the bone. How could they have walked away from one another? I would say that Barnabas has been remembered by the Church down through the centuries, not because of this breakdown but despite it. There was something else remarkable about Barnabas, and that is why he has been remembered and revered by the Church down through the centuries. It has to do with his name.
“Barnabas” was not this man’s, this saint’s, given name. He was born “Joseph,” a Levite from Cyprus, of a similar Greek background to his friend Paul. His fellow apostles gave him a new name of endearment, the “Son of Encouragement,” because he sold a field he owned and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet for their distribution amongst the poor. In their estimation, this Joseph had somehow found the courage to make himself as poor as those around them and in need. He provided practical, courageous help. He would become poorer; they would become richer, and – so he knew – all would be well. For this reason, they nicknamed him, “Son of Encouragement,” which is translated, “Barnabas.” The name is significant. The noun, “courage,” and the verb, “to encourage,” come from the same etymological root. And I would say that people are not self-consciously courageous. I’ve never once met a person who called himself or herself “courageous.” Courage is in the eye of the beholder, not in the experience of the doer. When we read newspaper accounts of someone who has, in our estimation, done something courageous, this “courageous person” will inevitably say that what they did, they simply did: there they were, such was the need, they could help, this is how they responded. To them, what they did seemed obvious, or, conversely, maybe it was completely subconscious how they determined what they would do, and then just did it. They simply did something, which in our eyes (not theirs) seemed incredibly courageous.
I remember a few years ago I was out in the southwest, in the desert. Another man and I witnessed an accident where a young man severed part of his hand. He needed to be rushed to emergency medical care or he would surely bleed to death or face an amputation. The closest ambulance was more than an hour away. And so this other witness and I set off in a car with this young man. I got into the back seat, holding high his severed hand, applying pressure and cold packs, continuously talking to him to try to ward off his going into shock. We got him to town, a Medivac helicopter was awaiting, and his hand was saved. Some people said to me later that I was so courageous in doing what I did. Really? That was completely lost on me. Two of us had witnessed the injury of this young man; I didn’t know the roads to the medical center, so I sat with the injured man and my colleague, who knew the roads, drove the car. It was as simple as that. It seemed obvious to me, but not courageous. You may have your own experience of recognizing someone else’s courage or being yourself called courageous. And, if so, I suspect your experience parallels my own. Courage is in the eye of the beholder, not in the experience of the doer.
I don’t believe we can work on being courageous, any more than we can work on being humble. Courage, like humility, comes as a byproduct of something else. Courage comes from encouragement: getting the courage in. Encouragement instills the (invisible) gift of courage into another person, without their even knowing it. Our manifesting the grace of encouragement may take on several forms.
For one, it is telling people the truth about themselves. When we pledge in our baptismal promises “to respect the dignity of every human being,” for many people we must give them dignity before we can respect it. Without our bequeathing them the dignity of their birthright, they may have no dignity in-and-of-themselves to claim. So many people live their lives with deafening words of criticism, inadequacy, self-recrimination, and fear which may echo from their childhoods. For most people, these are secrets which they would too ashamed to even admit. Most people, if left alone, cannot see, much less respect, their own dignity without our help. Recognizing them, remembering them, thanking them, identifying their personal gifts, speaking to them of the beauty of their person, the difference their presence makes, the skillfulness with which they do this or do that will change their day and perhaps their life. This is the grace of encouragement, which instills the gift of courage in another person.
The English word, courage, comes from the Latin word for heart: cor; corāticum = courage, the heart being perceived as the center of a person. Unless people are encouraged, their heart will either become hard, because life is so hard and people try so hard, and they may be hardly noticed… and so their heart becomes hard. If left alone, unrescued, unsaved, a person’s heart will either become hard, or a person’s heart will be broken by the pain of life – their own pain or the pain they witness around them. Hard hearts are made tender by encouragement; broken hearts are healed and enlarged by encouragement. Encouragement is like a balm to a broken heart. A heart that is broken is already prepared to be broken into by encouragement. Encouragement is spiritual angioplasty.
The Psalmist prays to God, “Show us the light of your countenance,” which is the experience of God’s looking upon us knowingly and tenderly. It is something we all crave, I would say, and it is something we all can do and should do for one another: for God’s light and life and love to teem through our own countenance as we look on one another and as we speak to one another. Encouragement is to tenderly name the truth about another person: that they are not an accident, that they are not abjectly inadequate, that they are not forgotten but rather remembered. This is the grace of encouragement. And the reason why encouragement instills (quite invisibly) the gift of courage in another person is that encouragement dissipates fear. Fear and courage make their home in the heart, but there’s not room for both. Jesus says, “let not your heart be afraid.” Most of us will only be able to receive these words of assurance from Jesus with encouragement, encouragement expressed on the lips of other people who bear Jesus’ authority to us.
In my own experience, there are two sorts of people who need encouragement. One group of people are those who are among the least, and the last, and the lost: those who may have no dignity to claim in and of themselves; those who are easily taken for granted; those easily lost in the shuffle; those whose vocation in life is largely informed by duty to others. Not so long ago I had taken the Amtrak train from New York City back to Boston. It so happened that I was walking past the train engine on my way into the station when the train engineer came climbing down out of the cab. I thanked him for the great ride. He stopped dead still, and he said to me rather coarsely, “What did you say?!” And I thanked him again. And this gruff, oil-smeared train engineer said he had been driving trains for more than 40 years and no one had ever thanked him for his work. Tears rolled off his chin. Thanking people is a eucharistic action, and it is as transformative as the prayer of thanksgiving we offer here at this altar. The experience of gratitude is encouragement. It enlarges the heart and gives one strength for the next step. As I was saying, one group of people who go wanting for encouragement are those among the least, and the last, and the lost, those whose life and vocation is largely one of duty or service to others.
The other group of people who cannot be encouraged enough are leaders, those who are “up and out.” There’s often a sense, I think, that people who are “followers” presume that leaders find their source of energy, inspiration, creativity, patience, vision, courage from within their own souls, as if their soul were like a spiritual nuclear power that needs no infusion of gratitude from outside. It’s not true. Leaders often feel themselves among the least and the last to be remembered. The gifts they bring into their role of leadership may well be taken for granted by people who are incredibly dependent and thankful, but who may seldom think to express that gratitude… which will be experienced as encouragement,
We have been created in the image of God, a God who longs to be praised. I know this is rather anthropomorphic to say it this way… but I imagine that God longs to be praised at least as much as we do. The psalmist prays, “How can I thank the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?” The psalmist is asking a rhetorical question here, which begs the answer, “I don’t know? Give it a try. Find your own words to give thanks to God and to God’s children, and do it with great generosity. This is the gift of encouragement, and it bequeaths strength and courage, the very words we pray at the end of our liturgy today: for strength and courage.
St. Barnabas was generous in sharing what he could – his means and his words – and it made a world of difference to God’s people and, surely, also to God. Blessed Saint Barnabas, Son of Encouragement.
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