Sermon for St Barnabas’ Day, 11th June 2018
preached at the first Eucharist of ‘Returner’s Week’
by Richard Magrath, Ordinand.
19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. 20 But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. 22 News 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 rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
27 At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. 29 The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; 30 this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
“He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” [Acts 11:24]
Being a pious young man and a dutiful son, I bought my mother a copy of the new Tom Wright “Paul” biography. She rang me about it the other day: “it’s getting very exciting,” she said, “Paul’s in Antioch, and he’s just met Barnabas!”
Paul has just met Barnabas: it is indeed very exciting, and it’s the subject of our epistle today.
Paul: the genius ex-Pharisee, the greatest Christian theologian, perhaps history’s finest example of gamekeeper-turned-poacher. And Barnabas, the ‘son of consolation’, part of the earliest Christian community who had shared all things in common, and the one who first convinced the apostles that Paul was no longer a baddy.
They’d met before, but now they’re working as a team—the great missionary duo. Together they travelled the Mediterranean, preaching to Jews and Gentiles—indeed, they were the ones who first brought the Gentiles into the church. They also had stand-offs with magicians; got mistaken for gods; went on secret missions sneaking funds in to the beleaguered church at Jerusalem. This is the moment the iconic duo comes together. It’s like when Watson moves into Baker Street; Scully joins the X Files; it is almost as momentous as when Han Solo meets Chewbacca.
But what comes next? My mother said, “don’t spoil the story for me!”
But I’m afraid I will: Paul and Barnabas fall out.
First, when Peter comes to Antioch, and seems to side with the fans of circumcision, Paul is having none of it, yet “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” [Gal 2:13]. Then they have a final falling out over—of all people—St Mark the Evangelist: Barnabas wants him in the mission, but Paul thinks he’s a quitter.
Acts 15:39 says “the disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus”—and, we might add, out of the book of Acts entirely….So much for the story of Paul and Barnabas.
Now being, as we are, at the end of term, and the year, it’s a natural time to reflect on what’s gone by. And the stories of those who went before us, in the book of Acts, can hopefully be of help.
Think back 10 or 22 months ago when you arrived here, crisp, white cassock-alb in hand, sent by the central church authorities with a BAP report reading “this is a good person, full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. And, just as in Acts, maybe you met some amazing people; preached some legendary sermons that made people fall out of windows; travelled the known world; were mistaken for gods; almost got stoned.
But perhaps also too there were the sadder moments: fractured relationships, arguments, very long meetings with church authorities—although hopefully not any shipwrecks or beheadings.
I’m not going to dwell on this. Holy Scripture is more than just an illustration of our existential stuff —like in some Jordan Peterson TED talk. I’m not going to stand here and just talk about myself; and I’m not going to talk about you, either.
Instead, inevitably, I’m going to talk about Martin Luther.
For, the idea that you are, in fact, declared by God to be meet and right and met with heavenly approval; while, at the same time, being an all-too-human, fallible, slightly rubbish human being, reminds me of how a Christian is, simultaneously, both justified and a sinner.
Or, to say the same thing in another way, it reminds us of our baptism, baptismal vocation, the baptismal promise of God: “The one who believes and is baptised will be saved” [Mark 16.16].
And, with it, the long-term, lifetime-process of sanctification, growing in holiness through the Holy Spirit. Or, as Luther would put it, coming to resemble what baptism symbolises: the mission unto death of Jesus Christ.
If you wanted to rediscover a spiritual practice that had fallen by the wayside this term, perhaps I’d recommend the use of the holy water stoup: crossing yourself and remembering and trusting God’s promise that Jesus has saved you; and praying for the Holy Spirit to carry out his work.
“Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”
He had faith: in Jesus Christ, the saving power of his death and resurrection: for him, for you, for all those thousands of people to whom he preached. And God gave him the Holy Spirit, by which he turned such a great number to the Lord.
So if you want to be a great evangelist; if you want to be a ‘saint’; if you want to be one of those whom, we were told, at Antioch were first called ‘Christians’— The example of St Barnabas points us to the Holy Spirit and to faith.