A Sermon for St Barnbas' Day
June 11, 2023 at Holy Communion
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
There’s a wonderful hymn about the saints, meant for children but good for all of us, which has the refrain, “They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” The call of every Christian is to become a saint—to be so filled with the grace of God that we becomes signs and vessels of God’s holiness, people whose stories glorify God and encourage fellow believers.
But many saints have stories which seem unrelatable. Not so with St Barnabas, whom we remember today. His story is told in the book of Acts, and we read a small portion of that story as our second reading. It calls Barnabas simply but powerfully, “A good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” St Barnabas demonstrates God’s holiness by generosity, reliability, and compassion. These are not the virtues of a shooting star, but of the warm sun. They are the virtues most at home with us when we follow St Paul’s advice to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
So all I’m going to do today is to tell his story. And there is no better place to start than his name. We are introduced to Barnabas in Acts 4. We are told that in the church “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet” (Acts 4:34–37). Barnabas, besides selling everything he had to meet the needs of his Christian brothers, is “the son of encouragement”—and as we’ll see in two key episodes from his life, he earned the name.
The first happens in Acts 9. Saul, once a persecutor of the church but later known as the apostle Paul, has been dramatically converted on the road to Damascus. Saul preaches in Damascus for a while, but when he comes to Jerusalem the church doesn’t trust him—and why would they, considering that he put many of their friends into prison for the faith?
Who comes alongside Saul? Barnabas, the son of encouragement. If the church won’t believe Saul’s story from his own mouth, then Barnabas will tell it for him. He puts himself on the line and brings Saul into the fold, encouraging Saul that he is not alone and rejected, and encouraging the church to open their hearts with trust and generosity. St Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles—who was, let’s be honest, a little bit of a loose cannon and unlikely to present himself to church leadership in a conciliatory way—was only accepted by the church because he had a faithful, trusted, good man in his corner.
When the church is scattered by persecution, Barnabas seeks out Saul to work with him in Antioch. They undertake a charitable mission together, bringing financial relief to the Christians in Judea. (This happens to be the first time in recorded history that an non-governmental organization was involved in international poverty relief—but that’s an aside.) When they return, they bring with them a young man named John Mark.
So, when Paul and Barnabas are commissioned to go on a missionary journey, they bring John Mark with them. They have their adventures spreading the Gospel—at one point, Paul and Barnabas perform a miracle and then are mistaken by pagans for Zeus and Hermes—and along the way John Mark abandons ship and heads back home by himself.
A few years later, Paul and Barnabas have returned and are thinking about visiting the churches they planted again. Barnabas wants to bring John Mark just like before. But Paul won’t stand for it. John Mark is a quitter. Last time he left the work half-done; he’s a unreliable; he’s a liability. Now, Paul isn’t necessarily wrong. The missionary work he is called to is taxing, and he needs committed people with him.
But Barnabas is “the son of encouragement.” John Mark may have some growing up to do, but he deserves to take his place in the work of the gospel just as much as anyone else, and for that he’s going to need a compassionate and faithful spiritual father. So Paul and Barnabas go their separate ways. Paul takes Silas on his next missionary journey, and Barnabas takes John Mark to Cyprus, his own home country.
And that is where we leave them in the book of Acts. Neither Barnabas nor John Mark is mentioned again. But there are two important post-scripts. Tradition tells us that Barnabas ultimately gave his life for Christ on Cyprus. He laid down his life for his brothers in death, just as he had always done in life. And John Mark went on to write a book you’ve probably read—it’s called the Gospel According to Saint Mark.
Without Barnabas there is no Saint Paul, and without Barnabas there is no Saint Mark. Fourteen books of the Bible, one gospel and thirteen Epistles, were written because one faithful man became an advocate for their authors before the rest of the church trusted them. Barnabas built up the church by being an encouraging hand on the shoulder of other people whose names are remembered more than his own. His virtues are humility, simplicity, generosity, charity. The church’s foundation, “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20), is the foundation of quiet generosity, faithful patience, and steadfast encouragement.