Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Barnabas: The Encourager”
Rev. Art Ritter
April 8, 2018
John 1:5 – 2:2
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
In an old Reader’s Digest article, Marion Gilbert tells the story of opening her front door one morning to receive the newspaper. She was surprised to see a little stray dog standing at the door with the newspaper in his mouth. Delighted with this unexpected and helpful delivery, Marion went to her pantry and rewarded the dog with a couple of dog bones. The little dog wagged his tail, took the treats and ran off down the sidewalk, apparently to his home. The following morning Marion opened the door to pick up her newspaper, only to find the same little dog sitting there wagging his tail. This time however, there were eight newspapers surrounding the dog. Marion said that she spent the rest of the morning returning newspapers to her neighbors, including one who was the owner of the little dog.
William Arthur Ward said, “Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you.”
The English journalist G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The really great person is the person who makes every person feel great.”
The great American author Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”
When we are in relationship with another person, for a short period of association or for an extended relationship of time, we are changed by that person. The change may be small or significant, helpful or hurtful, but the interaction can have a lasting significance upon us. Part of what we remember about our relationships with others, whether they are parents, teachers, coaches, spouses, ministers, or friends- is whether or not we were encouraged. Those who provide encouragement to us are special people in our lives. They are enthusiastic and confident. They tend to focus on the needs of others first. They are interested in us and care deeply about what it is that we need. Encouragement is a special gift in any relationship and it is an important gift within the relationships created within the life of the community of faith.
This Easter season I will be using my sermons to reflect a bit upon the life within the early Christian Church. I will be looking at stories and people from the book of Acts, the narrative that describes how people were so empowered by Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit that they acted in ways that changed the world. These incidents relate how the early Church functioned as a community and how that community was able to influence and attract those who witnessed their actions of love and compassion. What gifts or actions did that early church display that we can model as we seek to be the body of Christ today?
In the fourth chapter of Acts we read about one of the first gatherings of the church. The whole group of believers, of one heart and soul, shared everything in common, claiming no private possession. There was not a needy person among them as those who owned land and houses sold them to share of their wealth with those who had less. Throughout history this particular passage has caused more than its share of grief within the Christian community. Was Luke, the author of the book of Acts advocating socialism or communism? Or was he simply illustrating the one mind of care and concern shared by the resurrection community? Certainly in a day in which we tend to seek our own interests and act in ways that separate and divide us, these words can hold some meaning. The power of the resurrected Lord always flows through us and we need to remember that it is through our words and action that the Risen Christ lives today.
I would like to concentrate on the next two verses of that fourth chapter of Acts. “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom apostles gave the name Barnabas, which means ‘son of encouragement.’ He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” This is an interesting citation in the narrative of the early Church. Joseph, called Barnabas, the son of encouragement.
This week after Easter I decided to do something that I enjoy and I did a bit of research on this man Joseph known as Barnabas. We meet him here in the early stories of Acts, when he sold some property and donated the money for the good of the post-resurrection community. Evidently Barnabas didn’t hold back anything or hedge his bet on the new group of believers. He was all in. Joseph, now called Barnabas, was a Levite, part of the Jewish tribe that served in the Temple. But his family had moved to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and thus couldn’t serve the Temple. His family had left Jerusalem thus Barnabas was a Greek or Hellenistic Jew, not part of the Judean or Galilean establishment of Jesus’ disciples. According to the book of Acts, there was a large company of Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem at the celebration of Pentecost just after Jesus’ crucifixion. Many were converted to what would later be known as Christianity, either through the preaching of the disciples or perhaps through experience with Jesus himself. Yet most were still viewed with suspicion by the long time members of the Jerusalem church. They had come late to the party. So Barnabas’ contribution was truly a risky commitment. He was an outsider yet he still was willing to go all in with this new community of faith.
Later in the book of Acts, the persecutor of Christians named Saul had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He now claimed to be a follower of Jesus. Of course some of the Christians were skeptical, thinking that this man who was a persecutor was simply trying to be a spy. They couldn’t trust Saul. They were ready to dismiss him. Enter Barnabas, the encourager. He introduced the man now called Paul to the leaders of the Jerusalem church and helped soothe their nerves and suspicions. He was able to see past Paul’s former acts of persecution and look at the potential he had for preaching the gospel. He publicly supported Paul. The two men became partners in ministry together in Antioch, in what we now call Syria.
While most of the early Christians believed that one had to be first Jewish before accepting Jesus as Christ, Barnabas’ ministry was among Gentiles, those who came straight to Christianity without being part of the Jewish faith. Although this set Barnabas at odds with the establishment in Jerusalem, it was his church in Antioch that grew the fastest. The Gentiles there found Barnabas to be “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” It was in Antioch that followers of Christ were first called Christians. It was in Antioch where money was collected to provide for Jerusalem famine relief after the city was destroyed by the Roman army. All of this was done through the leadership of Barnabas the encourager.
Finally, Scripture records a missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas and a young man named John Mark. It was a difficult trip of over 1400 miles. They encountered opposition and persecution. Paul was stoned along the way. Early in the journey, John Mark dropped out. Paul believed him to be a quitter and did not want him to be on any future mission trips. Barnabas insisted on giving John Mark a second chance. This story of disagreement is the last time that Barnabas is mentioned in the book of Acts, yet later in his letters Paul remarks about the goodness of John Mark and his helpful role in the Christian ministry.
While Barnabas is a minor character in the Bible and in the history of Christian faith, I wonder what things would have been like if he had not sold his property and contributed to the welfare of the early believers. I wonder how Christianity would have begun if Barnabas had not vouched for Paul in front of the suspicious, established disciples who saw Paul as an enemy. I wonder how the early faith would have grown if Barnabas would not have supported preaching Christ to the outsiders, the Gentiles. I wonder how Paul’s work would have succeeded if Barnabas had not taken a chance on a young man who previously failed, John Mark. Barnabas, the encourager, made a tremendous difference simply because of his gifts of reconciliation, inspiration, and praise.
Howard Baston tells the story of Duane Brooks, a pastor in Texas. While growing up, Duane’s father worked two jobs to support his family of four sons in tough times. When he was nine years old, Duane told his father that he really wanted to play baseball. “No, you don’t want to play baseball,” his father barked. “Yes, Dad, I really do.” “But you’re not a baseball player.” I really want to play baseball. I’d like to sign up for a team.” “Okay,” his dad said abruptly. He took Duane out to the field, gave him a glove and then threw the ball as hard as he could at Duane’s chest. Duane dodged the ball, and his father yelled at him, “See, I told you that you weren’t a baseball player!” And with that his father walked away, discouraging the dreams and hopes of his son. Years later, Duane who had his own nine year old son, remembered his father’s words and tried to encourage his son’s athletic endeavors. One day when Duane’s father came to visit, the group went to a park and Duane played catch with is son. Soon Duane’s father yelled out, “Hey, can I do that? I’d like to play catch with my grandson.” For an hour Duane watched as his father and his son played catch. And a wound was healed as the discourager became an encourager.
Barnabas the encourager is the example that we can carry with us in our lives within and outside of the community of faith. We can encourage by giving of ourselves to others. We can encourage by making sacrifices so that the needs of others can be met. We can encourage by believing in others and pointing out their goodness and taking the time to make them feel special. We can encourage by serving others, by getting involved in the lives of others in ways that support constructively. We can encourage by forgiving, by seeking reconciliation, and by being kind.
It seems that the early church owes a lot to Barnabas. Perhaps the best way of acknowledging that would be to be a Barnabas to others today.