Sermon for Barnabas the Apostle: St Barnabas – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 11 June 2023 by The Reverend Robert Green. (Acts Ch 11: v 19 – end; John Ch 15: v 12 – 17)
Barnabas, whose actual name was Joseph, was given the name Barnabas by the Apostles, which means ‘one who encourages’. Just as Jesus gave Simon the name ‘Peter’, the ‘Rock’ describing his character, so Joseph was given a name which summed him up as a person. Barnabas came from a Jewish Cypriot priestly family, and was an early member of the Jerusalem church. In Acts 4 v.37 we read that Barnabas sold some land, (possibly in Cyprus?) and gave the proceeds to the Church for the common good, and in our New Testament Reading, Barnabas is described as a ‘good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’
There were four occasions when Barnabas is mentioned, which had momentous results. The first is when the converted Saul arrives back in Jerusalem, the Christians thought he was a spy, but Barnabas introduced him to the Apostles, and convinced them of his conversion and sincerity.
The second occasion we heard read this morning, when the Jerusalem Church sent Barnabas to Antioch where Gentiles had ben evangelised in significant numbers, and where fellow Cypriots were prominent. Barnabas saw this as a work of God- and as a fitting sphere for the forgotten Saul, whom he brought to share his labours. He then took Saul with him to Jerusalem with their contribution towards the famine relief. On receiving this the Church recognised their Call to Gentile missionary work.
Barnabas’ third great contribution shows him committed to full acceptance of the Gentiles faith in Christ. So begins his journey with Paul, first in his own Cyprus, and then the establishing predominantly Gentile churches throughout Asia Minor- now Turkey, amidst growing Jewish opposition. For the Church and for Barnabas it was a milestone. Hitherto Barnabas had been leader, but now Paul takes the leadership as he undertakes more missionary journeys.
The fourth great contribution that Barnabas makes concerns the question of circumcision. In Antioch it became acute with the growing number of Gentile converts, and Paul and Barnabas were sent to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Their witness of many Gentiles becoming Christians convinced the Council that the Jewish practice of Circumcision was not appropriate or necessary, and their policy at Antioch was triumphantly vindicated.
Paul owed a great deal to Barnabas, and like Paul, supported himself without drawing on the churches. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Barnabas was still alive, and it is believed that he was martyred at Salamis in AD 61. He is the traditional founder of the Cypriot Church.
It is worth pointing out that Antioch is now known as Antakya, and was badly damaged in the recent earthquake in Turkey earlier this year. Part of the Byzantine Basilica collapsed, and some of the old city was destroyed after these many centuries. It helps to give a context to places we read about in our bibles.
Let us look at the title Barnabas is given by his fellow Christians- ‘one who encourages’. We all need encouragement from time to time. It is a very up-building and positive message, and we have seen that Barnabas’ contribution to the life of the Church was at the time very considerable and necessary. Barnabas encouraged his fellow believers even though there was a constant threat of persecution and danger. Thankfully this is not our experience, and we live in a very different world from the early Church. When I moved down to Dorset in 1987 to serve in the Winterborne Valley, there was a Christian community based at Whatcombe House in Winterborne Whitechurch which was called the Barnabas Fellowship, and through Retreats and conferences Christians were encouraged in their journey of faith. The whole ethos of the community was based on the example of Barnabas. So how can we encourage one another? One of the ways is found in our Gospel Reading this morning, when Jesus twice tells his disciples to “Love each other”. This was borne out by the reputation that Christians had subsequently, of being loving communities. Jesus has shown us how much he loves us, and in response to his love, we can show our love for one another. That is surely encouraging for everyone.