St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 11th June 2010
Who was Jesus of Nazareth? That’s a question to which you can give a whole range of answers. I guess, if someone asked you, you’d probably mention His birth in Bethlehem, and His parents Joseph and Mary, His work as a carpenter back in His home town, and His three years of public ministry in Jerusalem and Galilee. We are all very familiar with the broad outlines of Jesus’ life. And yet perhaps there is one aspect of Jesus’ life we tend to downplay or not really think about that much – the simple fact that Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was born in the land of Israel. He was, like any other Jewish boy, circumcised on the eighth day. He was brought up in the synagogue and educated in the law of Moses. Once a year He went with His parents to the temple in Jerusalem. His first language was probably Aramaic, but He also knew the Hebrew Scriptures off by heart.
So it is not that surprising that when He began to teach and preach the kingdom of God, He did so almost exclusively in the land of Israel to Jewish people. He regularly quoted the Old Testament in His teaching. He claimed He had not come to abolish the law but fulfil it. When, for example, He cleansed a leper in Mark 1:40-45, He told him to show himself to the priest and offer sacrifices. He Himself attended all the major religious festivals in Jerusalem. In many ways Jesus’ mission was a thoroughly Jewish one and even as His earthly ministry ended on the cross, it was the words of Old Testament Scripture that passed His lips. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit – an almost exact quote from Psalm 31:5.
And when after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the first disciples began to spread the good news, it seemed only natural to them to share their message with Jewish people. Their early ministry was concentrated in Jerusalem. Later as they were scattered after Stephen’s death and began to spread out across the Near-east, they continued to preach almost exclusively in the synagogues. They used the Old Testament to show Jesus was the promised Messiah, and their overriding concern was for their fellow Jews to accept the message of the gospel.
But then strange things began to happen. Because some people had the peculiar idea of taking the good news of Jesus and sharing it with non-Jews, with people like us, Gentiles. Not only that, but it seemed that God was actually blessing their work and that plenty of these Gentiles were becoming followers of Jesus. Even Peter seemed to be caught up in this strange phenomenon, with apparently some strange vision of unclean animals and a visit to, of all people, a Roman centurion.
And this caused all kinds of tension and uncertainty in the early church. After all, if you were a Gentile, you weren’t circumcised. You weren’t educated in the Old Testament and in the law of Moses. You might even have grown up worshipping some other god and have a background in a pagan cult. How on earth could you possibly be included within God’s chosen people? What right had you to be considered a genuine follower of Jesus? It was little wonder, really, that our reading in Acts 15 begins with some men coming down from Judea – the Roman province that included Israel – to Antioch – where many Gentiles had become Christians – and saying Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.
Now you’re probably sitting there and thinking, “Well, that’s all very interesting. But what’s this dispute all those centuries ago got to do with me? And how is it possibly relevant to our celebrations today?” Well, we are here to celebrate the life and witness of Saint Barnabas. And it’s worth reminding ourselves, that, if it wasn’t for people like Barnabas and Paul, we would be following a very different kind of Christian faith from the one handed down to us over the generations. No question of men and women sitting together. Special classes for the children in the book of Leviticus. Circumcisions practised regularly alongside baptisms. Regular Hebrew classes with the vicar. It doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? Well, not apart from regular Hebrew classes with the vicar. See me later if you’re interested…
So what I want to do is remind ourselves briefly who was St Barnabas, and what lessons we can learn from him for our church life today.
First of all, Barnabas engaged with other cultures around him. We first come across Barnabas in Acts 4:36 where he is described as a Levite from Cyprus. And this tells us two things. On the one hand, he was by birth and upbringing a Jew, and not only that, a member of the tribe of Levi, which historically was the tribe associated with the priesthood. On the other, his family home was in Cyprus, which was a Gentile island, even if it had a large Jewish population. Maybe this is why when Barnabas and Paul travelled round from city to city sharing the good news they were so comfortable entering new situations and meeting so many different kinds of people. They did not feel restricted by their background.
Secondly, Barnabas encouraged all those who came to the Lord. You may remember we looked a few weeks ago at Acts 11:19-30 where Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem church to investigate reports of Gentiles becoming Christians in Antioch. And what was Barnabas’ response? Did he draw up a report to be discussed at the next meeting of the Jerusalem synod? Did he set up a committee to consider a range of responses to this new development? No, of course not. Acts 11:23 When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. Barnabas’ concern, you see, was not for church structures or traditions. It was for men and women to meet Jesus as their Saviour and Lord, and to carry on growing in their love and knowledge of Him.
Thirdly, Barnabas enabled others to grow in their ministry. When Barnabas turned up in Antioch, he realised that what was going on was too big for one man to deal with. So did he do? He went down to Tarsus to find a chap named Saul who had been dramatically converted on the Damascus Road some years earlier. It was thanks to Barnabas that this Saul became the famous church planter and evangelist we now know as the apostle Paul. Barnabas recognised his gifts, nurtured him, and then let him take the lead. He was gracious enough to recognise he couldn’t do it all, and wise enough to bring others alongside him to help in this task of leadership.
Fourthly, and following on from this, Barnabas – together with Paul – educated their churches in the Christian faith. We tend to think of Barnabas and Paul moving quickly from one place to another, but a closer look shows this wasn’t often the case. For example, once Barnabas brought Paul back to Antioch, they spent a whole year teaching the new church. They knew that if the church was going to survive and thrive in a hostile environment, then its members had to be fully rooted and grounded in the gospel. And so they invested their time, their energy and their talents, helping people to understand just what it meant to follow Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
But fifthly, Barnabas was also someone was willing to be educated by others. We mustn’t make Barnabas out to be a plaster-cast saint who was perfect in everything he did. He too was human and prone to make mistakes. We heard in reading from Galatians how he gave in for a time to the pressure of separating off from the Gentile believers. And as we read this passage we can only imagine Paul’s pain as he says even Barnabas was led astray (Galatians 2:13) – Barnabas, his mentor, his fellow-worker, his friend. But by the time we come to Acts 15, Barnabas is fully back on board with Paul. He realised he had made a mistake and he was prepared to admit it. Barnabas really was a gracious individual, wasn’t he?
So what is it exactly that we can learn from Barnabas’ example today?
First of all, we too need to be engaged with other cultures. Now when I talk about engagement with other cultures, I guess we tend to think of reaching out to people from other nations and other languages. And of course that is part of what is involved. But sometimes it involves simply being prepared to enter other people’s worlds and find out what is going on. I love the story Joan shared last Sunday of how the Lord led her to go down to the social club and talk to them about St Barnabas’ celebrations this weekend. That is cross-cultural engagement.
And why is it so important? Well, whenever a church celebrates an anniversary it all so easy to look back nostalgically on a mythical golden age when the church was full, the vicar was revered by the local community and everyone knew the gospel message. But whether or not this golden age existed is beside the point. We cannot and will not return to such a state of affairs. The world is constantly moving and we as a church have a choice. We can either retreat into our own little world of tradition where we allow nothing to disturb the way we worship or we can go out into the world and engage with where people are actually at. Now I say we have a choice, and I guess in the short-term we do. But if we retreat and simply carry on as if the 1960s never happened, or get stuck in the 1970s endlessly singing all about peace and love, then in the end we will die out.
This might sound a little frightening, a little too uncomfortable but if there’s one thing I have learnt over the years, our fears more often come from us going out of our own comfort zone than any real threat that is out there. Joan herself will tell you that when she plucked up courage to go down the social club, the welcome and atmosphere she discovered there was completely different from what she was expecting. I believe the local community wants us to be engaged with them, and even more importantly that is what Christ wants us to do. After all, as I have said many times before, when Jesus embarked on His earthly ministry, He didn’t build a big church, sit inside it and then ask, “Hey, where is everybody?”
Secondly, we too need to encourage others in their faith, even when they are not people quite like us. This is a really important point, because I believe in the past too often churches have given out the message that what really counts is not whether newcomers are growing in their love and service of the Lord, but whether they are going to fit in on the pews, and not upset the usual way of doing things. Folk, reaching out with the gospel is often a messy, painful process. But when the grace of God is at work our response like that of Barnabas should be to rejoice and to encourage new believers to remain true to the Lord.
This doesn’t mean that we simply abandon all our teaching and condone any and every kind of behaviour. There is a lot of debate as to what the decision the council at Jerusalem reached in Acts 15 actually means for us, and I don’t have time to go into it now. But at the very least we can say that the prohibition on sexual immorality for one is as relevant for us today as it was then. Experience shows that churches which relax their teaching on marriage don’t so much engage with cultures around them, as get swallowed up, and are no longer able to show the radical difference that following Jesus makes.
Thirdly, if we are to grow as a church, we need to enable others. I wonder, what do you make of our children who come so faithfully to church Sunday by Sunday? Do you see them as a bit of nuisance, or as distractions to your worship? Or do you see them as young people with gifts and talents to be nurtured, who need leadership and guidance, and then later on to be released into leadership and ministry of their own? If we are to celebrate the 250th anniversary of St Barnabas – not that any of us will be around to be see it – then we need urgently to raise up men and women who can make disciples of our young people. This is the most important challenge we face in both churches, and it needs to be a matter of constant prayer and discussion. I would not be standing here today were it not for the leaders who shared the gospel with me and thought it worthwhile investing their time in this nervous and rather lonely teenager.
And this leads on the fourth point, about education. Now I know that few people have perhaps the gift of teaching the Christian faith like St Barnabas had, although I reckon there are probably some people here this morning who might need to consider whether God is calling them to discover this gift. But whether or not we can formally teach others, none of us can escape from the fact that one way or another we all act as an advertisement for the Christian faith. I am reminded of the old saying about parenthood, “You either be a good example or a terrible warning”. Surely the same is true of us as we go about our daily business as servants of Christ. We can either set a good example of what it means to follow Jesus or act as a terrible warning. You see, the decision people make on whether to go to church, or read their Bible, or pray, is often based not so much by what they know of the gospel, as what they see in us. And if that responsibility does not drive us to our knees, to pray, to seek daily the wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I am not totally sure what will.
This doesn’t mean however that we will always get it right. The Lord knows that we are weak, fallible human beings and the wonder of the Christian message is that He loves us not because of who we are, but in spite of who we are. Our mission is not, as the world often thinks, to show that we are better than other people, but to show we are like other people, except that we know the mercy and forgiveness of Christ. But in order to this, we need like Barnabas be willing to be educated, to learn from our mistakes and grow in our understanding of what the Lord wants of our lives. Because in the end, that’s what being a disciple is all about. The word “disciple” simply means learner, and to be a Christian in the truest sense involves being a life-long learner, even and especially when sometimes we take a wrong turn and make a mess of things.
Barnabas engaged. Barnabas encouraged. Barnabas enabled. Barnabas educated and was willing to be educated. What about us? His pupil and his friend Paul wrote these words in our reading from Galatians – The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. If we too are serious about living by faith in the Son of God there is so much we can learn from Barnabas. As we re-dedicate ourselves to the Lord’s service on this anniversary occasion, let us reach out into new situations, let us encourage others to remain true to the Lord, let us enable others to discover their gifts and ministries, let us show others what it means to follow Christ and let us be humble enough to learn to follow Jesus ever more deeply, for the sake of His wonderful and beautiful name. Amen.