For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. (Acts xi 24)
This morning we celebrate the Feast of St. Barnabas the Apostle, traditionally observed on the 11th of June. The name Barnabas comes to us from the Hebrew bar-naba, and it translates roughly into the son of encouragement or the son of prophesy. St. Barnabas had come to Jerusalem from his native Cyprus of a Levite family. His birth name was Joseph. The Apostles welcomed him into the nascent Church and gave him the name of Barnabas. Through his generosity he sold his land and offered all the proceeds to the Gospel endeavor. Both his charity and encouragement in St. Paul’s conversion figured, no doubt, into his naming. We know too that he was a cousin of St. Mark the Evangelist.
Early on, following his own conversion, we learn that Barnabas defended Saul of Tarsus, soon to be Paul, against the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, who distrusted the efficacy of his self-proclaimed conversion. In the audience of the other Apostles, he made it clear that the same Saul who had consented unto Stephen’s death, had now come to embrace and defend Christ fearlessly in the public square. Barnabas thus promoted Saul’s ministry until it was judged more prudent that he should spend the early days of his new conversion away from Jerusalem in his own native land.
We next hear about Barnabas in 11th Chapter of Acts, when he was sent to the newly founded Church in Antioch. There new believers had been evangelized by Jewish Christians who left Jerusalem after Stephen’s stoning. Because of his mercy, forgiveness, and patience towards Saul, Barnabas was judged a suitable teacher for a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile faithful. His breadth of spirit must have been more than evident to the Apostles, given that he came from a Jewish family that had survived and prospered in and alien and unfriendly pagan Cyprus. The temptation to cleave jealously to his Jewish identity even after surrendering to Christ would have been strong. Nevertheless, he appears to have left most of that behind. Because Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith, many Gentiles in Antioch were added to the Church. During his time in Antioch, he even came to acknowledge his own limitations and the need for Saul in his teaching ministry. So he set out for Tarsus to reclaim his old friend, to enlist his mind and mouth in the service of the Gospel. Barnabas was an able enough evangelist, but Saul would prove essential to the explication of the Gospel’s harder truths. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts xi. 26)
After one year, at the instigation of Agabus, who prophesied a great famine throughout the world in the reign of Claudius Caesar, Paul and Barnabas gathered generous alms for relief of the poor Church at Jerusalem. From there they were ordained as missionaries and took along John Mark on what is known as the First Missionary Journey of the ancient Church. St. Luke, describing their evangelical journey in his Acts of the Apostles even registers a difference in emphasis with his ordering of their names. What had begun with Barnabus and Saul would be thenceforth Paul and Barnabas. Paul preeminent importance to the process of conversion, by reason of his theology and its practical moral application, was duly noted. His Gospel teaching and exhortation earned him converts in every heathen city of the ancient Mediterranean. At Lystra the people were so struck by his oratory and then its power to heal a man crippled birth that they came to believe that he was an incarnation of the messenger god Mercury. At the same time, unsettled as they were by Paul, they were equally moved in another way by his companion in arms Barnabas. Barnabas’ composure, silent nobility, and spiritual gravity struck them as the incarnation of Jupiter himself.
The two personalities could not have been more unlike. Perhaps they were destined to have a falling out. The New Testament, to its credit, will continue that age-old Jewish tradition of never sparing us the details of both progress and problems. It provides not only four Gospels with detailed description of how Christ’s enemies, persecutors, and slanderers do their best to undo Him. We have also the honest to God truth about his cowardly, unfaithful, inconstant, and tepid friends! Then we have an honest account of how the same friends fell in and out with each other. The source of their disagreements often related to the Jewish Law’s requirement of circumcision and its incessant urging by sect of the Pharisees. Peter finally resisted the tradition and its racial overtones concluding that the Law was really more of a burden than a boon. Because it could not save, he and his fellow Apostles ruled that it should not be imposed upon the Gentile converts to the faith. Paul and Barnabas stood firm with the others on the ruling, convinced of the Gentiles’ conversion declaring all things that God had done with them. (Acts xv 4)
Soon after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with Silas and Jude. Together they preached the Gospel to the Church and emboldened the brethren. But next we read that:
Some days later Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do. And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; and Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. (Acts xv 36-end)
St. Luke leaves us with little doubt about who was to blame. Barnabas felt through privilege of blood-tie that his cousin John Mark should accompany them. Blood is thicker than water. Natural man assumes instinctively that his next of kin has rights that others don’t. But Paul isn’t much interested in the blood-tie. To his mind, the blood-tie is what Christ had come down from heaven to help us all to get over. Christ taught and Paul reinforced the fact that any sense of self-inflated importance based on birth-right was as good as useless in the face of God’s calling and judgment. In Christ what Jew and Greek alike came to learn was that God’s eternal weighing and measuring of man’s destiny would hang in the balance of righteousness or sin. Paul knew only too well that the only blood-tie that mattered was the tie to the blood of Christ shed once for all for the sins of the whole world. And that tie could be established only through the soul’s willful surrender to God. What was of utter importance for Paul was not any earthly blood-tie but a spiritual tie that Christ intended to establish with all men through His Holy Spirit.
Paul was not happy with Barnabas’ intention to include John Mark in their planned journey. Mark had left them at one point. Paul must have concluded that he was inconstant, unreliable, fickle, or maybe even faint-hearted and cowardly. Paul would have been impatient with any spiritual immaturity in the characters of those chosen to accompany him on his evangelical journeys. So he separated himself from the two brethren because of Barnabas’ over-indulgence of Mark’s weakness and unresolved sin.
In Barnabas we find a very dangerous tendency towards accommodating and enabling the bad behavior of kith and kin. Of course the disposition is not limited to blood relations. Oftentimes dear friends whom we have made through choice become closer to us than relatives. In either case, with St. Barnabas, we are tempted to tolerate bad behavior in them. We expand and enlarge the borders of charity to the point of surrendering and submitting to what we might not otherwise endure in those less close to us. St. Paul knew that this was a dangerous precedent to set on the side of the Church’s leadership. To have established an exception on the top for the hierarchs while demanding submission to a rule on the bottom from the laity would have flown in the face of Gospel truth. And Paul believed that if the truth was thus sacrificed, true charity would be thrown out altogether. For, as Cardinal Newman shows, the kindness, or seemingly-harmless tolerance that is its equivalent, which St. Paul found in St. Barnabas, wasn’t charity at all! Does not our kindness more often than not degenerate into weakness and thus become not Christian Charity but the lack of it? Are we sufficiently careful to do what is right and just, rather than what is pleasant? (J.H. Newman, ‘Toleration for Religious Error.’) True charity can never be acquiescent in evil. For though, as the same Apostle says, charity suffers long, is kind, envies not, vaunts not itself, and is not puffed up, it also seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. (1 Cor. xiii. 4-6) The point is that true charity wills the good of another in the light of God’s truth and does as little as possible to enable sinners in their sinning. Love the sinner and hate the sin. But we cannot truly love another if we don’t do our utmost to help sinners to see their sin and to come out of it.
And so today we are called to to embrace the charity that reveals firmness, manliness, and godly severity. (Idem, Newman) Otherwise our kindness becomes lanquid and unmeaning because it is not directed and braced by principle and thus indulges those who should be chastised. (Idem, 405) In the end, Barnabas must have been able to practice his own version of this virtue on John Mark. After all, we do find John Mark, at one point, back supporting St. Paul under the duress of his house arrest. Perhaps Barnabas’ exhortation encouraged and facilitated St. Mark’s reconciliation with Paul.
St. Barnabas is the patron saint of Antioch and Cyprus and also the Patron Saint of Hailstorms. He is depicted often in painting with St. Matthew’s Gospel in one hand, which he was said to have transcribed, and with a burning ball of fire in the other. The fire is the symbol of his martyr’s death by burning in his own native land. It might also be a blazing reminder of the love that filled the heart of his friend St. Paul, true charity that was unafraid to demand better behavior from the faithful because they ought to have been on their way to the best. Amen.