St. Barnabas, Apostle, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

Those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch…” (Acts 11:19).

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Barnabas, an early leader of the church. He was not one of the twelve, but is commonly counted among the apostles: one of those “sent” on mission (which is what “apostle” means). He appears first as one of the early members of the church in Jerusalem; a man of means from Cyprus who in the time immediately after Jesus’ resurrection gave generously for the support of the church (Acts 4). For this generosity he was given the name Barnabas, or “son of encouragement,” for the sake of the encouragement he offered to the early Christians.

As Barnabas’ story unfolds in the Acts of the Apostles (the story of those “sent”), we stumble once again over the story of the persecution of the church in Jerusalem, the one that took place after the death of Stephen the first martyr. This is the persecution that sent Philip the deacon to Samaria to preach and baptize, and then along the wilderness road to Gaza to evangelize and baptize the court official who was returning to Ethiopia, and who then took the good news with him to a far flung corner of the world (Acts 8).

The point of this decisive persecution is that out of the disruption of church life in Jerusalem, the breaking up of the familiar round of worship and intimate connection, great things came. The church was turned “upside down,” or even better yet “inside out,” as its members were sent out to take the word of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the message of salvation, to the four corners of the world.

It’s not too difficult for us, in this time of pandemic, to imagine ourselves on this same wilderness road. Our familiar round of worship and fellowship has been disrupted, but we now have new opportunities for our mission and ministry. Challenges as well, of course, but also new ways to connect with others and to go deeper in relationship with Christ and with one another. Who will we encounter on the wilderness road we’re traveling? Who will God send us on the way?

So, it’s here in the eleventh chapter of Acts that St. Barnabas re-enters the story. Barnabas had become a friend of the new convert, Paul of Tarsus (as the account runs in Acts), and after Paul had returned home Barnabas remained in Jerusalem. Now in our reading today, we discover that another result of the persecution and dispersal of the church is that the good news is being preached in the Greek communities on the Mediterranean coast. St. Barnabas, a trusted leader, is sent to Antioch to investigate, to make sure everything is on the up and up. Like a good leader, Barnabas sizes up the situation, and decides to bring his friend Paul from nearby Tarsus to join him in the work. Perhaps he realizes that other gifts are needed; or perhaps that leadership is simply better when it’s shared. It turns out to be the beginning of a “beautiful friendship,” that was not without its tensions.

The message for us, in this time of pandemic, as we too negotiate our own way forward in the midst of widespread illness, economic upheaval, violence, protest, and the rest, is that the mission and ministry we’re engaged in will require new alliances and new relationships as we move forward. St. Barnabas and St. Paul forged a partnership that took them far beyond Antioch, as the church there commissioned them for work that took them first to Cyprus (Barnabas’ old stomping grounds) and then deep into the gentile world. The church expanded its mission and ministry, reaching new constituencies and making new converts. This was not opportunistic or pragmatic on the part of these leaders (as the story unfolds in Acts), but foretold by the prophets and confirmed by the action of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe the place to end is back at the beginning, with St. Barnabas himself. In these times we live in, the time of the Coronavirus, we need sons and daughters of encouragement ourselves: leaders of the church who will build up the capacity of our hearts for the work that is ahead. God knows we have enough sources of discouragement these days. We need friends, fellow laborers, companions on the way. May God supply what we need as we walk the wilderness road.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee