By Sr. Kathryn, SSJD.
Welcome to the feast of St Barnabas. We know more about Barnabas than most of the Saints of the apostolic age and what we do know is found throughout the Acts of the Apostles, commented on in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, also in Galatians and Colossians. We can determine that he is a native Cypriot, a Levite, and a leader in the church in Jerusalem, tradition says he was an evangelizer of his native Cyprus and died around 61 A.D. at Salamis. He is commended in Acts 11:24 as “being a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”.
As a bit of background, we find in chapter four of Acts how the community were gathering together the proceeds of their surrendered possessions and contributing funds to build up the fledgling Christian community. Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet”. As for many in the Bible, his original name changed from Joseph (meaning “he will add”) to Barnabas (meaning “consolation or encouragement”). If we consider all the passages that mention his actions, we get a fairly good idea I believe, of his true character, both consoler or encourager, reliable, compassionate, kind and I would also say generous, just to name a few.
I would like to look first at his generosity. I think we can all identify with Barnabas in his generosity of his commitment to the Christian community. Throughout history we know that monastics sacrifice something to enter their chosen community but also parishioners give of their funds, time, and effort to build community in their church. But I think Barnabas is really emphasizing the position of not waiting for an invitation but on pondering the words of Jesus in his conversation with the rich man about selling all you have, he acted with full conviction of heart and mind. He handed over all his possessions for the greater good of the community because he believed in the vision and truth and building bonds to the Christian community that was forming.
Barnabas’ generosity goes beyond the physical however, he is also generous in his judgment of others. He stood by Paul, not based on others opinions but without wavering and certainly not compromising his deeper values, he supported Paul and convinced others to suspend their doubts, judgment, and lack of understanding of him. Barnabas did the same for his cousin Mark, who fell out of favor with Paul, instead he stood by Mark, giving him a second chance, working with him, and showing kindness and encouragement throughout their own missional journey. There is an irony here that Paul was not able to extend the same grace he received from Barnabas towards Mark. For me, this says Barnabas was a gentle spirit one who takes time to understand people, giving them space and remaining humble and respecting the unique gifts of one another.
Nearer to home we know ourselves that generosity can also be about making allowances. None of us are getting any younger, that means we may be slower and less alert some days than others, sometimes our neighbor talks too loudly because of deafness while we get on their nerves because we do not speak up. I know I ponder everything and often wonder how much my lack of a quick response must be frustrating to others. Often the conversation moves on and I am still furiously pondering the last topic from every conceivable angle! Here in our common life we must, like Barnabas, always be generous in our dealings with one another.
Then there are the passages today in Acts chapter eleven and thirteen, that leave us with a strong impression of the loyal and collaborative nature of Barnabas working alongside Paul. As one of the church leaders he came down from Jerusalem to Antioch to hear what was being proclaimed to the Gentiles, this in an environment of increasing persecution since the death of Stephen. He was impressed with what he heard and went to find Paul to begin their mission starting in Antioch. I believe Barnabas was likely a healthy counterbalance to Paul’s strong personality and fervor typical of a new convert. At the support and prompting of the Holy Spirit they were commissioned to begin their mission together covering a vast area of territory including gathering funds for the pending famine prophesized for Judea.
When the controversy of the circumcision dilemma arose with so many gentiles being accepted in the rapidly gathering momentum of the movement, they still stood alongside and supported one another despite the concerns of the Pharisees in Jerusalem and in the later trouble found in Acts thirteen and fourteen, with the local Jewish officials who were jealous and wanted them out of the region. Here is where the Gospel reading comes in ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ when facing conflict or persecution. The only theological divide I could find between them was about the legitimacy of Jews and gentiles eating together, This was an issue that Barnabas was against as he sided with the general belief of the church at Jerusalem, but they worked together with the understanding of agreeing to disagree until a resolution became apparent.
What does it mean deep down to personally commit to the desire for collaboration, goodwill, compassion, and develop a gentle trust of others like Barnabas did, so that we can all flourish in our given call to life and God? For me it means you put your spiritual practice to the test through your own personal agency. Christianity, and I dare to say, other faith traditions, have a similar grounding in three main areas. Training and practice in wisdom, behavior, and awareness, which for us embodies the depth of love from God, the understanding of Christ and the vitality of the Holy Spirit. Our work with wisdom in the spiritual journey teaches us to form an open pure understanding and intention about life around us, those we live and work with.
Wisdom is like a universal library filled with shelves of the life experiences that have gone before, the truth discovered at the root of all life. We have a living wisdom in our elders, listen to them, know them, understand them, love them. They give us life in more ways than birth and can be the voice of peace and compassion. But do not allow them to use this wisdom in an abuse of power but to empower, they are human too. Too often humanity has allowed tyranny and domination to be the only Word and action we hear and often to the shame and detriment of humanity.
But do not discount the vital wisdom in our youth, they have the new Word coursing through their veins, the anguish and suffering of the inherited past and the struggles of the present driving them into action. They can be the unfulfilled hope of the elders realized. As God is always drawing humanity forward to a new existence so our youth have the potential to be the vital energy and force for good. This is the “wisdom of serpents with the innocence of doves”. We must hear all voices. When wisdom is put into practice it permeates and informs the remaining practices. Barnabas himself took time to reflect, listen to the elders, seemingly to suspend any rash bias, opinion, and prejudice of the situation with commitment towards a mutual life-giving response.
When wisdom governs our behavior in a moral sense, also called virtue, it teaches us to perform the right actions, speech and govern our very way of being to bring peace, freedom, healing, and flourishing in all our relationships and efforts. Here we put our understanding into practice, the hardest part in some ways because we all have habits that need to be unlearned and started afresh. We constantly look to Christ’s example to guide, nurture, and support us.
Awareness says we make the right effort, giving a true presence to our situation, encouraging others when they seem defeated, making a diligent effort to know ourselves, others and what is going on around us. See where and to what is the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit sculpting, reforming us to unceasingly recreate us and the world anew in every age.
From Barnabas we can learn something of the love of God towards all creation, generosity and understanding of Christ and the encouragement and vitality of the Holy Spirit. Life is an ongoing journey of discovery of God, self, and the world around us. May we always remember St Barnabas and his life, giving us a good example and foundation for the beginnings of Christian community as we know it today. Thanks be to God.