Saint Barnabas may be one of my new heroes of the faith. Throughout this Easter-tide, I have been teaching a Bible study on The Acts of the Apostles and, of course, St. Barnabas figures prominently in that text. I believe that is where my fondness for this apostle has begun. Most Christians will recall that Barnabas was a companion St. Paul and a fellow missionary along-side that apostle. Most do not recall that St. Paul owed much of his ministry to his lesser known companion nor can they imagine what the world might have been like without St. Barnabas.
When St. Barnabas first appears, we are told his real name is Joseph (Joses) and that he was a Levite from the island of Cyprus. St. Barnabas is given as an example of the apostolic communal living in that he sold the land which he owned, “brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:36-37) As such, we find that the Apostles name him “the Son of Encouragement” or Barnabas. From that point, he is no longer known as Joseph, but rather as Barnabas instead. For much of the next five chapters, we hear nothing more from this exemplar of early Christian life. The next time we see him is with Saul, newly converted, has tried to find the Apostles in Jerusalem but is unable to do so because no one trusts the former persecutor of the faith.
Keeping in mind that Saul, prior to his conversion had not been able to persecute enough Christians in Jerusalem, so he sought permission from the High Priest and went to Damascus in order to root out the Christians in that city. Piecing together the story from Acts 9 and Galatians 1 and 2, we may deduce that St. Luke omitted St. Paul’s three-year sojourn in Arabia (Galatians 1:16-17) and that the “many days” spent in Damascus (Acts 9:23) included a three year hiatus in the wilderness of Arabia. So, to the Apostle who had remained in Jerusalem, there might have been some rumor, carried by a pilgrim of merchant, of one who had persecuted the believers being himself converted, but then there was nothing more heard for three years.
When St. Paul finally decided to present himself to the Apostles in Jerusalem, “they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26) It was only Barnabas who, presumably led by the Holy Spirit, would overcome the very reasonable fear and trepidation, and bring this alleged convert before the Apostles. St. Luke tells us that St. Paul stayed in Jerusalem for a time but, after drawing death threats, was sent to Caesarea and on to his home town of Tarsus. (Acts 9:29-30) St. Paul recalls in his Epistle to the Galatians, that he remained in Jerusalem only fifteen days and encountered only St. Peter and St. James, the Brother of the Lord. (1:18-19)
There is another lull in the activities of both Saints Barnabas and Saul for two more chapters. We when next hear of the pair, St. Paul is residing in Tarsus, apparently living a somewhat reclusive existence, and St. Barnabas has been sent by the Apostles in Jerusalem to look into the fledgling Church forming in Antioch. Once more, and, again, presumably led by the Holy Spirit, St. Barnabas leaves Antioch and travels into Cilicia to retrieve St. Paul. The two return to Antioch and minister together in that city for more than a full year before being commissioned by the leaders in Antioch to begin the “First Missionary Journey.”
Consider that, were it not for St. Barnabas, St. Paul might never have made contact with the Apostles in Jerusalem. Likewise consider that, were it not for St. Barnabas,St. Paul might have continued toiling away in obscurity in Tarsus. He might never have been called to Antioch and thus never be sent out on the voyages God had ordained for him. Without these journeys,St. Paul might never have travelled to Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, or Thessalonica. He would not have encountered Saints Timothy, Titus or Philemon. The entire Canon of New Testament Scripture would be reduced by almost one-third! What would have happened in these cities and to these people without the ministry of St. Paul? What ministry couldSt.Paulhave had without the ministry of St. Barnabas?
History and tradition tells us that St. Barnabas had a vital and thriving ministry in the Mediterranean after his unfortunate split from St. Paul. We know that he mentored and encouraged his cousin St. Mark in much the same manner as he did with St. Paul. He nurtured St. Mark back from having abandoned the missionary team in Pamphylia to a point where St. Mark became an important aid to both Saints Peter and Paul, founded the Christian Church in Alexandria, Egypt, and wrote one of the four canonical Gospels. St.Barnabas was the encouraging spirit who brought the best in ministry out of both Saints Paul and Mark, yet it was not his calling to be as celebrated as either man.
The Feast of Saint Barnabas is a major feast in the Church not because he was one of the twelve Apostles or one of the four Evangelists, but rather because he was a catalyst that brought two of those men’s ministries out to their fullest. Maybe we are not called to be celebrated as a great hero of the faith in years to come. Maybe it is our calling to bring out the very best in the young men and women around us. Maybe they will be celebrated in the centuries to come and, having long since received our rewards, we can be satisfied with having been a Barnabas to those mighty men and women of God.
Grant, O God, that we may follow the example of your faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the well-being of your Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.