February 13, 2011
Acts 4:36; 9:23-28; 15:36-41; Genesis 50:15-21
"The Ministry of Encouragement"
Rev. Joyce MacKichan Walker
He was born a “Joseph.” The apostles nicknamed him Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). Quite an honor to be known well enough by Jesus’ apostles to get your nickname directly from them! Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, puts it right out there – “Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement)”.
I bet you know what’s coming next. People are always getting new names in the Bible – names that better describe what God has called them to be, or what God will call them to be. (1)
I think you’ve heard this enough that if I say: Old name - Abram, you’ll say new name - _(Abraham)_- which means “Father of many”.
If I say Sarai, you’ll say _(Sarah)_ - which means “Mother of multitudes,” including kings….
If I say Saul, you’ll say _(Paul)_ - which means – well, unfortunately for me Paul is not a God given new name at all; Paul is just the Greco-Roman version of the Hebrew name “Saul”!
OK, but now that we’re on a roll, this is like the game show “Cash Cab,” where the questions get harder the more you get right! And just like on Cash Cab, the longer you can stay (in the cab) playing the game, the smarter you feel.
If I say Jacob, you’ll say __(Israel)__ - which means “the one who strives with God.”
If I say Simon, you’ll say (Peter) – which means “Rock.”
If I say Ho-she’-a, (I told you they get harder, but I’m counting on Presbyterian women to know this one), you’ll say _(Joshua) – which means “God is my salvation” – Moses changed that one, on God’s behalf!
And from now on, if I say Joseph, you’ll say (Barnabas) – which, to quote Luke, means “son of encouragement.”
For some names the meaning is really obvious:
- Joyce – joyful
- Charity – love
- Noelle or Noel – born on Christmas Day
- Carol – Melody
- Carson – son of Carr; Johnson – son of John; Jackson – son of Jack; Jason – Greek for healer (Gotya!)
Some are not so obvious:
- David – “friend”
- Matthias – gift of God
- Anna – gracious
- Jonathan – gift of the Lord.
Back to Barnabas – I have to put this on the not so obvious list, but hey – I don’t need to look it up – Luke puts it right out there – “Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name (Barnabas) (which means “son of encouragement)”.
“Son of Encouragement” – I bet we’re gonna like this guy! In fact, when I check him out in a number of English versions of the Bible I like him even better – son of exhortation, son of comfort, son of consolation.
The brand new Common English Bible introduced this morning in an adult education class in the Assembly Room, describes Barnabas as “one who encourages” – hmmm…could be son of encouragement or daughter of encouragement.
So let’s see if Barnabas lives up to his name.
He isn’t mentioned in any of the gospels, but when we first meet him, he’s already a believer. Nice to be introduced for the first time with a great story like this:–
The first believers in Jesus as the Messiah, band together in the early days after his death and resurrection. There’s a sense of solidarity in numbers and their common new life in Christ takes over their whole existence. They share everything – homes, possessions, meals, needs, prayers, their bold proclamation that Jesus, the Christ, has been raised from the dead and they intend to live like that matters more than anything else! You heard me right – they share everything – selling what they own, all their stuff, as it is needed, so the ones who are poor, the ones who don’t have enough to live on, get a fair share. Not everyone does it – remember Ananias and Sapphira? They pretend to do it, but they only bring part of the money back to the community. That might be alright if they tell the truth, but they lie and say the money they are bringing is everything they got for the land they sold. Doesn’t turn out so well for them - they both drop dead! Joseph, however, to whom the apostles give the nickname _(Barnabas)_, sells a field he owns, brings the money, and lays it at the apostles’ feet. Here it is. A leg up for those who need it. That alone might have suggested the name that means “one who encourages.” I’m with you, the actions of Barnabas declare. I don’t need all of this – who can use it?
But the story of Barnabas and his encouragement doesn’t end there. Luke tells other parts of the story of the early church first though – apostles who preach boldly, heal the sick, stand up to the authorities who order them not to teach, suffer beatings, endure the agony of seeing one of their own, Stephen, publicly stoned to death, martyred for his faith in Jesus. The story of Saul’s beginnings are here – how he guards the coats of those who stone Stephen, then begins his public rampage – tracking down Christians, dragging them out of their houses and putting them in prison. In his zeal to crush this new group of followers of Jesus, Saul even pursues Christians who have fled to outlying towns. But on his way to Damascus, Jesus pulls him up short, brings him to his knees, shows him how blind he has been to the truth, and gives him a few days to let it all sink in. His sight restored, and his new mission crystal clear in the gift of his new eyes, Saul is a changed man. The brutal persecutor of Christians becomes the passionate proclaimer of Jesus Christ as Lord! And,… he thinks he can prance back to Jerusalem, join the disciples’ team, and have his pick of positions - defense, forward and goalie – right now, because look at him – he just saw Jesus!
Not so fast. The Christians in Jerusalem don’t buy it – not by a long shot! The guy who watched and approved as Stephen is stoned to death? The guy who relentlessly tracked down their friends and threw them in jail? Not in our town!
Reenter Barnabas, the one who encourages. Barnabas takes Saul, brings him to the disciples in Jerusalem, introduces him around, and tells them it all really happened just like Saul tells it! Saul really saw and heard Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he’s a changed man! I heard him – he preached Jesus!
Back into the background goes Barnabas, the one who encourages. Into the foreground come Peter, and a woman disciple, and some Gentiles who find and are found by this new faith, and some Christians who tell the story of Jesus in a new town, Antioch. Whew… Antioch is a really receptive town – a whole lot of new believers – they’ll need encouragement – hmmmm, whom should we send for that job... Barnabas, the one who encourages! In Luke’s words, he sees the grace of God, (an encourager knows it’s not about him or her, but all about God) he rejoices, and he exhorts them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion (Acts 11:23). But wait – there’s more. Barnabas again goes and gets Saul, who has also been absent from Luke’s story for all this time, brings him to Antioch, and for an entire year works with him, meeting with the church and teaching them - practicing his ministry of encouragement – both of the church and of Saul.
Barnabas and Saul are a team now. During worship at Antioch, the Holy Spirit tells the church, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2b) So the church fasts and prays and lays their hands on their heads to commission them, and sends them out to carry the good news of Jesus to other towns and villages. They are not alone this time – they take Barnabas’s cousin, John Mark, with them – and another opportunity will develop for Barnabas to practice his ministry of encouragement.
God can call us all to this ministry of encouragement, if we get the message. You may be thinking, “How easy was that – the Holy Spirit told the church and the church sent them – of course they got the message! Well, it’s not a coincidence that you’re sitting here today, listening to the church telling you that God has called and gifted you for the ministry of encouragement. Not feeling particularly up to it? Don’t forget, Barnabas understood his role very clearly – it wasn’t about him, it was about God. Barnabas understood that he was helping the Holy Spirit do God’s work. And all along his way he picked up others and encouraged them to do the same. And got out of way when they were ready to fly on their own. Barnabas and Saul eventually become Paul and Barnabas. Gradually, Paul takes the lead and Barnabas steps into the background. When John Mark joins them, they travel as a trio, but for some reason that Luke doesn’t explain, John Mark drops out and returns to Jerusalem. We don’t know why, but the particular Greek word used for “he left them,” suggests it wasn’t pretty.
When Paul wants Barnabas to take another trip, to visit all the believers to whom they had proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they’re doing, Barnabas wants to take John Mark with them. Paul is having none of it, and the way Luke tells it, it would be hard not to understand his perspective: “Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.”
But Barnabas stands his ground too. Barnabas is not leaving John Mark behind, so he sets out with John Mark on a new mission, the one who encourages giving a second chance to a young disciple. Paul picks a new partner for his return visits, and goes on his way.
In our highly competitive, “you have to do it better than everyone else to be noticed” community, it’s really easy to see people make a mistake and write them off. You had your chance; you couldn’t cut it. In fact, you might, like Paul, say, no second chances. You might even be justified in saying so.
But if you know someone, if you can put a name and a face that you love in that place – your child, your cousin, your friend, your student, your teacher, your neighbor, your confirmand, … you might instead be a Barnabas, a son or daughter of encouragement. You might know deep down that what this child of God needs is not condemnation but consolation; not desertion but accompaniment; not criticism but comfort, not cutting off but second chances.
Have you had a kid whose first year of college grades looked like death warmed over? Have you had an adult child who didn’t call you on your birthday or Christmas or the anniversary of the day your spouse died? Have you had a child who spent more time in detention than in class, more time cracking internet game codes than cracking text books, more time bullying little kids on the playground than doing and saying what you and the church together tried to teach her?
Have you had a friend who gradually moved you out of her circle and stopped calling? Have you had an employer who systematically changes over an entire staff? Have you had a parent who forgot your quarter-final soccer game and missed your only goal of the season? Have you had a sister who wouldn’t walk to school with you because she was embarrassed to be seen with you? Or a brother who saw you being teased by the cool kids in class and looked the other way?
If so, you might just have a Barnabas heart. You might just be able to find it in that Barnabas heart to stand your own ground and choose this one – the one who messed up, maybe even really big. Because you are a son or daughter of encouragement.
Presbyterian pastor Charlie Summers, chaplain at Davidson College, NC in 1986, became one when students made wild plans to prevent a KKK march in their town. (2) He and others from the college convinced the students that hate groups thrive on hate; that what the KKK wanted was a big confrontation, something that would show up on the evening news. “If the [KKK] could provoke a fight or a spectacle, then they would be back for more, and would bring more Klan members with them.” So the students hosted a huge picnic on the opposite side of town from the Klan rally. Going door to door, they invited black and white, rich and poor, every neighborhood, for food, music and games. They asked merchants to close up shop and come, and they did. The sheriff watched the parade all by himself, while the entire community picnicked together on the other side of town. The KKK never came back.
Joseph became one in Egypt, forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery, and promising to be their provider.
Coptic Christians became one in the very same country this past week, forming a chain to protect Muslim anti-government protesters as they knelt for afternoon prayers in Cairo.
You can become one too.
Oh, by the way, the “nickname” Barnabas, that Luke says means “son of encouragement”? It doesn’t. Not in Aramaic, the language of the disciples; not in Greek, the language of the gospel of Luke. It seems Barnabas “earned” his nickname, “Son of Encouragement” by what he did with his life.
In the next few days, ask yourself - what nickname would people give me when they look at my life of faith? You still get to shape that. Spend some time wondering what you want it to be?
(1) “Name Changes in the Bible,” Thomas F. McDaniel, http://tmcdaniel.palmerseminary.edu/palmer.pdf
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