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Sermon by Howell Davies, Sunday 14th June 2020 - St Barnabas

Trinity +1                                                                                                                             14 June 2020

St Barnabas


        Now that we're in so-called Ordinary Time - not in the Advent & Christmas or the Lent & Easter cycles - we might think again of our saints and other holy people.  And just a few days ago there was someone really worth remembering: Thursday was the feast day of St Barnabas, missionary and companion of St Paul - but more than just a companion of Paul, for he was already well established among the early Christians while Paul was still persecuting and terrorizing.  And Barnabas's support was critical to Paul's eventually being at least partially accepted by the old guard in Jerusalem.


        He was an important figure in the early Church and referred to as an apostle though not one of the original 12 but, while some of his story appears in the Acts of the Apostles and he is mentioned in 3 of the Epistles, we don't hear as much about Barnabas as perhaps we should.


        He was born into a relatively prosperous community in Cyprus and, as a Levite (a Jew of the priestly tribe), had connections in Jerusalem.  He went there as a young man, where he became a believer, joined the early Christians and eventually sold his lands and gave the money to the apostles.  Barnabas was in Jerusalem when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death (when Paul was there too, looking after the coats).


        You'll remember that after his conversion on the Damascus Road Paul went on travels, in Arabia the Book says (probably the Jordan valley), and then returned to Damascus, where he began to 'preach Christ in the synagogues', which suggests that he preached only to Jews and ‘God fearers’ - that's to say Gentiles who had adopted Judaism and attended the synagogues.  But we know little else about this period until, because of his message of Christ as the Messiah, exacerbated by the apparent anomaly of his past record as a rabid persecutor, the stricter Jews plotted in AD35 or 36 to kill him; he escaped by being lowered down the city walls in a basket at night and fled to Jerusalem, where, as might be expected from his past role, he was met there too with suspicion and hostility.  Luckily, however, Barnabas knew of Paul’s conversion and his work in Damascus and convinced the apostles that he was genuine.  It's been suggested that Barnabas knew him from before, when they had both been students of the teacher Gamaliel, an expert in religious law, a moderate and the most honoured and respected rabbi of the first century.  Indeed, many years later, after his arrest, Paul told the crowd in Jerusalem that, though from Tarsus, he had been brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel.


        Anyway, after that first meeting with the apostles, Paul returned to Tarsus for about 5 years.  Meanwhile, though he had earlier preached only to Jews and ‘God fearers’, others had already started spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles.  As we read in Acts, men of Cyprus and Cyrene had already travelled to preach in Antioch (sometimes referred to as Antioch in Syria, but now just inside the Turkish border, by the modern town of Antakya); they were so effective that news of their success reached Jerusalem and the apostles sent Barnabas (himself a Cypriot you remember) to investigate.  He found a thriving community and went to Tarsus to fetch Paul to help him, so, for the second time, being instrumental in a major development of Paul’s career.  The 2 stayed at Antioch for at least a year and were clearly well regarded, for, when news came of an impending famine and the relatively well-off church at Antioch collected funds for the Jerusalem Christians, Paul and Barnabas were chosen to deliver the money.


        It was during this visit that Jerusalem raised the question about whether Gentiles should recognize the Law of Moses as binding: the dietary laws for example, and whether the men ought to be circumcised.  Neither point was resolved, though it was agreed that Peter would continue as First Apostle to the Jews and Paul would continue his mission to the Gentiles ... and that the Gentile churches would contribute money to Jerusalem!  But it hadn't been thought through properly: what, for example, would happen when Jews and Gentiles mingled for worship or meals.  It would continue to be a problem.


        Meanwhile, Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch, taking with them John Mark, a cousin (or perhaps nephew) of Barnabas, and soon afterwards set off on the first of Paul's missionary journeys.  All 3 sailed first to Cyprus, where the proconsul Sergius Paulus was so impressed by Paul’s authority over the sorcerer Bar-Jesus Elymas that he became a believer - the first inroad of the new religion into the upper classes of Roman society.  And it's after recording that, that Acts starts calling Saul 'Paul', his Roman name; and it's from then too that the pair are referred to as 'Paul and Barnabas' rather than 'Barnabas and Saul'.  From Cyprus the 3 sailed north-west to the mainland, where, at the coastal town of Perga, John Mark left them; Paul and Barnabas continued into the mountainous regions of what is now southern Turkey for a demanding tour of teaching before retracing their steps to reinforce their work and, from the coast, sailing back to Antioch, effectively now Paul’s home base.


However, while they had been away - or shortly after their return - Peter had visited the church at Antioch and had actually eaten with groups where Jews and Gentiles customarily ate together.  When news of this reached Jerusalem, the other apostles were scandalized and sent representatives to investigate and to remonstrate, which they did so firmly that Peter and other Jewish Christians abandoned their liberal attitude and ‘separated themselves’; according to Paul even Barnabas got carried away with the hypocrisy.  Paul attempted to resolve the problem on the spot, but the delegation from Jerusalem, perhaps going beyond its instructions, went around the churches, some of which Paul had only just founded, insisting Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.


In the face of such interference, Paul and Barnabas decided that they had to go to Jerusalem to confront the lions in their den.  They met at what has been called the Council of Jerusalem, which was attended by the apostles and elders and, perhaps, many more members of the Church.  At that meeting, where only Peter and James are reported to have spoken, the Church repudiated those from Judea who had caused the trouble over circumcision, and the letter (the Decree) afterwards sent back to Antioch implied if not precisely stated an agreement that circumcision was not essential to the conversion of Gentiles.  Judas Barsabas and Silas were sent to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, where the Council’s Decree was read with joy ‘for the consolation’.


        After a short time back at Antioch, Paul decided to travel again, initially to visit the churches that had been founded on his first missionary journey.  Barnabas planned to join him, but the 2 quarrelled over whether they should be accompanied by John Mark, who Paul believed had not pulled his weight on the previous journey; Paul may also have harboured some resentment over Barnabas’s wavering during the earlier difficulty in Antioch.  Eventually, Barnabas and his nephew went to Cyprus, while Paul took Silas and set off on his second and most adventurous missionary journey.  About the quarrel, Paul wrote later that the rift was healed, but by that time Barnabas was probably already back in Cyprus.


        And that's the last that we hear of Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles.  Some other accounts report that, in about AD61, some Jews, perhaps including Elymas the Cypriot sorcerer who had been humiliated by Paul years earlier, turned up at Salamis while Barnabas was teaching in the synagogue and, enraged by his success, dragged him out, tortured him and stoned him to death.  His cousin John Mark was there at the time, recovered the body and buried him privately, there at Salamis, which is about 4 miles north of what is now Famagusta, on the east coast of Cyprus and currently in the Turkish zone.


        According to the History of the Cyprus Church, in 478 Barnabas appeared in a dream to Archbishop Anthemios of Salamis and showed him the place of his grave beneath a carob tree.  The following day Anthemios found the tomb and, inside, the remains of Barnabas with a manuscript of Matthew's Gospel lying on his chest.  Anthemios presented that Gospel to Emperor Zeno at Constantinople and received from him the privileges of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus: a purple cloak, the imperial sceptre and red ink - which the Archbishops still always use for their signature.


        Barnabas is the Patron Saint of Cyprus and, when he was born there, his parents named him Joseph but, when he had sold his property and given the money to the apostles in Jerusalem, they called him Barnabas, from the Aramaic Bar Nabya, son of prophecy, though the Greek text describes him as the son of enablement, both labels highlighting Barnabas's role as a major player, an enabler, a vital early support to Paul.  A vital support in taking the Gospel to the world beyond Jerusalem, to the Gentiles ... to us.  So we all have special reason to remember and honour him.  


Thank you St Barnabas.

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