Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

Barnabas

Barnabas


One of my favorite stories is the story of Pollyanna. This was a short book written in the early 1900s by Eleanor Porter about a young orphan named Pollyanna who comes and lives with her very stern and quite unhappy Aunt Polly in a small town that has truly lost its spirit. Pollyanna brought a whole new outlook to this small town through a marvelous sense of optimism and the ability to look for the good in everyone. She went about the town, never meeting a stranger, and introducing people to her ‘Glad Game’. This game consisted of looking for the good in every situation regardless how hopeless it may seem to be. The story was made popular by a 1960s movie staring Haley Mills. In fact the book and movie became so popular that the term ‘pollyanna’ became synonymous with anyone who shares that great optimistic, look at the bright side attitude. Even though at times it is used as a derogatory term - “Oh you are just being a pollyanna”. But this is the character of the man we read about in the book of Acts that we know as Barnabas. He was able to always see the good in people and was a great defender of those whom others wanted to write off.
No discussion of Barnabas, however, can begin without first talking about the Apostle Paul. Paul is the chief evangelist for this new thing called Christianity shortly after the ascension of Jesus. But it didn’t happen that easily. Before he was a champion of Christ, Paul was a Pharisee. Remember the Pharisees were the group of Jewish religious leaders that Jesus kept criticizing for putting the following of the law above the true worship of God. The Pharisees had simply just gotten off track in believing that it was through following the law that one became part of the people of God instead of what Jesus was trying to teach - that it was through simply putting your faith in trust in God that made all the difference. But the Pharisees held fast that it was the Law that was the most important. So when Jesus ascends and the followers of Jesus begin to teach Jesus’ message of faith over law, Paul saw this as a direct violation of his beloved Judaism and knew he had to do something about it. So Paul starts a campaign to arrest and sometimes kill those Jews who were becoming followers of Jesus. It got to the point where the name ‘Saul’ as he was known to the Jews struct fear in those who were living as Christians.
One day as Paul was headed out to Damascus to arrest Jesus’ followers there, he was confronted in a sand storm by the risen Jesus who talked with Paul and eventually converted him to be a disciple of Christ rather than a persecutor of those who followed Jesus. That was all well and good, but if you are one of those who were following Jesus and had been afraid of Paul, or who had been persecuted by Paul or who had had family members tormented by Paul, how easy was it going to be for you to really believe that Paul had changed? Or was this just some kind of trick where Paul sucked you in by making you think he had changed and then would go after you? Paul was going to have a tough challenge ahead of him convincing those that he had been persecuting that he was now one of them.
After his conversion, Paul decided he needed to go to Jerusalem and talk to the leaders of the church, to let them know of his new mission and also so that he can talk to the disciples. He knew that as a new convert there was much he needed to learn and why not go straight to the source and talk to the ones who had spent so much time with Jesus. But when Paul arrives in Jerusalem, the Jesus followers there were understandably reluctant to welcome him. They thought his story was a trick to capture them. Paul, however, ran into Barnabas in Jerusalem. They had known one another - conjecture is that they went to school together and studied together under the great Jewish teacher Gamaliel. Barnabas, who was a Levite and well known around town agreed that he would help Paul integrate himself into the society of Christians in Jerusalem. This was not an easy task, but it was because of Barnabas’ reputation as someone of integrity, that people began to reluctantly accept Paul as a true follower of Christ. Paul’s acceptance into the Christian community was due to Barnabas’
support and Barnabas’ willingness to stay positive when so many around were unwilling to trust in what God can do.

Contrast that to the story we read from the Old Testament book of Numbers which is a story which reminds us what a difference a bad attitude can make. The story starts out with the Hebrew people along with Moses standing on the bank of the Jordan River ready to cross over into the promised land. God says to get the land all they have to do is cross over the river. But the people are afraid and so they decide to send over 12 spies to check out the land and let them know whether the land is safe or not. before they commit to cross over So the spies go and when they come back 2 of them, Joshua and Caleb, talk about how great the land is, how much food is there - it will be a great place to live! But the other 10 spies, while they admit it is a great land, full of food and great land for raising their sheep and their crops , they tell the people there are some overwhelming obstacles - it is full of giants and those giants will just stomp them so they recommended that the Hebrews not go into the promised land. Here these Hebrews had spent 40 years traveling to this place and now they don’t think they should take that last step. Joshua and Caleb argued that God got them this far, surely he would be with them in this new land. God would help them and look at the great benefit they would get! But the negative attitude and the fear of the other 10 spies spread throughout the camp - to the point that the people said they preferred going back to Egypt into slavery rather than taking the risk of going into this new land - even though they admitted it sounded like a great place. The people allowed this negative attitude, this fear, to hold them back from this great blessing God offered them. So God sends the people back into the desert to wonder around and lead a difficult life until they have all died - and then he would bring back the next generation and try once again to offer them this promised land.
But Barnabas shows us the other side of the coin. It would have been very easy and very politically prudent for Barnabas to jump onto the ‘don’t trust Paul’ bandwagon. Barnabas, however, continued to champion Paul and convinced at least the former disciples Peter and James to talk to him. They did but Paul really wasn’t brought in as part of the fellowship and so Paul left Jerusalem and went back to his home in Tarsus. But Barnabas didn’t give up on Paul. He followed Paul to Tarsus and convinced Paul that he was called by God and that he did have a viable ministry and why didn’t they head out together and begin to preach the good news to the Gentiles. It was Barnabas’ coaxing that motivated Paul to go with Barnabas to Antioch and there they began to preach and teach and they established a large Christian church comprised of Gentiles. Because of Barnabas’ encouragement, Paul’s ministry began and Paul became the largest influence on the spread of the gospel other than Jesus himself! What a difference a positive, encouraging attitude can make.
It was Barnabas as well who began the career of Mark - the writer of the second Gospel. Barnabas saw great potential with Mark and invited Mark to come and share missionary duties with Paul and himself. Now, Mark was young and Paul and Barnabas were experiencing persecution in their attempt to teach the message of Jesus Christ. Mark had joined them and was doing a good job, but things at one point became so difficult that Mark ‘chickened out’ and went home to Jerusalem. This infuriated Paul who had experience much more difficult persecution and thought Mark was giving up way to early and Paul just didn’t have any use for Mark any longer. Barnabas came to bat for Mark and said, “He’s just young, he needs some encouragement. Have some patience and understanding.” Paul was unrelenting and so Barnabas decided Mark needed him more than Paul did and Barnabas went to help Mark. Through Barnabas’ patient, positive, reinforcing nature, Mark joined Barnabas and went back out on the mission trip, teaching and preaching the message of Jesus Christ.
By the way, Paul and Mark eventually made up and Mark then helped Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome and then became Peter’s right hand man when Peter began to work with the churches in Rome - and then Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark. Without Barnabas’ help, Mark very easily could have run back to Jerusalem with his tail between his legs, given up on his calling to spread the gospel and then would not have become the voice for Jesus that he did.
Tradition holds that Barnabas was martyred like all the other early missionaries by being stoned to death in Cyprus where he was serving as the Bishop of a group of churches there.
Barnabas is a wonderful example to help us remember the value of an encouraging word, a willingness to build up and support and have that ‘pollyanna’ attitude when things might not seem all that bright and positive. But a good attitude, as Barnabas shows us, can quickly turn around situations that might even seem hopeless.

Amen!