Son of Encouragement, The Anchor, June 12, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
June 12, 2009

Throughout this year of St. Paul, as I’ve had the chance to go through the details and the writings of the great apostle anew in greater depth, I have often returned to one figure without whose intervention this year — not to mention all St. Paul’s apostolic fruit— might never have come about.

I’ve also begun to see that this man’s virtues and actions are among those the Church most needs today in order to give rise to new St. Pauls and continue the missionary thrust to which St. Paul dedicated his life.

St. Paul’s great apostolic catalyst is St. Barnabas, whose feast the Church celebrated yesterday.

We first encounter Barnabas in the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke tells us that his real name was Joseph and that he was a member of the tribe of Levi, born in Cyprus, who had moved to Jerusalem. He sold a field he owned and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. It was a sign of his total commitment to Christ and total trust in the apostles Christ had chosen to lead the early Church. It’s no surprise that the apostles gave him the nickname “Barnabas,” an Aramaic term that means “son of encouragement,” since such a gesture, common among the first disciples, would have certainly inspired the other members of the burgeoning Church.

The nickname was an excellent summary of his entire personality, for his encouragement did not stop there.  To encourage means to inspire with courage or confidence and that is what he did twice in the life of Paul of Tarsus.

The first time was soon after Paul’s conversion. Paul had narrowly escaped being killed in Damascus and needed to be lowered by the Christians over the city walls in a basket. He came up to Jerusalem to meet and join the disciples, but the disciples didn’t want to have anything to do with him. They were all terrified of him because of the way he used to terrorize their community, presiding over the stoning of St. Stephen, ripping the believers out of their homes and bringing them before the religious courts, and even getting an order to go to Damascus and bring back the Christians in chains. They thought that his celebrated conversion was probably a ruse just so that Paul could infiltrate the Christians, get to know them and where they live, and finish the job of wiping them out that he had previously worked so hard to achieve. St. Luke says simply that the Jerusalem Christians “did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).

That’s when the son of encouragement first sprung into action. It’s not hard to imagine how abandoned Paul must have felt after the Jerusalem Church’s rejection: the vast majority of his own people likely looked on him as a traitor, some of his former teammates in the extirpation of Christians were now coming after him, and the Christians, whom he had hoped to fill with joy at the news of his conversion, wanted no part of him.

Seeing the situation of Paul the Pariah, Barnabas acted, for Paul and for the Church. He wasn’t going to let what the Lord had done on the road to Damascus go to waste. So he went to find Paul and then, St. Luke tells us, “took him by the hand and brought him to the apostles, declaring to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.”

Barnabas told Paul’s conversion story to the other members of the Church of Jerusalem — which shows that obviously he had heard it step-by-step from Paul before. He also passed on how Paul after his conversion was doing more to spread the faith than many of those who were timidly hovering in Jerusalem.

Because of Barnabas’ action and encouragement, the Church of Jerusalem welcomed him. St. Luke tells us that from that moment, Paul went in and out among them in Jerusalem and began to preach boldly in the name of the Lord, even against the Hellenistic Jews who were trying to kill him. Fearing for Paul’s life, the Church in Jerusalem decided to rush him down to Caesarea and send him home to Tarsus. It’s possible that Paul was rashly looking for a quick martyrdom in expiation for all the lives he had taken previously, but the Church, especially Barnabas, didn’t want the one chosen by the Lord to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles to have his mission as a Christian evangelist cut short prematurely. It’s probable that Barnabas accompanied Paul down to the sea to send Paul home and he likely encouraged him to get ready for what would come later.

Later came rather soon. After the Church in Jerusalem had heard of how many converts were entering the Church in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to encourage and guide them into a deeper grasp of the Gospel. St. Luke tells us that his preaching and exhortation only served to make more converts. They all regarded him as a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Barnabas did not have the time to guide them all and needed other expert help. Rather than assuming the arduous task of training others to be teachers or going back to Jerusalem to find help, he traveled to Tarsus to find Paul and bring him back to Antioch. Barnabas knew Paul was ready.

This was the beginning of the rest of St. Paul’s life and the start of his being an official teacher for the Church. For a whole year, Barnabas and Paul taught hordes of people and helped them to live the Gospel so effectively that it was in Antioch at that time that the disciples of Jesus began to be called Christians, or little Christs.

For Paul and Barnabas, it was the beginning of years of very fruitful collaboration, during which they were almost inseparable. Exactly who was the dominant personality, it’s hard to say. They taught together. They learned from each other how to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and make the message of the Gospel intelligible to listeners of different ages and experiences. They even made their mark as fundraisers together, teaming up to take up a successful collection for the Church in Judea that was suffering through a famine.

After they returned from Jerusalem, they were in a prayer meeting in Antioch when all heard the Holy Spirit say, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” After prayer and fasting, hands were laid on them and they were sent out by the Holy Spirit and began what is traditionally called Paul’s first missionary journey, but it was a joint venture. They sailed to Cyprus where they converted the pro-consul and many others, battled against a magician and preached boldly. They went across the Mediterranean to Pamphilia, where they courageously trod through malaria-infested swamps, hiked intimidating mountains to get to Galatia, and survived being attacked by mobs with Paul’s being basically stoned to death. Against great odds, they planted the seeds of the Gospel in a way that would last.

They returned triumphant to Antioch and then headed to Jerusalem to relate the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. They also successfully secured from the leaders of the Jerusalem Church that Gentile converts would not have to become Jews to become Christians, which is what many of the Jewish Christians wanted.

Without St. Barnabas, there would likely have been no St. Paul. The former’s feast day is a great occasion for all of us in the Church, through his intercession, to become “sons of encouragement” toward others, inspiring them with courage to recognize the Lord’s gifts and use them to continue the mission for which the Holy Spirit chose Paul and Barnabas in the first century and has chosen us twenty centuries later.