The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 6/9/96
Text: Acts 11:19-26

Someone has said that the trouble with modern life is that we have no heroes one to look up to, no role models. Even the best of us have feet of clay, and even if they are not obvious to everyone, give Current Affair or Hard Copy a little time and they will point them out. Sad...because we need heroes.

We met one of my personal heroes a moment ago. His name was really Joseph but the apostles had nicknamed him Barnabas, a name that means "Son of Encouragement," or "Son of Consolation." We do not know why they called him that, but it was obviously a great compliment. There must have been something about this man that was very winsome and loving toward all whom he chanced to meet, and especially to any who might have needed some special boost. "Son of Encouragement." "Son of Consolation." Barnabas was a NICE man! And we need all those role models we can get!

We do not know much about his background except that he came from a Jewish family of the tribe of Levi who lived on the island of Cyprus. The first time we encounter him in scripture is in the fourth chapter of Acts - he was a member of the Jerusalem church - a layperson - who was apparently pretty well off financially. As many of the people in the congregation did, he sold some of his property and donated the proceeds to the fellowship. We can assume that this was fairly valuable property for two reasons: one is that he hailed from Cyprus which was a particularly large and fertile land off the coast of Syria. It was an island famous for its wines, wheats, oils, figs and honey - to hold land on Cyprus was to own something of exceptional worth. The second reason we can assume significant value is that the transaction was mentioned in scripture at all. If many of the early Christians were doing the same thing, only something really out of the ordinary would figure to be noted. Barnabas' gift WAS noted, and so we can surmise that it was particularly generous.

Of course, this is one of the reasons Barnabas is a hero and a role model for me. Possessions for him were viewed through the lens of stewardship rather than ownership. We need more folks like that. Sad to say, too many who evidence genuine commitment to Jesus Christ in their lifestyle and activities show very LITTLE commitment when it comes to worldly goods. The scripture is clear, in both the Old and New Testaments, concerning God's standard of giving. It is the TITHE, the tenth. God's standard is that everyone set aside one-tenth of their income for the work of the kingdom. This is the floor, not the ceiling. Those who can afford to do more than that SHOULD do more than that. But the clear message of the scripture is that NONE should do any LESS than that. Growing up as a good Jew, Barnabas knew what the standard was, but that did not matter to him. He wanted to do MORE than just the minimum, so he gave...not simply a tenth of the profit he made on that land deal...he gave it all. Barnabas was a good man, generous with what he had.

The next time we encounter Barnabas in scripture is in the ninth chapter of Acts. It was after the conversion of Saul whose name, as you know, eventually became Paul.

If you recall the story, Saul was an extremely zealous Pharisee, anxious for the purity of the Jewish faith and ready to quite literally do battle with anyone whom he felt was perverting it. Under the influence of the temple leaders of the day, Saul was convinced that this new group, these "Followers of the Way" as they were called, were doing precisely that - they were perverting historic Judaism and leading people astray as they proclaimed that this Jesus who had been crucified was the promised Messiah. Good Jew that he was, Saul was bent on wiping out such heresy, by whatever means were necessary - if these Christians had to be tortured and murdered to stop this teaching, so be it...Saul would do the torture and murder. But then Saul met the risen Christ on the Damascus Road and was converted. His life was turned completely around.

You can imagine the reaction of the early Christians when they heard about it - they could not believe it. Here was one of their most violent enemies saying that, now he was not only no longer an enemy, but actually ONE of them, one of their number, the newest convert to faith in Jesus Christ. If YOU were one of those early Christians, would YOU have believed it? After all, Saul's reputation preceded him. The church people knew what he had done. It only made good sense for them NOT to welcome Saul with open arms when they knew full well that he would go to any lengths (certainly not excluding deception) to do his murderous work. The early Christians were cautious...and rightly so.

Enter Barnabas. By the time Saul made his way to Jerusalem, he had already gone through some hair-raising adventures. Word came to the faithful that he had had to escape from Damascus by being lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to elude his Jewish pursuers. But still the church leaders were not convinced of his sincerity. After all, Saul's escape could have been just a clever ruse. But good Barnabas decided to investigate. He gleaned the details of Saul's conversion; he found out about those days following in Damascus; he talked with Saul to find out just how sincere the man really was. And in the end, Barnabas was so convinced of the legitimacy of what had happened that he took it upon himself to sponsor Saul before the apostles.

Here is one more reason I think of Barnabas as a hero and a role model. He exercised INSIGHT and JUDGMENT when it comes to managing the affairs of the church. Had it been up to most of the leadership in Jerusalem, Saul might never have been accepted. But one good layperson made sure that he was, and the work of the Kingdom has been immeasurably enhanced ever since.

In our Presbyterian tradition, the laity has always been involved in the decision-making process of the church. Our Presbyteries, Synods and General Assembly are composed of at least as many laypeople as clergy. And the reason is that lay people can bring insights that, very often, the church professionals do not have. If you wonder what you can do for the Lord as a lay person, the exercise of your unique insight and judgment can be a major contribution, just as it was with Barnabas.

One of the greatest contributions that ANYONE has made to the church in the twentieth century, the movement toward ecumenism, was made by a modern-day Barnabas - a layman by the name of John R. Mott. As a youngster, he was distressed by all the divisions he saw in the church and he resolved to do something about it. Through many years of Mott's hard work, the World Council of Churches was born. John Mott's insight has moved us closer to the realization of Jesus' prayer in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, "that they may be one as You and I are one," than any other man in the history of the church. John R. Mott was a layman, a Barnabas, and the insight he exercised in the furtherance of God's kingdom was a marvelous gift to us all.

The next time we meet Barnabas in scripture is in the 11th chapter of Acts, the lesson we read this morning. The persecution of the church had scattered the faithful throughout the known world and churches were springing up wherever believers were settling. People were witnessing to their new friends and neighbors and many were becoming followers of Jesus. At first, that witnessing only took place to Jews, but in one particular place, Antioch, some began witnessing to Gentiles, and according to the biblical account, a great number were being converted and coming into the church. This was new. There had never been any Gentiles in the church before, and the leadership in Jerusalem did not know what to make of it. So they decided to investigate. They sent Barnabas up to Antioch to find out what was going on. He went, was delighted with what he saw, and encouraged them as best he could.

One more mark of a hero and a role model here - a willingness to respond when the church needs some particular work done. With Barnabas, it meant a willingness to travel to a missionary outpost. With you, it might mean a willingness to teach a Sunday School class, or serve on the Session or a committee, or participate in a visitation program, or sing in the choir, or be a greeter, or help clean up after a Wednesday Night supper. There is MUCH to be done, and the example of Barnabas shows that what is needed to accomplish anything is that WILLING SPIRIT without which nothing would ever happen at all.

Back to the story. Once Barnabas got to Antioch and saw what a great work was going on there and heard how much help that little church needed in the way of solid instruction, he apparently felt that he was not able to handle the task all alone. So he decided to make a quick trip to Tarsus and recruited Saul to come down and help. Saul DID come down and the two of them worked together in Antioch for another year with the result that many MORE people were brought into the fellowship of the church.

Barnabas was an exceptional man. He was one of those insightful people who realized his own limitations and was not embarrassed to ask for help. It seems to me that this is another mark of the hero - he or she does not TRY TO BE a hero and is not afraid to ask for help.

In recent years, the church has heard a great deal about the dangers of BURN-OUT among both clergy and laity. People are heavily involved in the work of the church, working unstintingly at the great task which confronts us, keeping their nose to the grindstone to such an extent that finally they grind themselves into the ground. And that is not right. Barnabas is an excellent role model in reminding us of the need for an occasional cry for help. Barnabas did not let himself get burned-out. He saw that there was more work there in Antioch than he could properly do, so he got someone to join in with him. Please note that he did not quit working himself; he just got someone else to carry some of the load.

Of course, that is not all we hear of Barnabas. We meet him again in Acts 13...and here his situation changes. He and Paul had gone from Antioch to Jerusalem to report on the progress of the Syrian church. While they were there, word came of a serious famine that was spreading over the Roman world and the two were sent back to Antioch taking with them a special offering which had been collected for famine relief in their area (the first Pennies-for-Hunger campaign). Once they got back, they distributed the gifts to those who had need and then continued their work of preaching and teaching. But as they did, the Holy Spirit let the church know that Saul and Barnabas should not remain there. There were many more people in the world to whom the message of the Gospel should be brought, and God wanted those two to bear the glad tidings...officially. And the result was that both were ordained, commissioned as the first Christian missionaries. Barnabas was no longer a lay person.

Now, needless to say, seeing Barnabas as a role-model does not mean that every lay person should go into a full-time Christian vocation. If anything, he shows that every lay person is ALREADY in full-time service to the Lord, no matter WHAT the vocation might be - our tradition calls it the Sanctity of the Common Life. But the lesson is that there are times when God DOES call lay people into specific service to the church, and when that call comes, there should be a willingness to respond... just as Barnabas did.

God does NOT call every Christian to a church vocation. That would not make sense. But God DOES call SOME to those tasks, even after many years of doing something else. Right now, there are literally thousands of students in seminaries around the world who have responded to God's call to the ministry of the Gospel who have changed their careers to answer that call.

Barnabas was a good man - a good role-model. He was generous with his possessions; he had insight and judgment that he used for the furtherance of the church; he had a willingness to do the work the church asked of him; he was smart enough to realize his own limitations and ask for help; and finally, he was even willing to respond to God's special call to service. All of those are wonderful traits to emulate, but, in the final analysis, what really draws me to this man is that nickname: Barnabas - "Son of Encouragement" or "Son of Consolation." Boy, do we need more of those!

I recall hearing of a little girl and her bedtime prayer. "Dear Lord, make the bad people good and the good people nice." Amen and Amen! Barnabas was NICE. He had many wonderful qualities worth emulating, but, in my mind, the best was this. He was nice.

Yes, tis sadly true there are too few heroes and role models for us anymore. But we still have some, and one of the best is Barnabas.


The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail