Barnabas and Paul: A Lesson for Us

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Happy Feast of St. Barnabas. When we think about the founders of the Early Church, two come immediately to mind. St. Peter and St. Paul.  Peter, the mostly loyal, always loving, often dim, the rock on which the Church was built. Paul, the zealot, protecting the Temple, until Jesus struck him with shame and blindness, and then using his zealot’s fervor to spread the faith throughout the world. And there was Barnabas, who befriended Saul when he was still remembered as an enemy of Christ.  

Barnabas was an important leader, capable in preaching, teaching, and converting many.  Barnabas was chosen by the Spirit to go on mission with Saul, who had not yet acquired the name we know so well. He is mentioned over and over in Acts, from his first act of faith in selling his land and giving the funds to the new church, to seeking out and training up Saul/Paul, to being commissioned to go on long missions. Then Barnabas and Paul have a big fight over Mark/John (why do they always have two names?) and break up. Why? We really don’t know, but the story is told that Mark went apostate, and when Barnabas, who was his cousin, wanted to take him on a mission, Saul, now Paul, objected. Mark and Barnabas went back to the church in Jerusalem, and Mark probably wrote the Gospel of Mark. As for apostasy, we have no idea what that means. Another theological wrinkle in the Early Church’s struggle to find the Truth? One of the Greek philosophies which were so common, and which had influence on our understanding of God?  And some of the saints with the greatest faith have been tested in the fires of apostasy and come back stronger. The big issue, the one that should concern us, is how easily the Body of Christ gets torn up, even by the very people who are Spirit driven leaders who should be holding it together.

Squabbles between people aren’t trivial. The lack of love, clinging on to one’s position, pride, so many sinful things stand between people, and between people and Christ. Jesus teaches us how to deal with differences between us (Mt. 18:15-17). Talk, pray, bring a moderator. Koinonia, fellowship in community, is not just a secular niceness, but a commandment given to us by Jesus. Forgive, or the Father will not forgive our many transgressions. And it says so in the prayer Jesus gave us, the Our Father. Paul knew this, judging from the number of times he writes this to the churches he watched over. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice (Eph 4:32)”, to cite just one. But still he remained unreconciled with Barnabas, insofar as we know.

Paul censures the teaching of heresy (false gospel) and claims his justification through his vision alone. He claims he met James and Cephas/Peter briefly, and then went to Syria (Gal 1), and gives bare mention to Barnabas except to censure him, along with Peter (Gal 2:11-13). Acts tells this differently. Barnabas convinced the Jerusalem leaders that Saul/Paul was a genuine convert and trustworthy. In Antioch on mission, he sought out Saul to assist him in the mission. They were sent out together on the great missionary journey by the Holy Spirit. They both worked to resolve the differences between the Jewish and Gentile converts. It is here that we get the first clue to their split. Newly renamed Paul calls out Barnabas over circumcision. And we hear more about it about the split over Mark (Acts 15:36-39). But Barnabas didn’t fight back and went about the business of spreading the word, and Mark wrote the first Gospel.  

Paul was in his zeal sometimes pretty uncompromising and not very forgiving. But what has this to do with us other than a good moral example of God’s grace and human sin in even Spirit filled of people?  The Church is at a crossroads. Again. As it was in the beginning, and always will be, but this one is ours to pray on and wrestle with. There are some of us who will never wrap our heads around transgender reassignment.  Partly for some things we have been taught about men and women, many because we are squeamish about doctors and medical intervention. There are still some among us, even whole dioceses, who rebel against same sex marriage. I think the issue of sacramental commitment is probably more important to same sex couples than heterosexual ones. Having been hunted and punished for centuries, they are now able to stand up and proclaim their love. But the struggle isn’t over.

The differences in tolerance aren’t just “those people.”  They are our family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. In our zeal to proclaim our point of view, we are creating rigid categories of good and evil. We say patriarchy and feminism, as if all men were bad and all women good, or vise versa. We have turned racial conflict into a war of such magnitude that no radical reconciliation seems possible. I was once berated with the term “white guilt” until I pointed out my people were Holocaust survivors, not descendents of slave owners. We are desensitizing ourselves to the Spirit by dramatizing everything. Every news story becomes an occasion to angrily protest. We talk past each other, deaf to each other and to God. We are pouring verbal concrete over everybody for anything which dries and fixes us apart from each other like bodies in Pompeii, dead shells where life once was.  

And that is the same error that Paul made with Barnabas. What was so terrible about Mark choosing to skip a missionary trip and Barnabas’ desire to bring his young cousin back into the missionary team that justified Paul’s unforgiving rejection of them? Barnabas and Mark weren’t the enemy. Paul mistake was focusing on his needs, which he equated with the church’s mission, and not hearing the needs of Mark and Barnabas. My way or the highway.  But there is only one Way, Christ’s Way. Thank God, Paul’s zeal didn’t cause an irreparable rift in the early church. But he never seemed to have found a way back with his mentor and friend.

As has been said, we believe God calls us to “dignity, compassion, justice, and reconciliation for all.” But there are those who find social change too frightening, too swift. That which divides us is throbbing with evil waiting to destroy the living Body of Christ. Ironically, it is Paul who spells out the way through. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).” Find the Truth in prayer and Scripture. Allow the Holy Spirit to burn away those divisions so that Love can radically reconcile us in Christ. Remember Paul and Barnabas. Don’t let it happen to us.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

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Michael Johnson
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Michael Johnson

Thank you Dr. D. What a great expression for the priesthood of all believers. Good balance b/w exegesis and theological framework. We believers standing in the middle of the spectrum have a problem discussing the Bible: on the one side we have conservative brethren (I don't know the word for sisters!) holding a rather strict construction, and on the other side, those exegites trying to convince us that this "stuff" never happened, when we know darned good'n well in our hearts, it did happen. By way of illustration let me point out that the received wisdom that Paul was such a zealot is undergoing some revision. That said, Dana, I'd agree Paul was probably hard to work with.

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