Son of Encouragement
As is often the story with many of the earliest saints on our feast calendar, we don’t know a lot in the historical-factual sense about Barnabas. We do know he was Jewish and from Cyprus. Also, he accompanied Paul in missionary expeditions to several Hellenic communities in Gentile territory. It’s very likely that, given that Cypriots were often associated with trade and commerce, Barnabas had relationships with people in those cities. We also know he died a martyr’s death, but the details are a obscure. Some sources say he was stoned; the non-canonical work, The Acts of Barnabas, claims he was bound by a cord around the neck and dragged to the place where he was burned alive. The common thread in both accounts is that Barnabas’ preaching angered synagogue leaders, so they incited a mob to kill him. He is believed to be buried at the Monastery of St. Barnabas in Salamis, Cyprus.
What few realize, though, is that Barnabas, like Paul, had a different name before his conversion. His family and friends knew him as Joseph, and he is mentioned in Acts 4:36 as one of the early converts who sold property to provide for the Christian community. For his generous act, the apostles gave him a new name…Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement.” We know this wasn’t just empty praise, because Acts 11:23-24 says, “When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.”
Receiving a new name is a common theme in the Bible, a name that always seems to match the new role. I have to wonder about the yin-yang of that. Does the name come from who we are to begin with, personality-wise, or is it something to hold up as an icon for inspiration? Or is it a little of both? This pattern is also part of the tradition of choosing a baptismal name or perhaps a confirmation name, and why I encourage people taking these steps to consider the tradition. Something changes when we are given a new name, whether discerned by God, the community, or through our own desire to enter into a new way of being.
I’ve thought about this a lot as we roll through Year Two of this pandemic. None of us are in quite the same place as we are last year, and I wonder, is it time for us to seek new names, so to speak, in how we live out our faith in the post-pandemic world. People have experienced a year where anxiety has been the currency of daily life, and, sadly, the bulk of what shows up in the news and on social media reveals that a fair bit of what passes for “Christianity” has ramped up the unease. How can each of us, like Barnabas, be an encouraging sibling as we navigate the anger and fears of our post-pandemic secular lives?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO.