What’s in a name?
If the New Testament book of Acts was a movie up for Oscars, Barnabas might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Maybe. He has fifteen minutes of biblical fame, and there’s tons we don’t know about him. But he had a feast day last week and he’s one of my favorite biblical characters, perhaps because we know little about him. (If we knew more about him, chances are he’d be less impressive. Funny how that works.)
Here’s what we know. He was there at the beginning of the church, the blossoming of the Jesus Movement, in that remarkable time before Christians were called Christians. (They were first known as people of the way, which is a title worth reclaiming, but that’s for another Monday).
St. Barnabas was committed to helping people in need. He was called to help St. Paul get incorporated into the church, when many people were suspicious of the recent convert who had so vigorously persecuted Christians. He began to travel with Paul around the rim of the Mediterranean. I think anyone who could be St. Paul’s traveling companion deserves kudos. It couldn’t have been easy. Paul and Barnabas moved from church to church, raising funds for those suffering famine in Judea, setting the precedent that part of the mission of a global church has to do with caring for our brothers and sisters around the world (a first century version of Episcopal Relief and Development).
The thing I find so intriguing about him has to do with his name change. He was originally known as Joseph. His name was changed to Barnabas. There are other folks in the Bible who have name changes, often a sign that they are noteworthy, a sign that God is doing something new in and through that person. In most cases, God does the renaming. In this case, the apostles, the community changed Joseph’s name to Barnabas. I find that intriguing.
They gave him that name because Barnabas means “son of encouragement,” which is why I’m impressed with the guy. I found myself wondering what the community saw in him. The word “encouragement” is rich. At its heart, we find the word courage, which suggests not only bravery but also heart, courage sharing its root with the French coeur. Clearly, Barnabas had a gift which allowed others to approach life not only with the bravery that it took to be part of this persecuted community, but also to do so in the spirit of love that became the brand of the early church. Outsiders looked in on the church and said “See how they love one another.’ Do you think people would look at the church today and say that? They might well say: “See how they argue with each other about stuff that nobody else cares about.” But I digress.
I know I’ve written about Barnabas before, but he’s been on my mind this week, posing this slightly scary question. If my community was going to change my name, what would they change it to? Would I like the new name? Am I even connected enough to a community that knows me well enough to identify and celebrate my gifts?
Maybe you want to ask that question for yourself.
And if those questions provide no answer, maybe in tumultuous times we could all channel our inner Barnabas and adopt his name. Maybe we could all decide to be, or strive to be children of encouragement. Make a start this morning. Who can you encourage?
The Collect for the Feast of St. Barnabas
Grant, O God, that we may follow the example of your faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the wellbeing of your Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
News of this (the growth of the church in Antioch) came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 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. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year, they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
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