Today is the feast of Barnabas. ‘Barnabas’ (‘Son of Encouragement’) was a nickname (his given name was Joseph) (in the same way that ‘Peter’ – ‘Rocky’ – was a nickname given to Simon). He was one of the first members of the church to endorse Saul (who became Paul), and the two of them became co-conspirators in the gospel. Sent as representatives of the church in Antioch to the church in Jerusalem, they returned to Antioch with John Mark (who may have been a relative of Barnabas). Together, they set off from there on a journey to Cyprus (where Barnabas came from) and on into what is today southern central Turkey; but after Cyprus, Mark left, returning to Jerusalem. Some time later, having returned from their trip and reported back to the church in Antioch and in Jerusalem, Paul felt it right to go back and visit the new churches in Turkey, to encourage them. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, but Paul did not think that it was wise to do so, because he had deserted them before. Paul and Barnabas, longstanding close friends and co-conspirators, disagreed so sharply that they parted company. As far as we know, they were never reconciled; though Paul and John Mark were, in time.
This morning I was having breakfast with several other church leaders, and at the other end of the table I overheard animated discussion about these events. Paul, the consensus affirmed, was obviously a difficult character to work with; prone to angry over-reaction. Barnabas was clearly the better role model...
I am not convinced. My reading is that Paul and Barnabas were both concerned for John Mark. There is no need to air-brush out their disagreement in order for this to be so. We are told that Paul did not think it wise to take him – and wisdom is not the same as pique. Wisdom might recognise that courage can only fail so many times before a young person’s spirit is crushed. Mark had run away – twice already, if we accept the tradition that the young man who was present at Jesus’ arrest and ran away was Mark; a story, if the tradition is right, Paul may well have known about his sometime travelling companion. If he had not yet faced up to this and worked it through – again, Paul would be in a place to judge this – running away a third time could well prove unrecoverable. Is it not, perhaps, Paul’s judgement that John Mark is not ready?
Unable to go where he had planned with Barnabas, Paul – compelled to carry the gospel – headed elsewhere with another co-conspirator, Silas. Barnabas took Mark; but he, too, doesn’t go on the full journey Paul had proposed.
Barnabas takes Mark to Cyprus.
Cyprus was where their cut-short journey had begun. From Cyprus, Mark could have looked out at the horizon, towards the place of his failure, day-after-day, until he was ready to face his fears. And ultimately the way we move beyond our place of failure, our moment of desertion, is to be led back to that painful moment by Jesus and in those surroundings be restored and re-commissioned. But only Jesus can do that, and he does not have to take us back to the place physically (as we see when he restores Peter, who denied knowing him in Jerusalem, on the shore of Lake Tiberias). So I don’t think that is why Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus.
I wonder whether Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus because that is where Barnabas’ own story begins.
How do we encourage someone else? How do we help them to grow as a disciple? By sharing our story of being a disciple: as fully, as honestly – victories won, defeats suffered – as possible; all the time, making connections between our story and God’s story, between our experience and the person of Jesus. And the only way we can share our story that fully is to invite others into it: to give them that access, to take them to significant places, to introduce them to people who have invested in us.
That is why when I am encouraging someone in need of encouragement, I tell them about Sheffield. Not because St Thomas’ is the perfect community (this story, too, contains sharp disagreements and partings of company within it, and more than once); but because it is where the journey that has led me to meet them began. That is why, when I have had the opportunity, I have taken people to Philadelphia, the campus God gave St Thomas’ ten years ago this very weekend just past.
According to tradition, Barnabas was martyred on Cyprus; and Mark went on to collaborate with Peter (in writing the Gospel according to Mark) and with Paul, as well as planting and overseeing churches in his own right. But he was able to do that because, at a crucial moment when courage fails him, Paul and Barnabas both invest in his life: Paul, by protecting him from further loss; and Barnabas by inviting Mark into his own history.