St. Barnabas, whom the Church calendar commemorates today, shares with Saint Paul the distinction of being one of the only two (outside the select group of the 12) whom the Church honors with the title “apostle.” Presumably, he has that title because, along with Paul, he was divinely commissioned for the mission. According to the account at the beginning of Acts 13, while five early Christian prophets and teachers were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." And so it was that the two set out on what we now call Paul’s 1st Missionary Journey.
We call it Paul’s 1st Missionary Journey and tend to think of Barnabas as Paul’s associate, but it is evident from this account of their commissioning - as well as from the later mis-identification of Barnabas with Zeus at Lystra (Acts 14:12), where the two were together referred to as apostles (Acts 14:14) – that Barnabas was at first the more senior partner. Acts 11 already told us that it was Barnabas who had been the Jerusalem community’s emissary to the new Christians in Antioch, who then fetched Saul back form Tarsus, and that the two together met with the Church and taught a large number of people.
Actually, Barnabas had appeared on the scene even earlier – as early as Acts 4:36-37. At that very early stage in the story of the apostolic Church, Joseph, also named by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), a Levite, a Cypriot by birth, sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles.
Now that I am a pastor of a church (and about to replace a roof), I can easily understand why, when Barnabas brought the profits from the sale of his property to the apostles, they named him “son of encouragement”!
Money aside, what a nice name! The Church is forever in need of missionaries - apostolic evangelizers, as Barnabas was along with Paul. The Church is also forever in need of pastors – apostolic shepherds of evangelized communities, as Barnabas was at Antioch, together with Paul. But both missionaries and pastors – and those they serve – all need encouragement! In today’s world, discouragement seems so easy, and encouragement so correspondingly necessary - as I’m sure must have been the case in the apostolic Church of Acts and in every age of the Church ever since. That’s one of the reasons why I think the Acts of the Apostles is such a great book, because it is such an encouraging book!
Being a disciple has many dimensions and makes many different demands. Obviously, not all have been called like Barnabas to be sent out as missionaries. Neither have all been called to sell their property or to supervise the religious life of a community. Spreading the gospel and living a Gospel life as a Church community challenge each of us in different ways. But all of us need encouragement – everyday! And we all need to encourage one another in the day-in, day-out drama of ordinary life, shaped and reshaped by our extraordinary story.