The story of Acts that we have been working through for a while now has bulldozing downhill. From the moment the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, this little group of followers has been growing exponentially and unexpectedly. It has been expanding in numbers and expanding the preconceived expectations of those who were followers in the very beginning.
Last week we looked at the story of Peter and Cornelius, how God was already there with Cornelius, already working, already calling Cornelius who a gentile, who never converted to Judaism, who was, as far as the Jerusalem followers of The Way of Jesus, was unclean. What we skipped past is the part of the story where Peter goes home to the Jerusalem community and they question everything he just did, interrogated, judged. And Peter retold everything from the vision to the Spirit to Baptizing Cornelius. And the community realized that they weren’t in a place to question the direction of God, if God had chosen Cornelius…
And then, word comes back to them. And I have to imagine that, despite how small Israel is, in modern Israel it only takes 5 or 6 hours to drive from the Northernmost point to the Southern, being a walking people is completely different. And we are not to think that Peter is a particularly young man at this time. If Google maps is accurate, it took Peter 2 or 3 days to walk to Jappa and 2 or 3 to get home, if he didn’t stop for breaks like I stop when I’m traveling and he didn’t stop to tell people about Jesus, which seems unlikely. That is to say, time isn’t tracked well in Acts and my guess is that it’s flying by.
Which brings us to the news the Church in Jerusalem received from Antioch. When the disciples scattered in fear at the killing of Stephen, they went in all directions and some ended up in modern Turkey, in the ancient city of Antioch. It was the 3rd largest city and 3rd most important city in the Roman empire. It was a jewel, beautiful, with gardens and marble streets and temples. For a time it was the key to trade routes by land and sea, so there were people from across the world living and passing through Antioch. And the church in Jerusalem gets word that the Followers of the Way of Jesus in Antioch are growing. And it’s growing because those fleeing followers of the Way were preaching to gentiles, before they could have heard about Cornelius or Peter’s vision. Those in Jerusalem had been in charge since the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and they were nervous that it wasn’t going the way it was supposed to, so they sent Barnabas: Barnabas, check on them, check in, set them right because we’re sure they’re wrong, and report back! So, Barnabas set off on the 437 mile hike, my guess from google was it took him 3 weeks.
Here is what I imagine happening:
Something’s happening in Antioch! It’s out of our control! I’m sure they’re doing it something wrong! We haven’t made the rules for the Gentiles yet! What if they eat the wrong thing? What if they forget the point of a parable? What if they end up with more voting power? We should send someone!
Here’s the point where the lot of them put their figure to their noses to say “not it”
Barnabas! Go fix it! Make sure it’s done right!
And maybe I think it went like this because when I feel like I know something, or I own something, or I’ve done it before and I know, I don’t always respond to other with joy and celebration. When Kelly’s cooking and I think she has the burner on too high, instead of just being grateful she’s making a meal for me… I turn it down… when she’s not looking. I’ve been learning not to do that. But there are many times instead of “Hey thanks!” I’ve responded with “Why are you doing it that way? Are you sure you want to do it that way? Maybe do it this way…”
When I have a feeling like I own something or like I know something, and I have the opportunity to see other people doing the same thing, I don’t always respond with joy and hope. I sometimes fight my urges to judge and critique. Because, what if they’re doing it wrong? What if I know a better way?
But worse: What if they’ve found a better way ? or they do it better than me? And it’s all wrapped up in our insecurities and not in the reality around us. But it’s probably one of the reasons I haven’t been doing a lot of viewing of other congregation’s services during the last few months. Who wants to be that insecure. And It’s not a competition, it’s a chance to grow together.
So what if the community in Antioch prioritized different parables? So what if they found a different way to tell the stories. So what if they had developed a better way to distribute food for those in need and collect money to support missions than Jerusalem. Maybe they were growing, and they were filled with gentiles, and lives were being changed and communities transformed, and there was hope. This should be good news to those in Jerusalem. And it would take them a long time to fully get on board with what God was doing in the lives of the Gentiles. But Barnabas saw it was good news, he chose to see the good, to see the Spirit, to see hope. He chose to see the moving of the Spirit in whatever creative ways this diverse multicultural community came up with, in ways that fit them, that served them, and that honored the Good News Jesus brought of abundance, feeding, healing, and liberating. It didn’t have to look like Jerusalem as long as it looked like Jesus. As long as it served compassion and kindness and hope. As long as it brought more light into the world.
And Barnabas didn’t want to be alone in this celebration of hope, or he thought he was in over his head, or he knew this community needed someone in particular and so he went another 235 miles to get Saul, whom some call Paul, and then make the same trip back.
This would be the start of a new friendship, an ongoing relationship. I’ve always felt like the author of Acts considered Paul the hero of the stories and Barnabas, for a while, was Robin to Paul’s Batman, Gilligan to his Skipper, Willow to his Buffy, Samwise to his Frodo. The sidekick, the supporting cast. And Barnabas was the encourager, so maybe Samwise isn’t the worst comparison.
Barnabas knew that this community needed Paul, and maybe Paul needed them too because he had gone home to Tarsus, he wasn’t living fully into what his call was going to be. This was the push he needed, the community that raised him up the rest of the way to prepare him for his travels, for establishing communities, for supporting and encouraging them, for seeing their good and their potential and hope. So maybe Barnabas wasn’t Robin but more of a Super Friend in his own right.
And here’s the thing, we can learn from Barnabas: we need each other. Whether Barnabas needed another friend, whether the community needed to see a life changed in Paul, whether Paul needed the kick and encouragement to get going on his call, these folks were intertwined in mutual care and need and encouragement.
Barnabas is called the encourager. He saw the good, saw the Spirit, saw the hope. He invited another to join him. He encouraged the communities. I imagine him like my friend Ellen, who seems to exude joy and kindness and compassion and encouragement. She is warm and generous. She’s the kind of person who when you talk with her you wonder if she’s ever had a bad day, a bad thought, an unkind word. And I know she has, they seem to have made her even more loving. My gifts are different, my encouragement is different, my generosity is different. And while I may have some of her characteristics, they don’t come forth in quite the same way. I need her in my life to remind me to hope. She is not my sidekick, but she is my encourager.
Let me tell you, we need each other. We need each other’s support and care. Some might need a friendly face, support of food or gifts, prayer, comfort. We are here together because many folks have been able to think creatively and bring their gifts to worship and technology. And we still need each other, still need support, still need help to continue our work of worship together.
I have a network of people that I can reach out to for encouragement, for support, for information, for my own learning. We live with a cloud of witness in our real everyday lives and it sometimes it takes a risk to reach out, to admit that we need each other, that we maybe can’t do it alone takes a risk, takes stepping out, might take going halfway or a long way, maybe 200 miles, maybe just past our insecurity or shame, maybe just a text.
Let me tell you how I’ve seen this play out. I was a late comer to the Harry Potter universe. I was a little older when they started so I was clearly too cool for the books. But not for the movies. So it wasn’t until the last movies were coming out that I thought I should read the books. They’re not bad.
What I tended to miss out on completely is the community that gets created around books and tv shows. There are annual gatherings about Harry Potter completely unrelated to Disney theme park, there’s more fan fiction that one could even read, and playing quidditch in real life might still be a thing. I have regularly listened to a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text which looks at the novels as if they are a sacred text that, like other sacred texts, like ours, that it is something to learn from, to be reflected on, to be celebrated even while they are imperfect. They have built a community, they have invited pastors and theologians, activists and actors, diversity in queer and racial voices, all who had something to learn, to offer, and felt they had been welcomed in these stories about the underdog overcoming, about resistance to segregation, about magic that lets one be fully themselves, about friendship without boundaries.
And then, the author has taken a stand against the transgender community, participating in and feeding the darkest fears about the community is often abused and marginalized. Many in the transgender Harry Potter community feel betrayed by the author, the books, the places that had once been their safe places. This is destroying community, not bringing life, not choosing hope. But the Sacred Text community has chosen to hold space, to speak up on behalf of those who have been marginalized, they’ve chosen hope, love, compassion.
The community in Antioch were the first to be called Christian, and you won’t find me saying that to be a Christian you need to be like Barnabas, being a Christian is rooted in following Jesus, but it seems to me that fruit of following the Way of Jesus might be looking for the hope instead of cynicism, building community instead of dividing people, encouraging each other in love and compassion instead of tearing each other apart.
We are followers of the way of Jesus and so we are choosing to live in Jesus’ example. As part of the Way: The Church is called to choose hope, choose joy, choose community, choose love, choose compassion, choose each other, choose support, choose encouragement, because the church is called Christian.