When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
The first church I served after I was ordained was St Barnabas United Church and Christian Centre, on what was then a new housing estate, in Langney, Eastbourne. This church drew together Baptists, Methodists, and United Reformed folk, and developed the building both for worship and for serving the community around it in a whole range of ways. These included a nursery and a playgroup, various youth organisations and a senior citizens club.
The story of Barnabas made an early impact on me and helped to shape the nature of my ministry as ecumenical and inclusive. In today’s passage, Barnabas speaks out for Saul, who at that time brought fear to the early Christians, because of his role in persecuting Christians. Barnabas testified to Saul’s encounter with God on the road to Damascus and the way in which Saul’s life had been turned around.
Saul becomes Paul, a significant figure across the early church, a builder up of the Church and a writer of letters which have been passed down over the centuries. Barnabas’ early recognition of Paul as a changed person, despite his background of persecution of Christians, speaks to me of the need for the need to look with new eyes on people I might have previously just wanted to dismiss. This story also opens up the possibility of people being turned by God away from their old ways into God’s new way of life.
There’s a two-fold dimension of hope revealed. The first is the possibility that no situation or person is bad enough for God not to want change to occur, and to intervene to offer the possibility of that change. The second is the challenge to recognise God at work in the changed lives of people about whom I might previously have been critical.
Loving and redeeming God, Speak to me as you spoke to Paul, that my life may be turned around when I go astray. Grant me the courage you gave to Paul, to witness to You, even in the midst of opposition and persecution. May I have the openness of Barnabas to recognise those who, seemingly unexpectedly, have been turned around by You. May I learn from them and grow in the faith. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Elizabeth Welch, retired minister, active theologically and ecumenically, member of St Andrews Ealing.