What Barnabas might tell us about ministry

What Barnabas might tell us about ministry

A note from Jamie Howison: What follows here is the text of the sermon delivered at the diaconal ordination liturgy for Allison Chubb, Helen Holbrook, Kara Mandryk, and Lissa Wray Beale. Although these ordinations were celebrated on Sunday June 9, it was observed as the feast day of St Barnabas, which actually falls on June 11. That fact added some particular meaning for me, as I was ordained priest on St Barnabas day in 1988, meaning that I am now marking the 25th anniversary of the launch of my priestly ministry. I can honestly say that what I said to these four women all flows from my experiences of the past 25 years, and that when at the end of the sermon I blessed them with the words, “May this day be for all of you the beginning of a great adventure,” it is only because that is precisely what ordained ministry has been for me. 

It is a delight to have been invited to serve as the preacher this afternoon. Because Allison and Helen have both been raised up from within saint benedict’s table, I know their stories well; not simply the sense of calling they’ve both had affirmed, but also the kinds of struggles they’ve faced and the hard questions they’ve both asked along the way. And because over the past few years and in different contexts my path has regularly crossed those of both Lissa and Kara, I can safely say that I have a good sense of their stories too. Simply put, I believe that these ordinations are very good news for the church.

Because we’re marking today as the Feast of St Barnabas, I thought it would make sense to take a look at the figure of Barnabas, to see what he might have to say to the four of you as you move into ordained ministry. Looking at the readings appointed for the day, it isn’t difficult to see what the architects of the lectionary had in view: mission. In the Acts of the Apostles, Barnabas is the one who works alongside of Paul as a teacher and a missionary. With Paul he is sent out on those Spirit-inspired missionary journeys, and together they proclaim good news to the Gentiles, all the while collecting famine relief funds on behalf of the struggling Judean church community. From the prophet Isaiah we heard of the promise of “light to the nations”—meaning the Gentile nations, of course—and of sight to the blind and freedom to the prisoners. From the Gospel according to Matthew we heard Jesus’ challenge to his followers to set out on the road to proclaim the good news; to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” and to do it all freely. Taken together the three texts seem to offer Barnabas as a model of mission. In the company of Paul, he rose to the great challenge of speaking the truth of the Gospel—of living the truth of the Gospel—and you can well imagine him taking to heart the words of Jesus: “You received without payment; give without payment.” “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey,” Jesus had said, which is another way of his saying that the people in his movement need to walk with a fundamental trust that they will be received along the road. And if not? “Shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town,” and keep moving.

I suppose I could just tell you that because this is the way that the figure of Barnabas is presented through the lenses of these particular texts, you should get ready to go and do likewise. And without a pay cheque, just think how easy it will be to do your income taxes next year.

Or I could say something like, “My weren’t those apostles an amazing bunch? Saints, really… able to do all of those things with such faith. We should make stained glass pictures of them, and hang them up in our churches, and remember them as people more holy, more faithful, more… well, more saintly than we could ever be. It must have been so exciting to live in those times, when the Holy Spirit was so present, and such amazing things happened.” I could make Barnabas utterly irrelevant to real life, in other words, and keep him safely trapped in his window frame.

Yet plumb a littler deeper into his story, and another reality begins to emerge. According to Acts, Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus who was converted and became a member of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. It was in the context of that early Christian community that he was given his name “Barnabas;” in Hebrew “Son of encouragement.” According to Acts, he was the one who introduced Paul to the apostles, and with Paul he advocated on behalf of Gentile believers, that they not be required to “keep the law of Moses.” This was no small matter for the Jerusalem church—I mean seriously, if you think that things can sometimes get heated on the floor of a diocesan synod, that’s nothing compared to the kind of debate these people were facing—and with Paul we can see Barnabas as a champion of radical inclusion through grace.

But it is after the issue of the Gentiles is resolved at the Council of Jerusalem that things get really interesting. According to Acts, Paul is ready to set out on another missionary journey, but Barnabas is insistent that his cousin John Mark be allowed to accompany them. John Mark had been a part of the earlier journey, but had bailed on them partway through, and after that experience Paul was not interested in having the young man along. According to Acts, “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord.” (Acts 15:39-40)

You heard that, right? “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.” Maybe Barnabas had a big pastoral heart and just wanted to give young John Mark a second chance. Maybe he was feeling some strong family loyalties—maybe his auntie had come and paid him a solidly guilt-infused visit—or maybe it was something else altogether that was at stake. We have no way of knowing, because the Book of Acts follows Paul, and tells us nothing more about Barnabas. But I do think that with this story of “sharp disagreement” we’ve begun to get the real Barnabas down from his stained glass window frame and into more familiar—more human—territory.

The stakes are raised even more when we consider something Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians. Paul has continued as the champion for full inclusion of the Gentiles, and the further he moves into his ministry the more thoroughgoing is his theological commitment to that principle. Meanwhile it appears that Peter has backed down a bit on one particular point, namely sharing a table with Gentile believers. For Paul this is a huge issue: “for until certain people came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” (Gal. 2:12-13) Even Barnabas was led astray… that’s your ordination day saint he’s talking about… even Barnabas.

Again, it is Paul’s perspective we have in hand, and so we can’t begin to know the other side of the argument. It is so easy to side with Paul on this one; after all “in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Gentile,” and how can you possibly be part of one Body of Christ if you can’t even sit down and have lunch together? And there’s nothing like 2000 years of hindsight to make it easy for us to look down our collective noses at Peter, Barnabas, and the rest of them.

Here’s the thing, though. In spite of this scrap, Peter and Barnabas and James and Paul are all named as saints of the church. In spite of the fact that Barnabas parted ways with the great missionary and theologian of the early church, our forebears had the good sense to still recognize him as one of God’s holy ones. And on the other side of the equation, in spite of the fact that Paul could be less than easy to live with, and in his letters was known to lose his temper—imagine him in person—he too is one of God’s saints. Not because any of them were so wonderfully pious, blameless, upright, or pure, but because as faithfully as they could and with all the limits and foibles of who they were, they followed the path that Jesus had set before them.

Might I suggest to the four of you—and to anyone else who is still paying attention—that there is such a thing as faithful dissent, which is the very thing I think we’re seeing being played out as Barnabas begins to move away from Paul. I know, I know… its not very polite to speak about dissent and disagreement in the context of your ordination liturgy; a liturgy in which you’re about to be asked if you will “in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” Speaking of which… what exactly does that mean anyways? And because three of you come from traditions that do not have bishops and the such, I’m sure some of your friends and family members will, on your behalf, blanch when you are asked that question.

Rest assured, when you kneel at the chancel steps and the bishop places his hands on your head, he is not attempting to remove your spine. He is establishing a new relationship with you, which is both collegial and ordered. Collegial, in that each of you is being marked as a deacon in this community and under his jurisdiction; and ordered in the truest sense. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it, ordination is not, “a transaction by which [ministry] is somehow conferred on the ordinand,” and our clergy aren’t “confected like so many batches of fudge.”  Once “you stop ‘confecting’ priests [and deacons]” Capon continues, “you go back to older and better figures,” meaning that our deacons, priests, and bishops are “ordained, ordered—that is, they are lined up into a sacramental arrangement within the church.” (Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox)

It is in the context of this arrangement that you will have a relationship with your bishop, and also with your ordained colleagues and with all those who claim a membership in the Body of Christ; it is in this context that you will be challenged to exercise your diaconal ministry in a way that has authenticity and integrity. Like Barnabas before you, your call is to follow, as faithfully as you can, the path that Jesus has set before you. Part of what a deacon is called to do is to interpret the world to the church and the church to the world, and if that means on some days you find yourself in a place of faithful dissent—faithful dissent, mind you—so be it. Pray that such moments won’t lead to division, but don’t be fearful of your own convictions. And don’t remain mute and motionless when you feel called to speak or act. As best you can, do it in the context of this arrangement of relationships that is the Body of Christ, and do it from a starting point of attentive silence and stillness; a starting point so very different from one that is merely mute and motionless. As Kenneth Leech said in a 1986 address to a group of theological students, “Only those who are at home with silence and darkness will be able to survive in, and minister to, the perplexity and confusion of the modern world.” (Leech, Silence and Ministry) Cultivate stillness and silence as a source of strength and courage in your ministry, and then from that anchored place tell us what you see; tell us how the world looks, how the church looks.

Maybe that seems a terribly serious place to conclude this sermon, so let me repeat what I said at the beginning: I believe that your ordinations are very good news for the church; very good, indeed. Lissa, Kara, Helen, and Allison; it is good to have you as colleagues in ordained ministry. May this day be for all of you the beginning of a great adventure.

Jamie Howison

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