I reckon that if there’s anyone you want to meet that if you sit in the church coffee bar long enough, eventually they’ll come past. They the same about King’s Parade in Cambridge – if you walk up and down for long enough, whoever you want to meet will come past. They also the same about waiting at Carfax in Oxford, which sounds a much more likely story to me! They also say the same about Grand Central station in New York, but I’ve never been there, so it can’t be true. Antioch was one of these places, too.
There were various places in the ancient world which functioned as the great crossroads of culture and trade, and one of them was Antioch. It’s about 15 miles inland from the sea, on the river Orontes, about as far north again from Sidon or Damascus as they are north of Jerusalem. Or, if you prefer, it’s where you’d land up if you treated the long north-east spur of Cyprus as a pointing finger, followed its line by sailing to the Levantine shore, and then went a few miles up the river. And, as any map with ancient roads and regular shipping lanes will tell you, once you were in Antioch you could guarantee that half the people who travelled anywhere would sooner or later come by.
Antioch, of course, was in our reading today, where Paul and Barnabas were. Antioch is very important, because in many respects it’s where Christianity began. You could say we were all born in Antioch. Now, don’t come up afterwards and say, but Michael I was born in Wigan, or I was born on the Isle of Skye, or I was born in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. We were all born in Antioch, because that’s where Christians were so called for the first time, where Christianity clearly and irrefutably became a way of following God.
Christian was a nickname, of course, just as ‘Methodist’ was originally a word used by the opponents of Wesley and his friends to sneer at their ‘Methodical’ ways of organizing their groups for Bible study and prayer. But, like many nicknames, it tells us a lot about the popular perception of what was going on. You would hear every language under the sun in Antioch, if you went from one part of town to another; but the one you could guarantee to be understood in was of course Greek. And ‘Christ’ was the Greek word for ‘Messiah’. The followers of Jesus were thinking and speaking in such a way that they were thought of as ‘the king’s people’, ‘Messianists’, Christians. It was in Antioch they were first called Christians, and so we were all born in Antioch.
And it was in Antioch that we encounter Barnabas. Barnabas was an ordinary person, who made a difference, and I think there’s something here for Julie, on this special day, and for all of us. Barnabas shows us a life of encouragement for every Christian. During the course of history some great things have happened that might not have happened were it not for some unknown, obscure person. In 1491 and early 1492 Christopher Colombus had been to the rulers of Italy, Portugal, and Spain seeking support for his voyage of discovery. They all turned him down. As he was leaving the castle of King Ferdinand of Spain, after being refused again, legend has it that a man on horseback raced after him and called him back. Queen Isabella had offered to sell her royal jewels to finance the trip. The rest is history. During their first winter in New England, the Pilgrim Fathers were struggling. They had no food, they didn’t know how to hunt, they seemed doomed. Had it not been for an Indian named Squanto, who taught them how to hunt and fish, and in the spring raise crops, they wouldn’t have survived. How different the world would be. Barnabas was one of these people.
We know, from elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles, that Barnabas was someone who wanted to do what was right; he was very generous – giving more than a token contribution. He was committed to the early church, not just involved. In bacon and eggs the hen is involved, but the pig is committed. Barnabas was committed to the church.
Barnabas was a great encourager, that’s even what his name means. He encouraged Paul in building up the church in Jerusalem. He encouraged John Mark, when Paul refused to take him on the second missionary journey – perhaps that encouragement helped him to go on and write his gospel of Mark?
In today’s reading, we find Barnabas encouraging the local church. How did he encourage the church? He wasn’t jealous, but pleased for them. He joined in using his gifts. He encouraged them to be committed not to him or the church, but to God. He practiced what he preached. He encouraged others to get involved and use their gifts. He was a patient man, and he was happy to work behind the scenes.
In many ways, Barnabas was an extraordinary man, the unsung hero. Many of us might not have known much about him before this morning – perhaps some of you are thinking you’d never heard of him – but the point is what we can learn from Barnabas.
Today we have commissioned Julie as a Lay Preacher in the name of the United Reformed Church. I know Julie is widely respected in all the churches she’s been to not just as a preacher, but as someone who encourages and enables prayer and spiritual resources. These gifts we formally recognise today, and encourage Julie in them. Isaiah spoke wonderful poetry declaring the good news of God, and Julie can put that into practice today in ways far more creatively than I ever could, not that it’s difficult to be more creative than me.
But the point from Barnabas is not that we put Julie on some kind of pedestal. I know jolly well Julie would be very quickly first in the queue to resist such unhelpful pressure. The point is that we all need to encourage each other is discovering our gifts and using them in our commitment to God through the church and the world. The point is not that we pin our hopes on Julie, but that we pin our hopes on God
Today we offer our love, support, encouragement and prayers to Julie, but my hope and prayer is that we can learn from Barnabas in encouraging one another in the particular ways we can express our commitment to God through the church. We may not be in Antioch where everyone passes through, we may not be King’s Parade in Cambridge, Carfax in Oxford, we’re certainly not Grand Central station in New York, but here in this place and this time we do find ourselves coming into contact with so many people. We do have opportunities to tell that his feet are on the mountains, that our God reigns.
Julie will be doing this in her preaching, but the point from Barnabas is that we’re not just focused on Julie, but that we’re all challenged to do our bit in our own way, as best we can, and we do that not in our own strength, but empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The church will never have a shortage of people who want to be its Pauls! Are you willing to be its Barnabas?