A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 11 June 2023- 10:30
Acts 11: 19-end and John 15: 12-17
Today is the Feast of St Barnabas. Our reading from the book of Acts gives us some insight into his character. On arriving in Antioch, and seeing “the grace of God” at work in a large number of new believers there, we heard that he “rejoiced,” exhorting them to stay faithful and devoted to Jesus (Acts 11:23).
Joy and “rejoicing” are viewed with a certain amount of scepticism these days. The book of Acts, with its stories of multiple conversions and the Lord adding to the numbers of Christians, exudes joy and confidence. Yet in our culture generally, let alone just in the Church, we’re not so sure.
Joy, in our culture, is often seen as something completely separate from sorrow or pain, a state we might aspire to or achieve in the future if we’re lucky or successful enough- and it’s sometimes considered “unserious” or frivolous to talk about it. Sorrow is much more obviously at the forefront of our conversations- when we speak to those who are desperately worried for their friends or family in Ukraine this week following the destruction of the dam, or read about stabbings in France, or wildfires- let alone when we consider the state of our politics, with this weekend’s latest dramas. Unlike joy, as the poet and essayist Ross Gay writes, sorrow “doesn’t need an advocate” (Ross Gay, Inciting Joy, Coronet, 2022, p.4). Sorrow is just there- at least at some point in life- without anyone having to try and make a case for it.
I must admit to sometimes feeling a bit sceptical myself when I read the book the Acts. The many accounts of large numbers being drawn to repent of their sins and become believers, turning to the Lord- and the accompanying sense of joy- and rejoicing over each one- can seem too good to be true. Luke, the author of the Gospel and of this volume, gave no title to the book, any more than he did to his gospel, but later church writers dubbed it “Acts” in the sense of deeds- thus implicitly comparing it to other Greek writings of the same name describing the career and accomplishments of famous men.
Peter and Paul are prominent figures in the narrative, referred to as apostles, those who are sent. And Barnabas, also an apostle, has an important role in relation to Paul, because it is he who, in today’s reading, invites Paul to join him on what will become Paul’s first missionary assignment, at Antioch, where they work together for a year, making many converts and establishing a church, such that the new disciples- or learners in the faith- are named “Christians” for the first time. Although it may at times come across as idealised, it’s important to remember that the story in the book of Acts of the establishment of the Christian church was written to encourage- a proclamation or sacred history that served to ignite and strengthen the faith of first-century Christians, just as it still encourages us today.
Acts is often described as a “bridge text” in the history of the early church, serving as a bridge between Jesus’ earthly ministry as described in the four Gospels and the emergence of the early churches- diverse communities of Christians- in the epistles. And within that, Barnabas himself acts as a bridge. As a Levite or Jew who was born in Cyprus, he speaks the same language as the Gentile converts he greets and encourages in Antioch, but this is also the language of his Jewish faith and heritage. This is a pivotal moment in Acts. Barnabas could have been suspicious of these non-Jewish new converts, who looked and sounded different from his fellow believers back in Jerusalem, and followed different rules, but instead- with Paul who is similarly open-minded- he rejoices with them in their new-found faith, building a bridge between Jerusalem and this strange new place. Following the movement of grace, of the Spirit, Barnabas, by his joy, connects Jerusalem and Antioch, not two communities but one, not two peoples but one spirit.
To me, there is nothing fake or superficial about the joy of Barnabas. His joy is coming from a deep place- joy, a gift of the Spirit, by grace helps enables Barnabas to see beyond the surface, and to know and to accept that these non-circumcised peoples are genuine in their faith, such that it is they who become the first to be known as Christians.
In the church, we often feel suspicious of exuberant joy. Those of us who lead worship, and participate in it, are just as susceptible as anyone else to what Marilynne Robinson calls the “joyless urgency” of the everyday routine that grinds us down and makes us cynical. But we know that Barnabas’ joy is real because it really is infectious. It brings radical acceptance, bringing people- Jews and Gentiles- together at a moment in Christian history when things hung in the balance and it so easily could have gone the other way.
If Barnabas’ joy isn’t superficial, neither is it fleeting. As well as being full of joy, Acts is full of challenges, obstacles to faith that have to be overcome, of living with persecution and the threat of martyrdom. It’s a story of women and men constantly- and dangerously- “on the move,” who generate joy by continuing to care for each other, as they sought to respond faithfully to Jesus’ charge to preach repentance and forgiveness for all.
In the world of Acts, joy and sorrow go together. Barnabas, we’re told, is a “good man,” but what’s less well known is that he later “disagrees sharply” with his friend Paul, such that they part company. Like us, he can’t have been perfect. But ultimately joy sustains him and others through all of these times. Perhaps it’s his God-given generosity of spirit, and this capacity for shared joy in sorrow, that made him such a good encourager of others.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in an address on discipleship, writes that “The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape” (Address on Discipleship to Fulcrum 2007). There is an expectant quality to joy, too- a sense of adventure or curiosity, of creativity- that leads Barnabas and his colleagues to acceptance new, very different disciples as equal partners in the Gospel and to deeper compassion for each other in the Church.
In the Cathedral at the moment, we have a major art exhibition, “To be free.” This is far removed from the book of Acts, with its daily evangelisation and conversions, but it is opening up conversations, including about faith, as well as drawing people into the Cathedral who wouldn’t normally come. In the south transept is a mobile map of the world, by the British-Palestinian artist, Mona Hartoum. Cut from delicate sheet-glass and precariously suspended from the ceiling by thin cables, the map is constantly in motion because of the air flow in the Cathedral, meaning that whole continents can seem to appear and disappear. This shows how things are constantly in a state of flux- borders can change; relationships can shift. We tend to think of a Cathedral as literally set in stone- stable and timeless, unchanging over centuries, and this is comforting- but in this case, its very fabric is creating the conditions for change- for something new to happen, for new relationships to be built and conversations to be had, as whole continents move and shift.
In this imagining of the world, as in the cosmopolitan world of Acts, people can be very culturally different, even when living geographically next to each other. But there is also the chance for them to come together, for bridges to be built, connections made. One of the writers I mentioned near the beginning, Ross Gay, in his book Inciting Joy (Coronet, 2022, p.9), writes: “My hunch is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity.” On this St Barnabas Day, may our preaching and our living out of the Gospel inspire joy and encourage others, and may this Eucharist in which we share bring us together and unite us in a deeper understanding of each other and compassion for the suffering places of our world. Amen.