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From chapter four of the Acts of the Apostles we find the following passage: “There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” This is the first of many references to Barnabas, the saint we celebrate today.
We know that he was the one who introduced Paul to the other disciples and that he accompanied Paul on a missionary journey to Asia Minor. When the two entered the city of Lystra they encountered a man who could not walk, so Paul healed him. Seeing this the people declared, “‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.” Of course Paul and Barnabas were horrified at this and proclaimed to them the Good News of the One True God, but such an event speaks to the charismatic appeal of both these men of God. Later, Barnabas would go to Cyprus with Mark. And Barnabas is honored as the founder of the church there. According to tradition, due to his success in converting the people he drew the attention of the Jews who would have him dragged outside the city and stoned to death.
There are many fascinating details of Barnabas’ life, but one of those great acts of faith struck me. As you will recall, the Apostle Paul was not always a believer in Christ. He was present at the stoning of Stephen and even describes himself as being one who persecute Christians: “I persecuted this Way – that is the Christians – up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me.” For this reason, the Christians were very afraid of Paul, but as I mentioned, it was Barnabas who brought Paul to the other disciples in Jerusalem so that Paul might plead his case. So what convinced Barnabas that Paul had truly converted and wasn’t just playing some charade in order to get to the leaders of the Christians?
In our Gospel reading today Jesus said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” When we hear this passage, we often think that we as Christians must be on our guard against those that would wish to bring us harm or destroy the faith, that is true, but at times we get so caught up in hearing that part of the message that we miss the “innocent as doves” piece. The “wise as serpents” is telling us how to interact with the world, but the “innocent as doves” is telling us that we are also to be like Jesus. We are to be on our guard, but we can never escape the fact that in the midst of it all – good times and evil – we are to be like Jesus, willing to sacrifice it all for the sake of the Gospel.
Barnabas knew who Paul was. He knew his reputation. He had good reason to fear him and what he might possibly do, but he was also one who knew Jesus. Barnabas also knew the words of Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven.” In accepting Paul, Barnabas extended the same grace that he knew he had received himself.
Like Barnabas, we must be “wise as serpents,” but also like him, we must never forget to be as “innocent as doves,” for it is in that virtue we reveal the nature of Christ.