12 June 2012

Getting encouragement from ‘the Barnabas Files’

Saint Barnabas, from a stained glass window in Ponsonby Parish Church, Cumbria, ca 1874, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (designer) and William Morris (manufacturer)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Tuesday, 12 June 2012:

5 p.m., the Eucharist

I Kings 17: 7-16; Psalm 4; Matthew 5: 13-16.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Shortly before my ordination, Bishop Noel Willoughby, who had retired as Bishop of Cashel and Ossory and was living in Wexford, told me about what he called his “Barnabas File.”

He regularly got letters moaning and groaning about what he had done or what he had failed to do. He read them, acted on them if needs be, and then dumped them. But when he got encouraging letters, praising him, or just simply nice letters, he filed them away in his “Barnabas File” and would take them out and read them when the pressures of ministry and the critics were grinding him down.

Those letter writers were to him what Saint Barnabas was to the Apostle Paul on their shared missionary journeys.

In the Church Calendar, yesterday was the feast day of Saint Barnabas.

The lectionary readings would have been so appropriate for a celebration of the Eucharist with you today:

Job 29: 11-16 speaks not of Job’s comforters, which I hope none of us finds a model for ministry, but speaks of delivering the poor who cry and the orphan who has no helper, blessing the wretched, and causing the widow’s heart to sing for joy, pursuing righteousness and justice, caring for the blind and the lame, the needy and the stranger.

Psalm 112 commends those who shine light in the darkness for the upright; who are gracious and full of compassion; who are generous in lending; whose priorities are justice and giving freely to the poor. This is where you are to find praise and honour.

Then Acts 11: 19-30 is set in Antioch, where we are called Christians for the first time. Earlier, we are told how Barnabas sold all his goods and gave his money to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 4: 36-37). Now, in Acts 11, Barnabas arrives in Antioch. He then brings Saul from Tarsus to Antioch, and the two are sent out together. Barnabas and Paul travel together for such a long time that their names are almost inseparable.

When a dispute arises about taking John Mark with them, that dispute ends with Paul and Barnabas taking separate routes.

In John 15: 12-17, we are reminded that the great commandment Christ gives us is to love one another as Christ loves us (verse 12), and that we are called to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last (verse 16).

All are wonderful readings as you to go out on a new venture in ministry and mission.

They were yesterday’s lectionary readings. But today’s readings are no anti-climax when it comes to how we work out our ministry and our mission.

Elijah, like Barnabas and Paul, goes outside what was safe territory, beyond traditional boundaries, into the land of the Phoenicians. His care for a widow and her son, for their physical and spiritual needs, does not separate pastoral physical needs.

Elijah’s encounter with the widow would have resonances with anyone reading the story of the encounter between Christ and the Syro-Phoenician woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Both encounters lead not just to healing, but to the promise of new life.

Our Gospel reading this evening is also a reminder of what we ought to have as our priorities in mission and ministry. We have these priorities, we do this things, not to try to be another Barnabas or another Paul, not so that we can be judged a success or as high achievers, but we seek to ensure our light shines before others, so that they may see your good works – not for our smug satisfaction, but so that others who see may “give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16).

The same point is made with a different emphasis in the Gospel reading for the Feast Day of Saint Barnabas, where Christ tells us we have been given his commands not so that we can be successful deacons, priests or even bishops – but so that we “may love one another” (John15: 17).

If you love one another, and if that becomes your priority for the rest of your ministry, then you too can be Barnabas to the other Pauls you meet in your ministry. Love one another. And that is enough.

And so, may all we think, say and so be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect (The First Sunday after Trinity):

the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you,
grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the institute chapel on Tuesday 12 Jun 2012.

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