What's in a name? reflection on the feast of St Barnabas

Published on 12 Jun 2017

In the fantastic world which Lewis Carroll describes in his book Through the Looking Glass, the young Alice meets a whole host of very strange creatures. Among them is an old sheep who spends her time knitting while running a small shop which is packed with curious things. After peering around for some time, Alice decides to buy an egg, and when she takes it with her it gets larger and larger and more human – complete with an enormous face. The large human egg is called Humpty Dumpty, who finds it provoking to be called an egg. He asks Alice for her name.
“My name is Alice, but…”
“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”
“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.
“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh. “My name means the shape I am - and a good handsome shape it is too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape.”

Humpty Dumpty has a point. Most of our names are not descriptive of who we are or what we’re like: for the most part they are just convenient identity tags. Yet just from our name nobody could guess either the shape we are or the shape we’re in! Sometimes we pick up nicknames which try to catch something of our peculiarity, although they are rarely flattering – least of all when they are accurate.

In the first years of the Church there was a young Jew from the island of Cyprus who became a missionary preacher. His name was Joseph but the apostles gave him another name. And the name they chose to give him describes accurately who he really was: they called him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36).

Icon of St BarnabasThe Church celebrates the feast of St. Barnabas on June 11th.

The first Christian community shared everything in common, and the first thing we hear about Barnabas is that he sold his estate and laid the money at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34-35). Luke tells us that Barnabas was sent by the Church in Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria to oversee what was happening there. We are told: “When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion” (Acts 11:23) I wonder: what did he see? What do you see in your parish as the grace of God – what causes you to rejoice? Luke goes on to describe Barnabas as a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24) whose encouragement led to many people persevering in their faith. And one man in particular was helped by Barnabas: his name was Paul.

Remember that Paul had been the grand inquisitor and unrivalled as a persecutor of the Church. After his conversion Paul tells us he spent three years in the Arabian Desert on a long renewal course or sabbatical in the Spirit. When he emerged from the wilderness he went to Jerusalem to see Peter. The apostles gave Paul a cool reception – they probably found it difficult to believe that such an accomplished persecutor of their community now wanted to be numbered among them. With indecent haste the church leaders ensured that Paul was soon back in Tarsus.

But one man encouraged Paul in his new life and decided to sponsor him. Barnabas set out from Antioch and went to Tarsus to look for Paul and he invited him to come as his assistant, and for a full year they ministered there together. It was at Antioch that the followers of Christ were first known as “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Clearly, Paul and Barnabas fulfilled the command of Jesus: “By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).

Paul and Barnabas travelled widely together and we’re told in Acts, “they put fresh heart into the disciples, encouraging them to persevere in the faith” (Acts 14:22). Paul extended to others the encouragement he had received from Barnabas. For Barnabas saw something in Paul that no other apostle saw: he saw beyond the face of the persecutor into the heart of a man who was struggling to be an apostle. Barnabas called out the best in Paul. And he did that, not from long distance, but through staying with him for 1,400 miles of travelling and preaching. That’s a lot of sponsorship and a lot of encouragement!

Even the haughty Humpty Dumpty hopes that in the unlikely event of his ever falling, all the king’s men will turn up to put him together again. He fondly hopes that someone will help him into the shape of his name. When Paul falls off his high horse, it is Barnabas who turns up to help him into the shape of his new name. Barnabas lives up to his name, “son of encouragement”, by helping Paul live up to his new name, apostle of Jesus Christ.

By his encouragement Barnabas actually gives shape to Paul’s life. And he does that not with idle chatter or vague well-wishing but by staying with Paul. He promotes the best in Paul; he assists the possible; he invests his time and love and energy in the person Paul can become. That is encouragement.

We can all bless God for the people who invested in us, who encouraged us to be who we are. And let us pray that when the time comes, we too can be a Barnabas.

Brian Purfield