Sermon for February 19, 2017
Discipleship #3
2 Sam. 12: 1-7, 13a; Acts 9: 19b-28

Holy Spirit, let these words be your words.  Amen.

Who is Your Barnabas?

The questions continue in our discipleship sermon series, questions that may cause some discomfort, but hopefully questions that encourage us to look more closely at how we are living as disciples of Jesus Christ.  We schedule our cars, our pets, our children, and ourselves for yearly tune ups and physicals, but we are not nearly as conscientious about providing care and assessment for our spiritual selves.  According to Glenn McDonald, the author of The Disciple Making Church, our spiritual lives demand that same amount of time and attention.

Thus far, we have been asked two questions:  “Who is Your Lord,” and “Who are You?”  Who we claim to be Lord of our lives will answer the question of how we define ourselves.  This morning’s question, the third in our series, is “Who is Your Barnabas?”  Moses had Aaron.  Naomi had Ruth.  David had Nathan.  The disciples had Jesus.  Paul had Barnabas.  Obviously, mentors are important in the life of a disciple.

In the late 1990’s, when my husband and I were searching for a church that we both felt called to attend, God led us to a congregation on Bailey Cove Road and to a minister named Bill Hudson.  The first morning we walked into this unfamiliar place where we did not know a soul, we listened to Bill, a balding, stout, middle-aged man, preach with conviction on the significant difference between operating from the LAW and operating from LOVE.  He shared the painful and personal story of his mother’s divorce in the 1940’s and how her church, abiding by its laws, had shut her out and cut her off, even though her husband had been the one to abandon her.  A divorced woman, she was no longer welcome at the Lord’s Table, but her children were.  So every Sunday this single working mother would dress the two boys, drive them to church, drop them off, watch them go in, and then wait outside reading her Bible until the service was over.  The LAW had won, but at the cost of LOVE for one of Christ's wounded daughter’s.

Bill’s sermon stretched and challenged me because I had been reared in a church that emphasized the Law, and his words gave me the opportunity to examine what I had been taught and what I really believed.  He paved the way for me to find my own path to God, to find my own faith, not the faith of a denomination and not the duplicate faith of my parents, but my personal and unique faith. Bill mentored me for four years, challenged me to take risks and to grow in my relationship with Christ, until he died of a heart attack, at 47, while laying bricks in the church courtyard on Father’s Day.  That time with Bill taught me many things, mainly that I wanted to be a person who chose love and forgiveness over law and judgment.  Bill taught me about grace, and how, even though we live in a broken world--no way around that--in every piece of scripture there is always good news.  If you listen to my sermons, you will often hear me say, "But the GOOD NEWS is . . . "  That comes from my long-ago Barnabas, Bill Hudson. 

Jump ahead about 10 years to my mid-40’s.  Our son had left for the Peace Corps and our daughter was in college, and that empty nest that I always knew was coming had become a reality, a stone wall I could not get past.  I was meeting myself for the first time.  Those questions we have asked the last two weeks about who is our Lord and who are we in relationship to him began to hone in, and I had much soul-searching and wrestling to do.

About that time, Carol Byrd, a Presbyterian minister, came into our Presbytery and into my life.  God saw that it was way past time for another Barnabas, and so he sent me a kindred spirit, someone who could listen to my questions without judgment, someone who encouraged my seeking, and someone who reminded me over and over that despite my struggles and weaknesses, I was a much-loved child of God.  After a year and a half of walking with me through this transition time, Carol moved to Germany when her husband was transferred there.  What I learned from Carol, and there were many lessons, was that grace is real.  Carol also reminded me to be gentle with myself because all of us are doing the best we can.  God knows that, and God loves us.  I share that same message with you from my former Barnabas, Carol Byrd.

Push fast-forward a few more years to the Intensive Care waiting room at Huntsville Hospital.  A twenty-year old young man from Tuscaloosa, Carter Crutchfield, had fallen off a cliff while hiking with friends on Monte Sano.  Because he was a member of First Presbyterian, Tuscaloosa, his minister had asked for pastoral support from area clergy, so I was there to pray with his mother. When I spoke with her, her comatose son was still in ICU with multiple injuries and possible brain damage.  That morning's prognosis was "grim."

As I greeted Mrs. Crutchfield, who was waiting calmly with dark circles under her eyes, I felt compelled to say, “I have two children in their twenties, and I cannot imagine what you must be feeling.  Even with your faith, this must be horrible, horrible, to go through.”

She looked at me and said, very plainly, very simply, “I cannot imagine what it would be like without my faith.  It is the pillow I rest my head on.”

What she was saying was that whether Carter lived or died, she was assured of God’s presence and his care.  She could rest on that faith, no matter what. For a single moment in time, God gave me yet another Barnabas who challenged and strengthened me.

What do these three vignettes have to do with the question:  "Who is Your Barnabas?"  Plenty.  Barnabas was an early Christian convert from Judaism, one of the earliest disciples in Jerusalem. In Acts, we read about the brave stand he took when he championed Paul's conversion.  We can recall Paul’s not-so-distant past as a persecutor of Jesus-followers.  Now that same persecutor was seeking entrance into the center of its leadership.  Imagine the suspicions.  It would be similar to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad walking into the Vatican, assuring everyone that he is now a Christian believer and asking to preach.  The apostles were terrified and incredulous.  Paul hardly stood a chance.  Some people even plotted to kill him.

Then in walked Barnabas.  Paul needed a mentor, a guide, and God provided one.  Barnabas was already well-respected, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24).  God used Barnabas to train Paul, to champion Paul, to travel with Paul, and to help God unleash Paul upon the world.   The name Barnabas means "Son of Encouragement." 

We have such Sons and Daughters of Encouragement in this very church.  They are called Stephen Ministers, and they are trained to walk with those who are going through a crisis of faith, a broken relationship, a heart-wrenching grief.  Like Barnabas, they want to assure others that they are not alone and that someone will also champion them.  The pastor, too, is called to be a Barnabas.  The FPC prayer group is a type of Barnabas.  So are certain friends and family members.  Sometime a Barnabas will appear exactly when we need that person, and sometimes we have to ask for such a companion, but God will provide.

This morning, we will be baptizing a baby, Henry Lind, and this congregation will make a promise to this baby boy that you will be his Barnabas, his companion along the way.  The promise is included in the baptism liturgy because a Barnabas is essential to becoming a stronger disciple.

In The Disciple-Making Church, Glenn McDonald states:  “’Solo flight’ is not a value celebrated in the Bible.” You can be a good, solo person who does good deeds, and you can be a solo believer in Christ, but, in my theological opinion, you cannot be a solo Christian because the very word itself is yoked to relationships, to God, to self, and to each other.  Our spiritual growth does not take place in a cocoon but in relationships, as Baptism also symbolizes.

Relationship #1.  Who is your Lord?  Relationship #2.  Who are you in relation to your Lord?  Relationship #3.  Who is your Barnabas?  Who is your spiritual coach, mentor, teacher, guide, companion, or partner?  To whom do you go for affirmation, for encouragement, for direction, for guidance, in your spiritual journey?  If you want to be a disciple, who is helping you to become one?

Coaches are not just for athletes. Coaches are also for Christians, and they come in all shapes and sizes, genders and situations.  King David got Nathan, who straightened him out.  Paul got Barnabas, who befriended and taught him, and the disciples got Jesus, who showed them, among other things, how to pray.

Your Barnabas may be a past mentor who influenced you, a book that is really challenging you, a small group that is supporting you.  But as McDonald says, "Your answer to the question, Who is your Barnabas?, says more than anything else about your intention to become like Jesus."  Relationship with a Barnabas is a key way to discern our way forward and to stay on track.  May God grace each of us with a Son or Daughter of Encouragement.


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