Why do we remember these dynamic duos so well, and why were they able to entertain thousands of people for so many years? It was because they were able to work together and had what it takes to stand the test of time (OK, maybe not Sonny and Cher, but the rest of them did!).
In our first reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of another dynamic duo that far exceeds them all. They were a pair that God Himself had brought together right at the outset of the early Church.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that the Church in Antioch had gathered together to praise and worship God. Suddenly, right in the middle of their assembly, the Holy Spirit spoke to them and said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
We find that combination repeated time and time again in Acts: Paul and Barnabas, Barnabas and Paul. They proclaimed the Gospel to thousands and brought the Christian message to the ends of the earth.
But why were they able to work together so well? We are never really told, exactly, but I think we are given a clue in the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when Barnabas is first introduced to us. We are told of this generous man who owned a field which he sold, and that he brought the proceeds to the apostles and donated it to the Church. Acts tells us that his name was Joseph, “to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’).”—Acts 4:36
That was the kind of person Barnabas was: a man who encouraged those around him. He was able to build up the community; he knew what to say and when to say it. All throughout the Acts of the Apostles we find him doing just that.
Yesterday we heard about the foundations of the Church at Antioch, a new community that was on fire with love for Jesus Christ. But, like any new community, there were bound to be challenges and difficulties. We are told that Barnabas was sent to Antioch by the Church of Jerusalem, and when he arrived there he did two things: He rejoiced in all that God was doing among them, and he encouraged them!
Therefore it is no wonder the Holy Spirit places Barnabas and Paul together in our first reading today. Who would have needed more encouragement than St. Paul, who proclaimed the Gospel message tirelessly, without reservation and with heartfelt conviction; Paul, who was rejected by many of the Jews, and more than a few Christians. Paul, who was rejected time and time again by the Greeks and the Pagans; Paul, who was dragged out of cities, stoned and left for dead; Paul, who was dragged before governors and kings, beaten with rods, and scourged. This man would have encountered overwhelming discouragement on a regular basis! So God sends him Barnabas, son of encouragement. Barnabas knew how to support Paul and help him in the difficult task of founding Churches and spreading the Gospel.
Nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles do we find that Barnabas resented that aspect of his ministry. He was a remarkably gifted man, but undoubtedly he would have stood in the shadow of St. Paul (like everyone else that ever worked with that great Apostle). Nowhere do we find that Barnabas felt the need to compete with St. Paul. He would have understood that the gifts given to Paul were not in competition with his own gifts; they were given to build him up, and Barnabas’ gifts were given to build up those around him.
Competition—while great on the sports field and intrinsic to the business world—is the death of relationships and fruitful ministry in the Church. Competition among followers Christ, whether it be in the seminary, in the parish, or in the domestic Church of the family, sets up walls and barriers that even inhibit the work of God among His people. It can be that damaging.
So what is the antidote to such poison? Encouragement!
The Church desperately needs men and women who are able to grow in this skill of encouragement so masterfully taken up by St. Barnabas. Our seminary, our communities and parishes, are in great need of Barnabites, sons and daughters of encouragement, who are able and willing to build up and encourage the people around them.
Barnabas and Paul, Paul and Barnabas. The dynamic duo of the early Church. Who’s to say that God cannot still work in that way even now, when we are open to this gift of encouragement and willing to use it for the greater glory of God?