What’s In A Name?
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 9:20-31
Superman. Spiderman. Wonder Woman. Captain America.
All superheroes. All with names that give them their identity, to help us understand something about them, to make them stand out from the crowd, even the massed ranks of superheroes. Superman is, literally, a super man. Spiderman would be nothing without the fateful bite of that irradiated 8-legged insect. Wonder Woman is a wonder, capable of feats of strength and endurance. And Captain America seems to bleed the stars and stripes in his jingoistic fervour.
Mining our rich literary and historical heritage, we see how names transcend an individual to become adjectives, an easy way to describe someone’s character, and not always in a good way. When describing someone as a “Jekyll and Hyde” kind of person, we know that we may need to tread carefully. The sarcastic use of Sherlock and Einstein reminds us how far we are from these geniuses, whether real or imaginary. And as for the Bible, we know exactly who we’re describing when we say that they have the strength of Samson, the luck of Jonah or the reliability of Judas. And as for those who Jesus described in the parables, they resonate with us, even though the vast majority don’t even get named. We know what we mean when we describe someone as a “Good Samaritan” or a “Prodigal Son.” So much is encompassed by the name or title that we know exactly the traits that they share.
And so, in today’s reading we meet up with Barnabas again. For those of us who have been following these readings, we will remember that Barnabas was the generous giver of the proceeds of his property sale, back when the church was the bee’s knees in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36-37). We are given an inkling into his character back in that short passage, used not just as a comparative for the following actions of Ananias and Saphira, but also as a prelude for this moment when he takes centre stage. You see, without this brief prelude, we wouldn’t know the significance of the man, or of his name.
Barnabas isn’t Barnabas. Not really. His name is actually Joseph (well done to those who flicked back a few pages in their Bibles and are ahead of me). The name Barnabas means “son of encouragement”, literally Bar Nabas (or “bar nehma” for the Aramaic scholars among you). In the same way that we have Johnson to mean “Son of John”, we discover that Nabas (or nehma) means “encouragement” (or “consolation”).
In the same way that Simon is most often referred to his Christ-given name of Peter (“The Rock”, many centuries before Dwayne Johnson appeared on the scene), Joseph is now more commonly known by his nickname, Barnabas. And he lives up to this name.
In the same way that Reg Dwight or Marion Morrison are more familiar to us as Elton John and John Wayne, so too we know Joseph as Barnabas. Which is just as well, because we read in today’s passage how he was a real encouragement to Saul.
Fresh from his Damascus road experience, with the zeal of a new convert, Saul is terrifying the apostles in Jerusalem. Not because he’s out to arrest them and approve of their deaths. No, quite the opposite. They don’t know what to do with him; this man who was last seen clutching a sheaf of arrest warrants now speaks out on behalf of the one he wanted to silence. The apostles are probably concerned that this is too good to be true; will there be a moment when Saul will throw off this fake conversion to reveal his true colours once he has gained access to the upper room.
Fearful that accepting Saul will lead to their arrests and death, it needs good old Barnabas to speak up on his behalf. Barnabas takes Saul under his wing, an act of faith that is rewarded by Saul’s eventual welcome amongst the apostles and the legacy that he leaves us in his writings and missionary journeys.
So, Barnabas is very much the man for the job; a chap who lives up to his nickname and will go on to accompany Saul (then Paul) on some of these aforementioned journeys (read on at your leisure). Without Barnabas, the New Testament would be a much thinner collection of works, if it had ever been compiled.
But our attention is also on Saul. We understand that he will be a significant figure in the coming chapters (and beyond), but it is worth spending this time on Barnabas, because this is where we might find ourselves.
For a start, it’s not likely that any of us are called to be as significant to the course of Christian history as Saul/Paul has proved to be. However, we might just need to be a Barnabas to someone. Or to find ourselves alongside a Barnabas. To be an encourager, or to be willing to receive someone’s encouragement. It’s a lesson on humility, though it may also be a risky venture. We might find that our encouragements aren’t received in the same way as Saul and the apostles; we might get our fingers burned by those we are wanting to help.
But then again, we might not be a Barnabas. We might find the thought of taking someone from the margins to bring them into the fold slightly less preferable than biting off our own arms. We might be scared of being hurt, or that it’s just not us. We might be more like the apostles, wary of opening ourselves up to potential danger, though probably not with the terminal consequences they were fearful of.
And, in a way, that’s fine. Let’s face it, if it was good enough for the apostles, it’s good enough for us. Not everyone is cut out to be a Barnabas. Just don’t deny it if it is you.
However, we all do share something; we hold something in common with our encouraging friends, our zealous converts and our cautious believers and that’s our identity in God. As much as Barnabas lived up to his thumbs-up nickname, and Peter lived up to his igneous reputation, they also have the same name that Saul was getting to grips with: Child of God.
We are all children of God, part of his family that counts Barnabas, Peter, Saul and the rest of them amongst its members. And it is when we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour that we recognise this and receive the embrace of our Father.
There is a parallel here with the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Having mentioned him at the beginning, let’s consider how today’s reading echoes this story and may shed a light for us today.
We see in Saul the character of the younger son, leaving the family home to go his own way. Let’s face it, Saul was following in the line that can trace its roots back to Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first priests who were part of the community that escaped slavery in Egypt many centuries ago. So, his heritage wasn’t all bad, even if Saul had followed so many of the intervening generations in turning their back on the family firm and its original terms of employment.
Saul’s encounter with Jesus is like the dawning realisation that the younger son experienced, sitting in the filth and degradation of the pig shed, that there’s no place like home. Saul just didn’t know what home was like; not yet, at least.
Jesus’ parable has an older son in it, and here we see the apostles. Scornful of the home-coming prodigal, the elder offspring moans to his dad about the perceived injustice and unfairness of the welcome afforded to the younger wretch. The wary apostles may not be happy with it, but there are definite parallels to found here.
Barnabas does the work that we see the Father doing in Jesus’ tale. He acts as mediator, encourager and critical friend, challenging the old hands whilst welcoming in the new face.
We might find ourselves in this story as well. But the key is that all those in Jesus’ story are part of the same family, the Father’s offspring, with all their fabulousness and frailty. And so are we.