Acts 4:34-37, Acts 15:36-41
The Rev. Tom Herbek
August 13, 2017
I have to chuckle when people tell me that the church needs to become more like the original early New Testament church, where everyone worked together so well. Actually- not really!
Barnabas was called “Son of Encouragement” by the disciples, because he had this amazing way of encouraging people to live life. He took chances where others were not ready to do so. He looked at everything as an opportunity to encourage those around him. We first hear of Barnabas because he took a piece of land he owned and sold it and gave away the proceeds in response to seeing a need, in response to the suffering of people around him.
Then later, we find that Barnabas was the only one willing to work with the turncoat Paul, who had been a persecutor of Christians before his miraculous turn-around. Many in the early church thought that Paul’s turnaround was a little too miraculous. They thought he was a spy and they did not trust Paul. But Barnabas took Paul on as a companion, and they went to Antioch.
In Antioch, they discovered a community of believers that was part Jewish and part non-Jewish. This was the first time a large number of people outside of Jerusalem had joined the new movement, and the first time that non-Jews had joined the movement. But this success had created a problem.
Because the new movement was still just a branch of Judaism, no non-Jews were supposed to be allowed to join. To remain in good standing as a Jew with the leaders of the new movement in Jerusalem, Barnabas should have thrown out these non-Jews. But the “Son of Encouragement”, Barnabas, would not do that. He accepted the non-Jews into the congregation, and he encouraged their acceptance by the leaders in Jerusalem. Without Barnabas’ courageous stance, it is possible that Christianity might have simply continued as a sect of Judaism, and only Jews would have been allowed to be a part of the new movement. Being like Barnabas means that we are continually expanding the limits of our acceptance of diverse people, that we give people a chance when no one else will.
Later, Barnabas and Paul decided to take a youth named John Mark with them as they traveled to Antioch. After they sailed across the Mediterranean from Cyprus (where John Mark had been a big help to them), John Mark suddenly left and returned to Jerusalem. Paul did not forgive John Mark for this until Paul was an old man. Barnabas tried to talk Paul into letting John Mark return to work with them after a while, but Paul refused to forgive John Mark. So Barnabas, “The Encourager”, took John Mark with him and they left Paul.
Being like Barnabas means that we are able to accept the lack of perfection of the people who journey through life with us. Being like Barnabas means that we understand that people will not always live up to our expectations. Being like Barnabas means that we give people a second chance. It means that we do not give up on people, even when other people write them off; we give people a chance when no one else is willing to do so, when most people have given up on them.
We each must find ways to encourage life, to give people a second chance, to expand our comfort zone to include people who are very different from our own background, and to use our resources in ways that bring life to people in need.
Joan Chittister once said: “You’ve heard of Random Acts of Kindness? Today perform a Random Act of Forgiveness. You choose. Whom haven’t you spoken to in years, months, weeks? Send them a card. Call them. Or maybe you have to forgive yourself for something. Give it a try.”
So many times we need a second chance. In our society, even when small offenses are done to us, we often remember them for a long time. Author Kent Neburn, who will be here in October wrote:
I often think of the way the Dakotah Indians responded to a small wrong. When, for example, a young person walked between an elder and a fire – an act of profound impoliteness in their culture -the young person said, simply, “Mistake.” It was an honest acknowledgment of an error of judgment, devoid of any self-recrimination or self-diminution. All present nodded in assent, and life went on.
How healthy such an attitude seems. We all commit mistakes in judgment, and we all need forgiveness. If we had the option of making a simple acknowledgment of our mistake and then going on with our affairs, how much clearer and gentler life would be. And how much healthier would our own hearts be if we looked upon the injuries caused us by others as simply the mistakes of human beings who, like us, are struggling to get by in a complex and mysterious world.
Our lives brush clumsily against the lives of others. A wrong word, a rash action – these are as much a part of our lives as the caring gesture and the loving touch. We are all guilty of them; we all receive them.
There is no surprise when they come, issuing forth either from us against others or from others against us. The only surprise is that we never cease to make such errors and that we have such difficulty forgiving them when they are committed against us by others.
It is our daily task in life to find a way to forgive these errors, in ourselves and in others, without ignoring or diminishing the wrong that has been done. And if the crime is so great that we cannot find it in our heart to offer forgiveness, at least we can make the first steps toward healing. Perhaps, with time and the grace of God, forgiveness, too, will result.
-Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace
But some things seem insurmountable, completely unforgiveable. And somehow, there are people who experience awful pain, and yet they find a way through it.
Sometimes we experience a pain that goes beyond anything we ever expected, and then we must find a way to keep on living.
Linda Biehl is the co-founder and director of the Amy Biehl Foundation in the United States and the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in South Africa, a nonprofit organization promoting justice, peace, reconciliation, and equal rights for education, employment, and health.
Linda’s work is grounded in the life and death of her daughter Amy, a dynamic twenty-six-year-old Stanford graduate and esteemed human rights activist who in 1993 was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study the role of women and gender rights during South Africa’s transition from the apartheid regime to a multiracial democracy.
Just days before she was due home, Amy was killed in an act of political violence by a group of young black South Africans who were fighting to end apartheid and saw all whites as their oppressors. Four young men were convicted for Amy’s death, and in 1994 they were sentenced to eighteen years in prison.
In 1997 the four men applied for amnesty to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Linda and her late husband, Peter, were strongly motivated by Amy’s belief in the TRC to achieve restorative justice rather than retributive justice for those who confessed to politically motivated crimes; thus, they did not oppose the men’s application for amnesty. They testified at the amnesty hearing of their daughter’s killers and offered their support, inviting the young men to join them in continuing Amy’s work. Linda embraced restorative justice by building a relationship with two of the youths responsible for the death of her daughter. Today those two young men have become tremendous social activists in their community, working for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust with Linda and even speaking alongside Linda at public events all over the world.
Linda Biehl said about what happened: “One of the greatest realizations for me has come from dealing with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Forgiveness is extremely important, of course, and is the first step toward true peace and healing. But it’s with reconciliation—actively restoring peace and harmony—that I think you can make the biggest difference. I’ve realized that what is needed is deeper and more involved than just forgiveness: reconciliation and negotiation are necessary. We need to focus on learning from our mistakes, and we need to work on trust and respect and listening.”
I don’t know that I could have done what Linda Biehl did. I’m not sure I would have given Paul a second chance, like Barnabas did. But perhaps I can make it a habit in my life to confess when I have made a mistake, no matter how small it might be, to say, “mistake.” By doing this often, I would hope that it would help me to move closer to that point where, if I am hurt deeply by someone, I will find a way toward forgiveness and then toward reconciliation.
I know that our world needs to create many more opportunities for second chances, for each of us, and for our fellow journeyers in life.
I encourage each of us in this church family to keep our eyes open for places where we might provide second chances, in both the small events and the huge and overwhelming events in our lives.
May we each find ways in our faith journey to be like Barnabas.