Say the word “apostles,” and most people will respond, “the twelve.” By which, they mean the twelve-become-eleven-and-then-twelve-again: Simon Peter, Andrew, James (son of Zebedee) John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (Son of Alphaeus), Jude (Thaddeus), Simon the Zealot, Judas and Matthias, who replaced Judas. How, then, can the Church celebrate the feast of St. Barnabas the Apostle every June 11?
From the day of his conversion Barnabas was faithful. He was generous and open to all who came seeking Christ.
There are more than twelve apostles. The list includes Paul, Luke, John Mark, Lazarus and, today’s saint, Barnabas, who, like Paul, his traveling and preaching companion, was probably converted after Christ’ death, resurrection and ascension. We first hear of Barnabas in Acts 4:36-37:
“There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field of that belonged to him, then bought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
The story of Barnabas is told just before the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who kept back part of the proceeds from land they, like Barnabas, had sold and then, unlike Barnabas, lied to Peter about it. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be thought of as faithful without doing the work of faithfulness. It’s instructive that Luke links their stories.
From the day of his conversion Barnabas was faithful. He was generous and open to all who came seeking Christ. When the elders of the Jerusalem Church doubted Paul’s conversion, Barnabas vouched for him. Born, like Paul, a Jew, Barnabas welcomed gentile converts and did not insist that their conversion be two-fold, first to Judaism and only then to Christianity. With Paul, he spent a year in Antioch preaching Christ crucified to the gentiles. From Antioch, Barnabas and Paul went to Cyprus and Asia Minor. They had only one message: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again and appeared to the ones who have been sent out to tell this good news to all the world.
We don’t know how Barnabas died. Paul writes of him in first letter to the church at Corinth, where he makes clear that both he and Barnabas have to work for a living. So we know he was preaching and teaching as late as 56 or 57 A.D. Some sources say he was the first Bishop of Milan, others that he was martyred in Cyprus. We just don’t know.
But we know how he lived. In Acts 11:24, St. Luke called him “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Luke writes as a result of Barnabas’ preaching in Antioch, “a great many people were brought to the Lord.”
Sometimes the stories of martyrdoms are so dramatic and so compelling that we focus on the death of the saint rather than the life. Barnabas calls us to consider the way we live, rather than worrying about how or when we will die.
– Melissa Musick