July 23, 2017 “Partings and Partners” – Acts 15:36 – 16:5, w/Bryan Kane as Paul
Acts 15:36 – 16:5
“Partings and Partners”
July 23, 2017 – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Barnabas [alone on stage]: I loved that little guy, but he broke my heart. We’ve been through so much together. I remember how it all began in Jerusalem. Here was poor Saul, caught between the Jewish leaders who hated him for converting to Jesus and the Christian leaders who wouldn’t trust him. He joined in the stoning of Stephen, but Saul would have ended up a martyr himself if the church refused to take him in. He had a narrow scrape in Damascus. I had my doubts, but if ever I saw the mark of the Lord on a fellow, it was upon that intense young man. So I became his sponsor in the Jerusalem church, explaining how Saul had seen the Lord, vouching for the reality of his faith in Christ.
When the Gospel broke out among Greeks in Antioch, I was overwhelmed with instructing so many new believers. I’m a friend, a helper; not much of a teacher. But I knew someone who could do the job. I went off to Tarsus and brought back Saul to work with me there. The way he wove the good news of the Lord into beautiful words was fantastic. I would befriend some Greeks and show them God’s love. Paul would teach them all about Jesus and faith and forgiveness and the hope of the Resurrection. What a team we made!
It wasn’t surprising, then, that the Holy Spirit took our team and sent us on the road. I remember kneeling beside Paul with my head bowed as our brothers and sisters in Antioch laid hands on us and prayed for the Holy Spirit to commit us to the Lord’s work.
My young cousin John Mark went with us. We had brought him first to Antioch from Jerusalem. There we discovered that, though barely more than a boy, Mark carried a wealth of holy knowledge. Peter had stayed in his home and taught him all about what Jesus said and did. So now we took Mark along to assist us. On the way we asked him to tell us all he could our Lord’s life on earth.
As we set out, I played my usual role, an older sponsor looking out for two younger men. Our first stop was in Cyprus, where I’m from. Of course I expected to take the lead in my home country. Yet when Elymas the evil sorcerer tried to turn the proconsul from our message, it was Paul who stepped forward. He struck the magician blind! He named him for the evil creature he was and punished him with darkness. I myself was struck silent. That was just the first of many wonders I saw with Paul. God worked miracles through him! Over and over I saw salvation come to those who heard his powerful words. From that point on the team of “Barnabas and Saul” became “Paul and Barnabas.”
I didn’t mind. I’ve always preferred a support role to first place. God was at work in my friend and I was glad to surrender leadership. My name is Joseph, but the apostles called me Barnabas, “Son of Encouragement.” So that is what I wished to be to, especially to Paul, an encouragement, a helper.
We got along well. Only one bit of tension troubled us early on. We left Cyprus and sailed north to Perga on the mainland of Pamphyllia. There John Mark deserted us. I’m still not sure what excuse he offered, whether he was homesick for family and good Jewish food, or if he was frightened by the opposition we had seen, or just weary of traveling. But as we traveled on into Asia Minor, Mark went home to Jerusalem. Paul was upset, but soon forgot the matter as he set his sights ahead.
Mark soon slipped from my mind as well. Paul led us forward. In each town we preached first in the synagogue, trying to reach our Jewish brothers and sisters. When the Jews rejected our message, Paul was undaunted. He turned to the Gentiles. He understood how they thought. He knew the words to use so they would grasp and believe the Word of God. He never compromised the truth, but Paul captured the pagan imagination with the love of Jesus.
My fondest memory of that journey was the horrifying afternoon after a miracle in Lystra. Paul called down healing from God and raised up on his feet a man who had not walked since birth. With almost no Jews in that city, the Gentiles mistook us for their own gods! Since I’m a big man, they took me for Zeus, the ruler god. Talkative, eloquent Paul they decided must be Hermes, the winged-foot messenger of the gods. It was stupefying to see the old priest of Zeus about to sacrifice a bull in our honor. Yet Paul did not flounder. He rushed right out into the crowd and fearlessly denied our godhood. He got himself stoned and left for dead for all his trouble. But he took it all in his short but steady stride.
No, I was more than glad to be that man’s partner. There’s no brighter, better mind and heart at work for Jesus Christ on earth. I followed him all through that country. And I was ready to do it again. But here is how the conversation went one afternoon in Antioch:
Paul [joins Barnabas on stage]: Barnabas my dear brother, the Holy Spirit has made me restless. Let us set out again. Let us go back and visit our sisters and brothers in all those towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing. Perhaps he may send us even a little farther.
Barnabas: I am right with you, friend. Give me time to make ready.
Paul: Thank you, Barnabas. We have been partners in so much. It makes my heart glad that we will go out upon the Lord’s errand again together.
Barnabas: Mine as well, brother. I never felt so alive as when walking beside you or listening to you stir hearts with the message of God’s grace in Christ. Why, hearing you, I am almost inclined myself to look for wings on your feet. You may not be the messenger god, but the true God has chosen you as His messenger.
Paul: Say no more, Joseph Barnabas. As I cried out there in Lystra, I am only a man. Whatever persuasion of the Gospel I offer to those in darkness is only a gift from God. My mind and heart belong to Christ my Lord, who met me on the road and turned me back from an evil way. Please do not flatter me, even in jest, for I fear old arrogance and pride might spring up in me afresh.
Barnabas: I do not flatter you, Saul. The Lord is with you. He chose you to be His apostle to the Gentiles. You are His messenger and I am glad to walk beside you.
Paul: Enough of that, then. So you will go with me? Let us go forward expecting great things from God. As the first apostles say our Lord taught, the fields are white for harvesting. Let us go carry into God’s kingdom storehouse those whom Jesus Christ will save.
Barnabas: A bold vision, Paul. With all my heart I am glad to be a part of it with you. Yet I have one more thought about our journey.
Paul: What is it, brother? Has the Lord sent you also a vision of our mission? Do you have a word from Him about where we shall go beyond our last journey?
Barnabas: Not that. I must leave the visions to you. I have only a burden on my heart for my kinsman. Would you allow me to send for John Mark? I am sure he will be pleased to join us once again.
Paul: Mark? Dear Barnabas, why on God’s great earth should you wish to take that unreliable boy on another journey? This is a poor thought, my friend. I cannot believe it is what God desires.
Barnabas: Why not? Mark knows so well our Lord’s life. Even you, my brilliant partner, cannot tell such stories of Jesus as Mark gathered from old Peter. And this is an excellent opportunity to give him another chance. And he is my cousin.
Paul: So that’s it. You are being swayed again by human passion, Barnabas. As you gave into Peter’s brief doubts about the Gentiles last year, so you now give into feelings of kinship. The Gospel work comes first. Mark failed us. The mission God gave us suffered because of him.
Barnabas: He was young, Paul. Younger than either of us. He got frightened or weary, I know not which. But there is something in him, some gift of the Spirit. I would not like to leave him behind. He is older now, hardier, wiser. Let us suffer him to try again.
Paul: I cannot trust him. Perhaps John has grown, but how can we count upon that? The Lord has given me no word about him. I will not approve this. I will not have responsibility and worry for a cowardly young man upon my shoulders.
Barnabas: I will take responsibility for him, friend. Leave him to me. I am sure I can coax the strength and joy of the Lord from his soul.
Paul: And where will you be, when I need you, then? For, in all humility, God has given me this work, this service of preaching the words of life to those who are perishing. It is a great task, one that tires and sometimes overwhelms me. I need your help and support at my side. Will you be able to give me that while concerned with the temerity and fears of the boy? God’s work is everything to me, Barnabas. I will not risk it for anything, for anyone.
Barnabas: But Mark must go. I cannot leave him behind. He is worthy. You must believe me!
Paul: No! I cannot do it. The Gospel comes before all else. The boy shall not sail on the same ship with me again.
Barnabas: Has it come to this, old friend? I would never have dreamed. How can there be such sharp division between us? We are both men of the Lord. We both know the peace and grace of His love. How can this be?
Paul: In so many ways, we are yet one in heart, brother. We have labored long together, and even more, we are at one in the love of Jesus Christ. Yet I believe the Lord is teaching us a kind of unity in which we may not always agree. The church, you and I, are like the members of a body, Christ’s Body! And so as ear and eye, nose and hand are not all alike, nor do they serve the body in the same way, so there will be differences among us. We will have different tasks, must go different ways.
Barnabas: Do you mean this, Paul? After all we have suffered together, you would part from me now? You break my heart!
Paul: I break my own heart, dear Barnabas. I fear this is where we must bid each other farewell for a time. Yet always we remain at one in Christ our Lord. His body was broken on the Cross so that His Body in the church might be whole. We are still brothers. If you are willing, we are still friends. But I must do as the Lord calls me, and I cannot do so burdened by your young cousin. It saddens me to the bone, but it must be.
Barnabas: So then it must. For, as always, I respect the Holy Spirit speaking in you. I cannot understand it, but God in His providence will bring good of it.
Paul: You are right, and I must think more on that subject of divine providence. For now, goodbye my partner, friend and brother. In His time, may His love reunite us, both in presence and in heart. The Lord be with you.
Barnabas: And also with you, dear Paul. You have angered me, yet I love you still. Embrace me once more and I will be on my way. I will take John Mark and go to Cyprus again. You must find another co-worker and go where the Lord would have you. I believe with all my heart we shall meet again, laugh and tell each other of great adventures in God’s work. I long for that day. The Lord watch between us until then. Goodbye.
Paul [turning and speaking by himself as Barnabas leaves the stage]: Thus we parted—the first missionary team which Jesus Christ sent out upon this wide world. Barnabas and Mark did soon take ship for Cyprus. In time I heard good word of their work among the churches there.
For myself, I found another partner, a strong, good man named Silas. The church gathered round us as they had around me with Barnabas and commended us to the grace of God.
Grace. It is the great theme my heart sings day and night. The precious, merciful grace of Jesus Christ who gave Himself up for us while we were still sinners. And I am the worst of them, a persecutor of the church, an enemy of the Lord. Yet Jesus poured out His grace on me, forgave me all of it, and set me upon this new path. Oh how I must believe and preach with all my being that marvelous Grace.
So I worry, sometimes deep in the night, that I failed in grace that day there in Antioch when Barnabas and I exchanged heated words. Perhaps I myself offered too little grace to my friend—and too little to young John Mark. Only the Lord knows what might have come to us had I relented and sailed out with the two of them.
Yet I believe what I told my friend. I’ve said and written it several times now: All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. In His power and wisdom, God arranges even the failures of our lives, even our conflicts with each other, into a great, good demonstration of His grace. As I’ve also said, when we are weak, then we are strong, because He is strong.
Much good came from my travels with Silas. In short order he and I found another young assistant, there where they tried to deify Barnabas and me, in Lystra of all places. We stayed in the home of a believing Jewish woman who was married to a Greek man. Their son Timothy was well-thought of in the church there. In order not to unnecessarily offend the Jews we would continue to meet, I took a step I had deemed unnecessary for Gentiles. I asked him to be circumcised. He humbly consented and became our new assistant. He grew into a pastor and teacher himself and now he leads all the church upon Crete.
More good arose from my new partnership. Silas and I were beaten and jailed together in the first Greek city to which we came, Philippi. There never was a more stalwart companion in affliction. His strong voice led us in wonderful hymns to God right there in the prison. When we were released, the officials sought to hush up the beating administered without trial, and to send us away. But because Silas was a Roman citizen like I, we could appeal to the law and gain the personal attention of the magistrates. It was yet another opportunity to preach Christ. The change of partners, in the end, was a good thing.
And good came of it all for John Mark. Though I could not abide him then, I have since grown very fond of John. He visited me in prison and spent even more time with Peter here in Rome. I understand he has begun to write down a faithful account of what he learned from the apostle Peter of the life and teaching of Jesus. If he had come with us from Antioch back then, Mark would not have flourished so. My zeal and intensity would have overwhelmed him and left him utterly discouraged. Yet with the gentle love and encouragement of Barnabas, the boy has become a fine man of God, a credit to the church and a blessing to me. In fact, I am about to write Timothy and ask him if he cannot send John Mark back to me for another visit.
Let us never fear, then, that our gracious Lord is absent when disagreement and conflict arise in the Body of Christ. It is the Spirit Himself who makes us different, gives us different gifts, and even guides us in different directions. In our anger, jealousy and insecurity, we are weak, but God in Christ Jesus is ever strong. Our conflicts do harm, they are often wrong, but our Lord overcomes it all by the grace and love of His Son.
As I await my fate here in a Roman prison house, I am always confident of this, that He who begins a good work in us will carry it on to completion, until that great day comes of which my friend Barnabas spoke. In the day of Jesus Christ, we shall know each other as the Lord knows us. All our differences will unite in grand harmony and we will cherish each other for our unique gifts. And we will be one, with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
May our Lord make it soon to be.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj