The Mark of Barnabas

In his recent book called UnChristian; What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, David Kinnaman presents the results of three-years of statistical research and extensive interviews on how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view the church today with hostility, resentment and disdain. 

 

According to the study here are the percentages of young people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:


* anti-homosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%


 

From the beginning, the risen Jesus had charged those he had drawn around him to share the good news of his resurrection with the world.  The meaning of the resurrection was discerned, demonstrated, learned and lived only in the newly forged resurrection communities of light and life. And, as in our own day, the early church worked out its resurrection faith through various communal practices. Peter’s Pentecost sermon says “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers“.  Along with what we’d consider rather traditional ways to be a church, they also engaged in one rather radical practice that has fallen out of popularity. It was such a noteworthy practice that Luke sites it twice: first in  Acts 2:44: “All whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common;”  and Acts 4:32: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” 

 

What accounted for this practice? Some suggest that the impetus for such selfless behavior could only be the impulsive belief in the imminent establishment of God’s kingdom on earth with Jesus as it’s head, for which, some two thousand years later, some  are still waiting. Others argue that it was their heart felt concern, genuine charity, to meet the practical needs of those who by joining this new resurrection fellowship would be disowned, ostracized, from friends, family and their worshipping and economic communities.  Others argue just as convincingly  that what lay behind it was a pronounced egalitarism where according to John Chrysostom “the poor man knew no shame, the rich no haughtiness.”  Did this find its pattern of service and patient love in ‘Jesus the Friend of the poor’, whose fellowship created a place of refuge for the oppressed, the destitute, the weak and offered a foretaste of the future kingdom in which “God shall wipe all tears from their eyes”?   Whatever the reason for the earliest gathering of Christ’s followers in Jerusalem to embrace this uncommon practice, and no matter how much we might admire their radical communitarianism, we may also find ourselves pitying, even decrying, their shortsighted, impractical economic vision. Was it this practice rather than the sacking of Jerusalem some sixty years later that resulted in the impoverishment of the meeting in Jerusalem and accounts for the need of those gathered in places like Antioch to bail them out?

 

In our temptation to pity the early church for what we might considered an ill advised and short sighted approach to economics the threat to us is that we might dismiss it all together.  To do so is to run the risk of dismissing their vibrant resurrection faith that ignited their extraordinary uncommon common life.  Luke reports that in this power- and grace-filled resurrection community “there was not a needy person among them”.  In addition in Acts2:47 the text says thatthey spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” And in the text of Acts 4:33 can as well mean that the company of believers in the resurrection “were held in high esteem”.

In his recent book called UnChristian; What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, David Kinnaman presents the results of three-years of statistical research and extensive interviews on how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view the church today with hostility, resentment and disdain. 

 

According to the study here are the percentages of young people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:


* anti-homosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%


 

It would be hard to overestimate “how firmly people reject — and feel rejected by — Christians” Kinnaman says. He suggests we could think about it this way: “When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: anti-homosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you”

 

Gabe Lyons who commissioned Kinnaman’s research spoke of his first look at the data. “I’ll never forget sitting in Starbucks, poring through the research results on my laptop. As I soaked it in, I glanced at the people around me and was overwhelmed with the thought that this is what they think of me. It was a sobering thought to know that if I had stood up and announced myself as a ‘Christian’ to the customers assembled in Starbucks that day, they would have associated me with every one of the negative perceptions described in this book”. The earliest community of those who followed Jesus “enjoyed the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47). Why the contrast between then and now? 

 

After a period of confusion, doubt and disbelief, and despite threats from the religious and government authorities, Jesus’ followers became convinced that “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 2:32, 4:20). To the shock of most everyone, these unschooled and ordinary followers of Jesus proclaimed their message with courage and boldness. 32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them,…” 

 

Luke’s depiction of this earliest gathering of the followers of the risen Christ identifies a signature characteristic of their movement — in a word, generosity. Their social generosity expressed itself in community, and their financial generosity expressed itself in compassion.  Following the example of Jesus, the first Christians broke down social barriers and disregarded religious taboos that distinguished between the ritually clean and the unclean, the worthy and the unworthy, the respectable and the unrespectable. They were “one in heart and mind,” writes Luke. They subverted normal social hierarchies of wealth, ethnicity, religion, and gender in favor of a radical egalitarianism before God and with each other: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” wrote Paul (Galatians 3:28).

 

About a century after Luke wrote, the early Christians had a well-known and well-deserved reputation for social generosity that built bridges of community rather than walls of separation. Tertullian (AD 155–220),  wrote, “Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy. . . See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.”

 

In addition, financial generosity expressed itself in compassion toward the needy. Indeed, a few pages later in his account Luke in Acts 11:29 describes Christians supporting famine relief efforts. Some people dismiss Luke’s description of wealth divestment as a utopian dream, but that’s not true. There are many believers who live this dream, as Garry Wills observes in his book What Jesus Meant : “Eastern monks, the first Franciscans, the Shakers, Catholic Workers, worker priests, base communities [in Latin America], and Christian communities like Jonah House.”

 

The Catholic Worker Movement, for example, was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933. It espouses a strong belief in the God-given dignity of every human being. Today over 185 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.

 

Three centuries later the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, who vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, acknowledged: “The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours also. Those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

 

A generation or two after the events described by Luke, the theologian Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) summarized the appeal of Christian community: “Those who once delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone. . . we who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.”

 

Luke concludes his general description of their social and financial generosity with a specific example: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36–37). Luke describes Barnabas as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24), and even as an “apostle” (Acts 14:14).  Barnabas exemplified all the goodness and generosity of those first believers. When the newly converted Paul tried to associate with dubious Christians in Jerusalem “who did not believe that he was really a disciple,” it was Barnabas who vouched for him (Acts 9:27). When news reached Jerusalem that even Gentiles were converting in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to them as their emissary. He “encouraged them,” and brought Paul from Tarsus to them for an entire year (Acts 11:22–26). Barnabas trekked some 1,400 miles with Paul to establish churches deep into Asia Minor (Acts 13–14). It was the wisdom of Barnabas (and Paul) that prevailed at the first church council at Jerusalem regarding the place of Jewish customs in the lives of Gentile converts (Acts 15). And it was Barnabas who had a “sharp disagreement” with Paul because he included his failed cousin Mark in further ministry after Paul adamantly refused to do so “because Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work” (Acts 13:13, 15:36–39). Years later Paul admitted that Barnabas was right (Colossians 4:10).

 

Would it be that we today could somehow recapture the witness of those first to be gathered, who, because “great grace was with them all,” demonstrated overflowing generosity to their neighbors, and who consequently “enjoyed the favor of all the people.” Let that be what Tertullian called “our distinctive mark.”

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