“The Personal Approach – the Gospel of Fellowship”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 27, 2021
Readings: Galatians 1:11-24; Acts 11: 19-30
In 2017 I was delighted to visit the National Art Gallery in Ottawa. As part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Canada, and Faith in Canada 150, some of us toured the gallery for the first, or in some cases like mine, the second time and we were taken by many of the paintings and displays. There was one that I particularly remember because it was outstanding. It was by Benjamin West, who in 1770 painted the famous “Death of General Wolfe” capturing a moment in Canadian history, even though he was an American.
I was fascinated by the life of Benjamin West. I ran across a story of how, even though he had no training, he became a painter, and it started in his home. As a boy, he thought he should paint a portrait of his sister. So, he got out his paints and a canvas, and made his sister sit for a portrait. He got paint everywhere and made a mess. It wasn’t a very good painting at all. There was almost no likeness of his sister whatsoever, but his mother came in and had a look at it and said, “Now then, can I keep this?”
He smiled and said, “Yes, yes, you can keep it.” Then she gave him a big kiss and took it from him.
She knew this was not a good painting. But he said, “With that kiss, I became a painter.” A moment of encouragement led him to a life of some of the greatest paintings that we have ever seen. A moment, even when things had not gone well, though the painting was flawed and imperfect, and even though he was perhaps a little embarrassed about it, a word of encouragement, a kiss, turned him into the great painter he became.
What a fabulous story and what a wonderful image. I think of the power and the importance of encouragement. How a word of encouragement in a difficult time can make a very big difference in a person’s life. I think that is a truism, not only of individual relations, but also for the church, and even for a nation, a country. I think for the church, a word of encouragement can enable people to do things exceptionally and maintain their faith and make a positive contribution for the Gospel. A word of encouragement to a nation, encouraging it to do the right things can make an enormous difference.
To show this, I want to look at two characters that we have heard about in our text this morning. Both stressed the importance of encouragement and making sure that people practiced the hospitality and the kindness that reflected the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The first of these is Barnabas. Now, Barnabas is encountered for the first time in this passage from Acts, Chapter Eleven. We know of his background, that he was a Levite, a Jewish leader and thinker but his name, Barnabas, literally means Son of Encouragement. His very name epitomises the type of person that he was. We are introduced to Barnabas as somebody who was, in fact, practicing that very encouragement. He was sent to the church in Antioch in a time of great difficulty. You see, word got out that the great Christian, Stephen, had been stoned to death and that Christians who had fled, believers who had gone to Cyprus and Cyrene, and even Antioch were being persecuted.
The Jerusalem church, concerned for the welfare of these new Christians who had become Christians through great preaching and had experienced considerable growth in the faith, the church in Jerusalem decided to send Barnabas to them. Essentially, he was to do two things: Proclaim the Word of God and reinforce the preaching that they had already heard, while giving them a word of encouragement.
He also – and this is remarkable – took along the person of Saul, who we know as Paul. He took Saul, who had persecuted Christians at the beginning, as we find out in our text from Galatians. He took him with him for a year to share the good news, to care for the people who are in need, to provide financial support and to reinforce the positive message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people who were hurting and questioning their faith.
Paul and Barnabas going to Antioch was a watershed moment in church history, where one congregation in Jerusalem decided to support other congregations elsewhere. It took a leadership position, but it also took a compassionate and caring one in the midst of uncertainty, confusion and fear. Barnabas and Saul brought the comfort of the Lord and concrete physical support to people in need.
The more I think about this, the more I realise that we are very much in a Barnabas moment as a nation. I think we’re a little bit like the church in Antioch, like the places that experienced difficult times, were frightened, uncertain about themselves, and feeling ill at ease. As a nation, we’re certainly full of angst and turmoil at the moment. We’ve gone through and are still going through this horrendous pandemic. I was reflecting to my colleagues today saying, “This is the fifty-fifth sermon I’ve given during COVID-19. Can you imagine, it’s been that long?”
We’re wounded by this and as we looked at so many times, more revelations this week of children who have died as a result of the residential schools, and we are ashamed, and we’re hurt and we’re questioning ourselves. We still have – and we forget this sometimes – the two Michaels in China, who have not yet come home safely, and we should be praying for them. We have uncertainties about where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do and how we’re going to open up, and how we’re going to treat one another. Yet, at the same time, great things have been done in our nation during all of this. People have had the courage to get vaccinated for the greater good, as well as their own welfare, and people need to be commended for having taken a brave and a bold move. We’ve had a country that’s supplied us with vaccines. We have been able to show compassion when there have been moments of danger and distress. After the death of the Muslim family in London, there was an all-faith march in support of them. People poured out their hearts, knowing this was wrong.
There have been positive things and kindnesses done, and courage is shown in our medical profession, with people putting their lives on the line. People working in various settings, even though they know they could contract COVID-19. Everything from funeral homes to businesses that have needed to stay open to provide essential services. Across the board people have taken risks for one another. And we mustn’t forget that. In the midst of all the crises that we have, there is a great deal good about our country as well as the shame. There is much that is good, and the fact that we have the freedom to disagree, to write, and to share our views publicly, something we need to preserve, by the way. That freedom is a gift, and Canada is still a country that cherishes freedom, even with all its warts and problems.
But we need that Barnabas moment to encourage precisely those things that make our nation good. To emphasise how, citizens living in a society that is civil, can give encouragement, build up and nurture one another. The importance of this was revealed to me in an essay that I was sent from the Harvard Gazette, written on June 17th, with an interview with the Harvard Kennedy Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, by Arthur Brooks.
Now, Arthur Brooks, I know, is controversial on some financial issues, but by gosh, he has got some wise things to say. In this interview, he really stresses the need to look at love and encouragement and to think of these as virtues. He suggests that a social scientist – and he is a social scientist – people are observing academically the polarisation of culture, not only in the United States, where it has been particularly bad the last few years, but in other countries as well. It’s sort of swept over, even in our own nation of Canada. When there is this polarisation, people have this sense of being ill at ease. He has suggested that as a society, we have moved from people expressing themselves through religious activities, and in a secular world, have changed it into a moral propaganda, or a moral political way of dealing with things.
When that happens, he says, there is the danger of what he calls an outraged culture. He even uses a technical term, and that is the “Outrage-Industrial Complex” where people respond to the problems of society with a sense of outrage. There’s a difference, he suggests, between outrage and a prophetic recognition that there have been injustices done. Outrage is an emotion that creates a polarity and is based and predicated on fear; fear of the other, fear of missing out, fear of someone else taking what you have, fear of the unknown, and that has resulted in people having a sense of contempt for people other than themselves, and always referring to things that have happened to them negatively, as if they're the only people that matter.
He said, “This contempt leads to a form of outrage and it builds with social media, so that people get angrier and angrier and angrier with things around them.” He goes on to say, “It’s very easy, at times, to break things down when we know that they're bad, but it’s a whole other matter to build them up and to do something positive.”
This really resonated with me. Not long ago, I was watching a building being taken down outside my home, and a new one being built. I calculated that it took somewhere in the region of three weeks to tear it down, and it will take three years to put up a new one in its place. It reminded me of a poem I read, and I’ve no idea where it came from, but it really hit me about how easy it is to tear down, how hard it is to build up.
I saw them tearing a building down, a gang of men in a dusty town. With a yo-heave-ho and a lusty yell, they swung a beam and the side wall fell. I asked the foreman if these men were as skilled as the men he had hired if he were to build. He laughed and said, “Oh no, indeed, common labour is all I need. For those men can wreck in a day or two what builders have taken years to do.” I asked myself as I went my way, “Which kind of role am I to play? Am I a builder who builds with care, measuring life by the rule and the square, or am I the wrecker, who walks the town, content with the role of tearing down?”
Arthur Brooks is suggesting that we can recognise ills in society. We’re should not be ostriches burying our heads in the sand or Pollyannas who think everything is all right when it isn't. No, we are to be encouragers. He says that the opposite to that polarity is love, and the antidote to outrage is love. Love of enemy, love of the other. Love that has a discourse and builds up, wants to understand what a problem is and then create a different world because of it. A love that makes life better and changes things in a constructive matter.
That’s what Barnabas did. When he went to Antioch with all their fears and problems, and the divisions that were occurring as a result of that, he brought the good news of Jesus Christ. But he brought the concrete practical things that nurtured the congregation and built them up. He even brought Paul with him to do that. It took courage. We’re told that he was there a year. It was amazing.
The second character is Paul, and Paul in this great passage in Galatians, as the New Testament, James Dunn suggests, is one of the great passages where Paul says, “Look, I didn’t get the Gospel from listening to just anybody. I got it directly from Jesus Christ, and this gospel that I received, I now want to share. I formerly persecuted Christians, but now I am proclaiming that Christ among the Christian community.” He took years after his conversion – and we forget this – to restore and renew himself by the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon him.
He went to Arabia, he went to Damascus, the very place where he had that conversion experience. He went to Jerusalem and spent fifteen days with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. He went to his home in Tarsus, he went back to where he’d come from, known there to have been a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader. Then he went back to proclaim Jesus Christ. But it took years to do that, not days. He knew that he had to be built up and restored, and during that time, receive the encouragement of the Christian community that nurtured him. Someone who’d formerly persecuted them, someone who’d formerly been an enemy, was loved into the community and ended up proclaiming both the good news of Jesus and helping people in Antioch who were in need.
No wonder he wrote in another passage to the Philippians these incredible words, which I have always loved, that precedes the great prayer about him and Jesus:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Isn't that a motto for our day and age? Isn't that something we should hear spoken from all the pulpits and political statements and media in the world? Don’t just think about yourself, think of others, and act in humility. If there’s any encouragement, do it, build each other up. Build each other up.
As a nation we now need to build each other up. Deal with the tough issues that we have to deal with, but not from a spirit of outrage, but a spirit of love and compassion for the other. This is the Barnabas way. This is the Paul way.
To reinforce how important this is: I read a story about a young boy who was learning the piano. His mother was frustrated because he really wasn’t doing his work. He would get angry and walk away from the piano. He didn’t do the work needed to really learn how to play it properly. So, she decided one day, when she heard that Jan Paderewski was coming to town, to take him to the concert of this great performer and pianist. She put her son in the front row and unbeknownst to her, when she wasn’t looking, and before the great Paderewski played, he got up on the stage and started to play the Steinway himself.
Now, he could only play Chopsticks, but he played this with great gusto, and everyone was aghast. “Get that little boy down, don’t encourage him. Where are his parents? Why is he allowed to play the piano? We’re here for the great Paderewski.” People were outraged. Paderewski heard about this, came onto the stage, sat down on the bench next to him, and encouraged him to play Chopsticks while he played a melody alongside him. At the end of it all, he said to him, “Never give up.”|
That is the spirit of what is needed in our land today. It is one that comes alongside. It is one that heals and restores, it is one for caring for those who have been wounded. It’s one that acts out of love, that seeks to build up and renew. It’s the Barnabas way, it’s the Paul way, it is the Christian way. Amen.