After his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts: Ch. 9) Paul had a complete turnabout and became a passionate follower of Jesus. “He began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). But, not unnaturally, he was viewed with suspicion. “Is not this the man who ravaged those who call on the name?” (v.21).
Could this be another ploy of Paul to get a tighter grip on the followers of Jesus so as “to take them back in chains to the chief priests”? One can almost feel the people’s suspicion, see their wary faces, and sense their reluctance to trust this man who had wreaked such suffering in their communities. But, “Saul grew all the stronger” (v.2) and preached Jesus ceaselessly in Damascus.
Nevertheless, “after a long time had passed,” when Paul went to Jerusalem about two years later and tried to join the disciples there, “they were all afraid of him.” Like the people of Damascus, they simply could not believe he had changed so radically and they shunned him. This was terrible for Paul because he really needed to be accepted by Peter and the other apostles.
It was at this low point, when he was getting nowhere, that this wonderful man, Barnabas, came along. His real name was Joseph but, very significantly, he was called ‘Barnabas’ meaning the ‘son of encouragement.’ In Chapter 11 we are told that he was “a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.” Now, with a holy boldness he “took charge of Paul and brought him to the apostles.” He must have been an eloquent man because after he had spoken out on Paul’s behalf there was an immediate acceptance and Paul, we are told, “moved about freely with them in Jerusalem and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord” (v. 28). Barnabas had opened the door for him and Paul never looked back.
We all need people like Barnabas in our life, people who listen to us, affirm us and spur us on to be our best selves; people who look beyond our obvious and often distressing faults, our sometimes lamentable behaviour, and stimulate us to discover our real potential.
They are not put off by the mutterings of others, nor do they allow themselves be coloured by our pathetic past record. No, they listen to us deeply, with respect and without judgement, always looking for that little spark that will make the difference. Parents, teachers, colleagues - have they not been Barnabas to us?
Are you a Barnabas? Have the year begin with the determination to be an encourager of others, to uplift and not put down, to be on the alert to open a door for someone who is not making the grade. Be ready with a word of praise, a gesture of affirmation, a smile of encouragement. If you are to be a really effective Barnabas you too will want to be filled with the Spirit and full of faith. All you need from the Spirit will be given you - joy, wisdom, courage - to encourage others on their journey.
Drawing on the strength of this Spirit you will not be put off by difficult people, nor will you be crushed by the relentless negativity that so permeates our times. Like that first Barnabas, you may be the one to open the door for an unknown apostle today.
Sr Redempta Twomey is assistant editor of the Far East at St Columban’s, Navan, Ireland.