A Good Man

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on June 11, St. Barnabbas Day, 2019, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.

Many years ago, I was called on to preach at an ordination on the 11th day of June – St Barnabas Day – and we read the same lesson from the book of Acts that we read this morning and I remember making a point in that sermon about the fact that Barnabas is described as “a good man.” That phrase, “a good man,” is used of no other individual in the whole Bible, not even Jesus.

What does it mean to call someone a good man or a good woman or a good person? Is it really that rare? I think we use the phrase ourselves more often than the Bible, don’t we? Don’t we say: “he’s a good man” or “she’s a good woman” fairly often? I hope we do because it would be hard to live somewhere where we never had occasion to say it.

I would imagine we depend on a certain general level of goodness just to get through the day. When tragedy strikes we’re often amazed at the way people rally around and go way out of their way to be helpful, to pitch in, to share, to go beyond what we might have expected because whatever the evangelicals may say about how we’re all sinners and need to repent – and I don’t disagree – I think it’s more important to recognize that there’s a fundamental goodness in human beings because, after all, we were made in the image of God and, yes, Eve offered an apple or banana or whatever it was and Adam ate it but she still probably cooked his meals and he probably still brought in the harvest and they still probably took time to play with the children and after the one boy killed the other and went off into exile they picked themselves up and started again.

There was a fundamental goodness in Adam and Eve because they were made in the image of God. We all are. It’s the exception who is known best as a liar or a bully. All of us of a certain age remember the lawyer, Joseph Welch, saying to Joseph McCarthy: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency? Have you at last no decency.” Just decency. We have to expect some basic level of goodness and decency in our fellow human beings just to get through the day and have to be saddened when we realize it’s not there, that someone in the public eye or someone in our own acquaintance has failed, has been corrupted, has yielded to temptation and no longer seems to have that basic goodness we depend on to get through the day.

Barnabas was a good man. Well, there lots of good people in the Bible but only Barnabbas gets the adjective, So he was special. I think the Bible is telling us he stood out – was “gooder” than most. But as we read on in the story what we hear is pretty basic stuff. You need to be able to count on people just for ordinary things like contributing financially. Barnabbas might be the patron saint of the every member canvass. Early on, in chapter 4 of Acts, we hear that he sold some property he had and gave the proceeds to the apostles. That qualifies as a good man; we need more of them.

But then Barnabbas also brought in a new member and we surely need people like that. It was Barnabbas who brought Paul to church with him. Paul had been converted on the Damascus Road but when he showed up in Jerusalem nobody trusted him. I mean, why would you? This man had been trying to destroy the church and now he wants us to take him in? I don’t think so. But Barnabbas took the chance and brought him along – and we all know what a difference Paul made.

But not right away. The church in Jerusalem was still suspicious and Paul finally went home to Tarsus apparently feeling unwanted. But Barnabbas remembered him. Time went by and the church in Jerusalem heard that the church was growing in Antioch and they sent Barnabbas to help out but when Barnabbas got there and saw what was happening he saw there was work enough for two and he remembered Paul and went to Tarsus to find him and get him to help. And that’s how it all began.

Still later things were going badly in Jerusalem. There was a famine and people were starving so the new church in Antioch sent Barnabbas and Paul with some badly needed funds. And still later when they decided they should share the word with still other cities they chose Paul and Barnabbas to go off on the first formal missionary road trip and one place they went – I think this is really interesting about Barnabbas – they came to a place called Lystra and the people were so impressed with Paul and Barnabbas they decided Paul and Barnabbas were gods and they called Paul “Mercury” because he was the chief speaker and Barnabbas they called “Jupiter” – the chief god in the Greek mythology. That’s the impression Barnabbas made even without speaking: people said, he must be god.

So Barnabbas was a good man: he did it by chipping in and pitching in and recognizing the gifts of others and trusting when others were doubtful. Without Barnabbas we might not have had Paul and without Paul what would have happened to the Christian church? But it’s all summed up in one word: “he was a good man.” We need more of them.

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