A sermon preached at the First Evensong of the Feast of St Barnabas 10.6.18
(Please excuse typos!)
The Acts of the Apostles has a wealth of biographical detail about Barnabas in in which we learn that Barnabas is known as the ‘Son of Encouragement’ (Acts 4.36).
Encouragement is a word that is uplifting, empowering and liberating.
The word ‘encourage’ relates to the heart: le coeur in French, cor in Latin. The one who encourages gives heart to another.
Likewise, to be discouraged feels like one’s heart has ‘gone out’ from oneself.
Barnabas was a Son of Encouragement, a disciple who encouraged and gave encouragement: he took encouragement in what is expressed in the first letter of John, ‘we love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4.19). He knew the loving heart of God.
John, the Beloved Disciple, famously reclined on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper: his ear pressed to Jesus’ chest meant he would have heard Jesus’ heartbeat more clearly.
The Christian disciple is one who hears the beating heart of Jesus and synchronises that heartbeat to their own life.
The heart is a peculiarly significant organ. It is a tremendously powerful muscle - pumping oxygenated, lifeblood around the body – but is also invested with meaning beyond the physiological.
The heart is associated with romantic love: hearts can flutter.
The heart is associated with despair and pain: hearts can be broken.
The heart is associated with bravery and strength: valiant hearts.
The heart is associated with fear and trembling: faint hearts.
The heart is associated with the intensification of a feeling: John Wesley spoke of his heart being ‘strangely warmed’ as his Christian faith intensified.
The heart is associated with faith: two disciples on the road to Emmaus spoke of their hearts ‘burning within us’ as Christ spoke to us on the road.
In the Prologue to St John’s Gospel Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is described as being ‘close to the Father’s heart’ and makes God known to us.
It is in that context that we read the words of the prophet Ezekiel who speaks of hearts of stone being removed from our bodies to be replaced with hearts of flesh: the first reference in literature to heart transplants (Ezekiel 11.19; 36.26).
In Jesus Christ we see the loving of God, the heart of flesh, animated by the Holy Spirit.
‘Take heart, it is I’. This is a great call of encouragement to faint hearted disciples, first uttered on the Sea of Galilee when they disciples thought they had seen a ghost but it was Jesus.
Healing a paralysed man and a woman Jesus says to him, ‘Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven you’ and to her, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ (Matthew 9.2; 9.22)
And St Mark records the giving of sight to blind Bartimaeus; the disciples are beginning to get this ministry of giving heart, of encouragement because as Jesus turns to Bartimaeus the disciples say ‘take heart; get up, he is calling you.’
For Christian the ministry of encouragement, that Barnabas reflected so well emanates from the very heart of Jesus Christ. As Christ says of himself, ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11.9)
Reflecting on that loving, healing heart of Jesus draws us into the life of God.
Last Friday the Roman Catholic calendar celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It focuses on this loving heart.
It is another way to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation.
The heart of Jesus is at one and the same time the exemplar of human compassion and love, and yet is the mystery of the divine love ultimately revealed in his life-giving death on the cross, when his heart beat to the very last, with his life and love.
The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is little observed in the Church of England. This is in part because the devotion is seen as a continental type thing, not terribly English (although the Sacred Heart is represented in a roof boss at St George’s chapel Windsor) or because the representations of the Sacred Heart in painting and statuary tend towards the lurid and kitsch that make Anglicans queasy.
But that would be to ignore the Divine Compassion of aching love of the heart of Jesus which feeds our compassion for his people.
As St Paul says, in the second letter to the Corinthians, ‘Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart’ (2 Corinthians 4.1).
Barnabas’ ministry of encouragement draws from the loving heart and mercy of God. No doubt Barnabas could say with the psalmist, ‘My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever’ (Psalm 73.26).
That is true encouragement; giving heart. We aspire as a Cathedral to be a ‘warm-hearted Christian community’. Here is the test: in our worship, pastoral care, ordinary encounters and all that we think and speak do, do we encourage or discourage: it’s that black and white; it is a zero sum game.
And that does not just apply here in this building: for this new week let us take heart and recommit ourselves to the example of Barnabas; let’s be sons and daughters of encouragement!