Long before Jesus was born, or the apostles, or any of the people we meet in Acts, there was a Greek poet named Pindar. He was actually born not long after the end of the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon. Pindar wrote a group of poems to the athletes of the Panhellenic games—a series of competitions in different parts of Greece that led up to the Olympics. One of those competitions was held in Isthmia and was organized by the city of Corinth, which we know from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. In his work called “The Isthmian Odes,” Pindar wrote this: “Unsung, the noblest deed will die.” It’s believed to be the source of the term “unsung hero.”
We’ve been thinking a lot about unsung heroes this past year—especially people we’ve just begun to recognize as heroes. The book of Acts includes lots of heroes like that—people whose lives helped shape the Christian community but whose deeds have largely been unsung. The full title of book, “The Acts of the Apostles,” almost encourages us to ignore those stories.
The book itself actually says very little about the apostles, as we learned last week. We hear about Peter and John. We hear about Paul who claimed apostleship for himself. But, we hear nothing about the others Jesus named or Matthias who was elected to replace Judas. Most of the stories in Acts are about people who were just going about their daily lives, but in the context of a new reality—the reality that Jesus had died, was raised from the dead, and continued to be present and active in the world. Barnabas is one of those unsung heroes among the first Easter people.
Since we left the 120 followers after Matthias was chosen, a lot has happened. The dramatic events of Pentecost, followed by Peter’s passionate first sermon, had greatly increased the number of believers. These believers were a diverse group in many ways—in ethnicity, birthplace, language, gender, and beliefs, but they had all been drawn together by the Spirit into this new community.
Many were far from home, since they had travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday of Pentecost. Many would have been fishermen and farmers, ill-equipped to make a living in the city. They would have needed help in order to stay in Jerusalem as this new Spirit-formed community developed; they needed places to stay, food to eat, money for necessities. They shared the conviction that they were all part of the new thing God was doing in the world, and this translated into other kinds of sharing as well. They listened together to the apostles’ teaching. They worshiped together, and then they went home to pray together and have meals together, eating “with glad and generous hearts.”
They were so united in heart and soul, Luke tells us—so grateful and moved by what God had done for them in Jesus—that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” As they embraced the gift and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, powerfully preached by the apostles, “grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
These passages are pretty much guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of anyone who’s suspicious of anything that looks like redistribution of wealth, no matter how much or how little wealth they have to redistribute. It probably raised the eyebrows of many who observed the first Christians as well. The idea of friends being of one heart and soul wasn’t new. That idea went back to the Greek playwright Euripides and the philosopher Aristotle. But the Greeks’ idea of sharing among friends included an element of reciprocity: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. What was new was the idea of actually sharing possessions as though they weren’t your own, without keeping a record of credits and debts, and it’s likely that people outside the community thought it was crazy.
But, Luke is not writing a thesis on fiscal policy here. Luke is writing about what happens in people’s hearts when they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. He’s writing about how the power of the Spirit can create something new and unheard of in the service of God’s mission. Luke is assuring Theophilus and all his readers that, even though the life of faith can feel precarious, and the way forward may be unclear, Easter people can find their strength in the community of believers.
There’s no condemnation of wealth here, however great or small. There’s no disapproval of those who own property. There’s no mandate to give up everything you own so that it can be divvied up among everyone equally. But, Easter people do have to give something up. What they have to give up is not so much their possessions per se but the attitude of possessiveness about their possessions.
Hear verse 4:32 again: “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Some people did respond to the needs of the community by selling something they owned and giving the proceeds to the apostles to be used as needed. Barnabas was one of them. But it’s the motivation behind the gift that is the focus here. People like Barnabas had come to understand that, in truth, nothing they had actually belonged to them. It belonged to God, and to be used in God’s service, for God’s mission. In our stories for today, it was used to provide for the needs of the fledgling Church.
When people like Barnabas sold something of value in order to support the community, it wasn’t with a sense that they were parting with something that was theirs. It was with the sense that they had been entrusted with something which they had enjoyed for a time, but was never truly theirs to begin with. They were stewards of property that wasn’t their own—caretakers for what actually belonged to God. When a need became apparent, they simply repurposed what they’d been temporarily holding for the real owner. The grace-covered community Luke writes about is able to let go of possessions because they’ve let go of their attitude of possessiveness.
We claim ownership over things other than money or other material objects. We all know of families where in-laws claim “ownership” over their adult children and grandkids. Holidays become battlegrounds because one or both sets of in-laws insist that celebrations have to happen on their terms, on their timetable, and on their turf. Christians can get possessive over roles that we play in the church. We’re prone to claiming ownership of ministries or positions. Churches have “hymn wars,” when people get possessive over the music that will be sung in worship. I know of a church where people claimed ownership of certain Sundays for providing the altar flowers. They were so possessive that if someone else tried to sign up for “their” week, they would accuse that person of trying to “steal” their Sunday and accuse the office staff of aiding and abetting the crime.
I think that the ways in which churches have had to adapt over the past year makes us vulnerable to that feeling of ownership. We’ve had to give up times of sharing meals and fellowship, and even worship in some churches. We’ve had to give up meeting together face-to-face where healthy collaboration happens. The work needed to keep the church going had to be done by individuals or small groups in a COVID-safe vacuum. As we begin to think about how we’ll proceed in the days ahead, this might be a good time to examine our own hearts to see if a sense of ownership has germinated there. If it has, we can look to those early Christians and do as they did: not claiming ownership but remembering that we hold everything in common.
Barnabas is a great example of that kind of selfless stewardship, and not just because of the land he sold. He was a Levite—a member of the priestly tribe set apart for service to God. Levites were held in high esteem in Israel. He also was a landowner, which would have added to his position of respect. But not only did Barnabas sell his land, Luke tells us that “he laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.” This is Luke’s way of saying that Barnabas was not possessive of the position of authority he could have claimed. Instead, he humbly acknowledged the authority of others as the leaders of this new community.
Later on in Acts, he continued to demonstrate his willingness to hold all things in common with the community. It was Barnabas who befriended Paul after Paul’s conversion, when everyone else in Jerusalem was afraid of him. Barnabas could have turned a cold shoulder to Paul, but rather than treating the new faith community as an exclusive owners-only club, he opened its doors to Paul. The same thing happened when word reached the Jerusalem church that the Gospel was being preached in Antioch by some unlikely missionaries. Barnabas was sent to check things out and, in true Barnabas fashion, he rejoiced at what he saw happening. Then, rather than claiming ownership of the infant church in Antioch for himself, he went to Tarsus to look for Paul and to invite to be his partner in teaching and leadership there.
Luke’s writing suggests that early on in the joint ministry of Barnabas and Paul, Barnabas was considered the elder statesman. His name appears first in the early stories and, in that time and place, name order indicated status. In Lystra, the crowds even thought Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Zeus’ son Hermes. But, when a disagreement arose between Paul and Barnabas over a young man named John Mark, rather than claim the upper hand over Paul, Barnabas went his own way, taking John Mark under his wing. It’s no wonder that the apostles gave Barnabas the nickname, “Son of Encouragement.”
It’s pretty hard to be encouraging and possessive at the same time. When we’re possessive of material wealth, it’s hard to encourage others in their generosity. When we’re possessive of territory, it’s hard to encourage others to use join us in ministry. When we’re possessive of position, it’s hard to encourage others to take up the mantle of leadership. Encouraging others requires that we give up our claims of ownership and share what’s been entrusted to us. The good news is that the less we claim ownership over, and the more we view everything we have as being held in common, the easier it is to share what we have freely.
“Unsung, the noblest deed will die,” Pindar wrote. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. The noblest deeds—whether they’re done publicly or quietly without notice—live on in the people whose lives are affected by those deeds. When we share all that we have—our material wealth, our talents, our authority—we strengthen the Church and ensure its vitality until Christ comes again. Barnabas, whose name we know, stands for an entire community of unsung heroes who set an example for us to follow—a standard for us to meet. As we continue to live as easter people in light of Christ’s resurrection, may we live free from the burden of ownership and freely share all that we hold in common. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young