I gave a lot of thought to the naming of my children. I considered things like tradition, family customs, uniqueness, two syllables at most – I was big on that one – didn’t want others nicknaming them. I had grown up with too many ‘illys’ and ‘allys’ and was always grateful to have a name that was hard to cut off, shorten or abuse entirely. My dad’s name is Richard – just imagine all the variations on that theme and you’ll get my dislike of giggle-worthy nicknames.
A few years ago in a chat with a friend about today’s reading (and the others this week from the Book of Acts that reports of Paul’s meeting with the authorities in Jerusalem to establish the boundary lines for the new covenant community before heading off to Gentile territory in Antioch), my friend said,
“That’s it! You are Barnabas!”
“Barnabas? No – I’m more like one of the two distraught disciples on the road to Emmaus – one of those unnamed followers who walked with the risen Lord and didn’t know it until at table with him. I am no ‘named’ biblical character. Like.. at all.”
My friend had always identified himself not as Paul, but like him inasmuch as a modern-day prophet he had and was suffering as prophets do in God’s church. And, too, like Paul, years of his ministry were spent as a road warrior preaching and teaching a more robust expression of the good news in today’s church than he judged it to be. He had spoken to me at length and often about the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures and the continuing thread in the New Testament, suggesting that the juxtaposition of prophetic voices and pastoral ministry was rather hard to come by both in current and biblical times. The only one to do it and do it perfectly was Jesus.
So, at the time, in calling me “Barnabas” I sort of kind of understood what he was saying and sort of kind of accepted it as a compliment. He was affirming in a small way my call to the priesthood. Prophets aren’t always a good fit for parish ministry, but a smaller time prophet like Barnabas who was a friend to the big gun? – well, that might work.
What I didn’t know then but have learned since is that Barnabas was so much more. From NT Wright’s book on Paul,
… Barnabas…is one of the minor heroes of the book of Acts… generous-spirited. Barnabas was originally from Cyprus, a Jew from the tribe of Levi. His actual name was Joseph, but Luke explains that the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem gave him the nickname Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” Some people have the gift of enabling others to flourish. Barnabas was one of those.
Barnabas was a nickname!!!! Barnabas was a generous-spirit, otherwise known as pastoral! And he was a Levite – the tribe of the priests who assisted in temple worship!
Oh my, oh my . I love that his name means son of encouragement. I love that. Might I rest here, in that place? As an encourager for other big guns like Paul? Enabling others to flourish? Maybe this is a word for me? Is it the time to let go of trying to land my ministry in one locale? Might I enjoin other road warriors in some way as an encourager?
My friend the modern-day prophet did me a good thing, calling me Barnabas. I was then and am now blessed.
Praise God from whom all blessings – and names and nicknames – flow.
 Wright, N. T.. Paul (p. 85). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.