In the promotional trailer for his new TV series America’s favorite wild child, Charlie Sheen, looks into the camera and says, “Come on, everyone deserves a 24th chance.” While that may be taking mercy and forgiveness to the extreme, most of us are willing to give at least a second chance to someone who commits a minor infraction. Then there are some violations that we deem so serious we would not offer a person another chance.
Today is the day set aside by the Church to commemorate the life and ministry of St. Barnabas. From Acts we learn that he was a Jew from Cyprus, and that his given name was Joseph (Acts 4:36). He sold all of his possessions and gave the money to the Church, and the apostles started calling him Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement). He was obviously a generous man, full of zeal for the mission of the Church, with a gift for encouraging others. He is remembered for accompanying Paul on his first missionary journey, and on subsequent journeys founded the Church in Cyprus (his home). Tradition holds that he was martyred there in 61 AD. Always true to the name that the apostles had given him, I like to think of him as the patron saint of second chances, and an example of the power of forgiveness.
In Acts 15:36-41 we read that Paul and Barnabas had a bit of a falling out. Their dispute was not over anything theological; nor did it have anything to do with differences in their missionary work. Their dispute was over a fellow worker, John Mark. Having accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, John Mark had turned back and deserted them in Pamphylia. Apparently, Paul did not think that it was wise to take a known quitter along on such an important journey. However, Barnabas was willing to give John Mark another chance to prove himself.
Barnabas felt so strongly about giving John Mark this opportunity that he and Paul parted ways. Paul took Silas with him and traveled through Syria and Cilicia, while Barnabas and John Mark sailed for Cyprus. Tradition and history tell us that John Mark proved faithful when given that second chance by Barnabas. He later traveled with Peter, authored the Gospel of Mark, became the bishop in Alexandria and was martyred for his faith. In his final greetings to the Colossians and Philemon, Paul sends greetings from Mark. This would indicate that Paul and John Mark were reconciled and able to work with one another in the later years of Paul’s ministry. How much ministry was accomplished because of the willingness of Barnabas to offer that second chance?
While we like to think of the Church as a forgiving and loving place, it is not always a place for second chances. Clergy who have fallen (insert sin here), are generally cast aside. Lay members who falter are sometimes shunned, and despite repentance are generally not placed in any leadership positions. Many people who are militant atheists have told me that their anger toward the Church stems from either the way they were treated, or the way loved ones were treated, by congregations. To many on the outside looking in, it appears that it is more expedient for the Church to shoot her wounded and march on. We love the concept of forgiveness and second chances, so long as we do not have to apply it in real world situations.
Barnabas did not assume that John Mark would falter a second time. He believed in the transformative power of Jesus Christ to change people. He believed it so strongly, that he was willing to butt heads with Paul over the issue. The Church could learn much from Barnabas regarding her ministry to her own fallen children. The transformative power of Jesus Christ and the restorative might of forgiveness are among the most formidable tools for ministry that have been entrusted to the Church.