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The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson, Ph.D.

It was a privilege, and a pleasure, to speak with members of the National Altar Guild this past July at the meeting in Indianapolis during General Convention. There I enjoyed a good deal of conversation with the group, as well as an opportunity to share a few things about my favorite, and possibly the most under-rated, character in the New Testament (besides our Lord, of course). I am talking about Barnabas, that Levite from Cyprus who appears almost as a footnote at the end of chapter four in the Acts of the Apostles, only to become a key figure, even named an “apostle” in chapter 14 alongside his friend and protégé, Paul. It is safe to say that without Barnabas there would not be “Paul the Apostle,” and thus there would not be Christianity as we know it.

But why speak of him as a model for altar guild members? Well, I don’t mean to say that he prepared the Holy Table for Eucharist, or engaged in the thousands of details that guild members across the Church do week in and week out. No, I am speaking of something else. When we met in Indy, I asserted that at the heart of all altar guild work is the mission to reach out and welcome folks through our care-filled preparation and our hospitality, to build more bridges than walls so that the stranger in our midst can dare to feel at home. Anyone who has ever attended a beautiful dinner banquet may be amazed and delighted upon entering the ballroom, but those who know recognize that a lot of work went into making that magical night what it is.

Barnabas understood this. He recognized what others in the early Church seemed to miss. In his first appearance in Acts 4, he is simply one more newcomer among many in Jerusalem who sells property and gives the proceeds to the apostles to distribute as needed within that faith community. We see him as generous and loyal, faithful to the leadership, and by their designation a “son of encouragement.”

In his second and third times on stage in Acts, we begin to see how much of a faithful steward and visionary encourager he really was. When the newly converted Saul of Tarsus—or Paul, as he would soon become far better known—tries to approach the apostles and offer his services to the Church, they want nothing to do with him. They are afraid of him…and for good reason. He threatened their lives before and now he was threatening in another way, as he spoke of being called by God to be an “apostle to the Gentiles.” This was not someone they wanted to take under their wing. But Barnabas did. Barnabas saw the gifts that Saul could bring, saw the possibilities. At the end of Acts 9, Barnabas stood beside Saul and vouched for this unlikely newcomer.

A couple of chapters later, when asked to check out the work going on in the satellite Church in Antioch, Barnabas went further, seeking out Saul from Tarsus to bring him along and apprentice him in the work of ministry. Still later, Barnabas showed not only his generosity of spirit, but also his humility and wisdom as “Barnabas and Saul” subtly changed to “Paul and Barnabas.” The apprentice became the leader.

I share all this because it is as a result of Barnabas’ amazing, though seemingly quiet, actions that a would-be-Church-reject gains the skills and opportunities to shine. And, inasmuch as it is during Barnabas and Saul’s time in Antioch that Gentiles are received with open arms into the community that the Church as the Body of Christ in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free” is born. For as Acts so poignantly phrases it, it is in Antioch, NOT Jerusalem, “that the disciples were first called Christians.” Barnabas the steward and encourager was also Barnabas the midwife.

What can Altar Guild members take away from this? In the Church it is far easier to stay in the safe zone of Jerusalem, where we remember a “golden age” and feel comfortable with the friends we already have, than to step out with Barnabas to Antioch…and take an unlikely apprentice with us. Barnabas is a model for how to think about the new things that God wants to do around, with and through us. It means asking whom we each can apprentice, unlikely though they first may appear to be, always on the lookout for the next Saul of Tarsus in our midst. It means asking how we can interact with other groups like the Acolytes, to help train them in all aspects of Christian life, or exploring with the ushers and greeters how we could become true ambassadors to recruit and retain new members in our congregation. It means asking how we can help the clergy and vestry envision, and bring about, a move from the familiar work in Jerusalem to the untried and new work in Antioch, whatever that may look like.

Barnabas is a hero for me, because he saw possibilities where no one else did, and did what it took with grace and care and always encouragement. I pray that all altar guild members — indeed all the Church’s members — would dare to take him as a model for mission and ministry today.


by The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson, Ph.D., Canon to the Presiding Bishop

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