Today on the Church calendar, we celebrate two feasts of the Church. The first is the Feast of Saint Barnabas the Apostle, and the second is Corpus Christi day, a day of devotion to our Lord in His Eucharistic Body and Blood.
While June 11th is always Saint Barnabas Day, Corpus Christi is always celebrated on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday. So today, these two converge.
The Apostle Barnabas, we’re told in Acts 4, was a Cypriot Jew of the tribe of Levi. His first act was to sell a field and bring all of the proceeds to the apostles’ feet. It was Barnabas also that defended the newly-converted Paul before the apostles. Lastly, Barnabas is remembered as a traveling companion to Paul in his earliest missionary journeys. He must have been quite a sight to see, for when Paul and Barnabas came to Lycaonia, the people believed the gods had come down among them. Paul was called Hermes and Barnabas was called Zeus. These two carried out the thriving mission to the Gentiles not only in Antioch, but throughout the Greek world. Imagine it! A levitical priest and a pharisee, together proclaiming this Gospel as apostles. In the end of his life, Barnabas goes home to Cyprus with his cousin Mark the Evangelist, and they evangelize the people of Cyprus together. It is said that synagogue leaders on the island were so enraged by his preaching that they stoned him to death.
Names matter in the Bible, and Barnabas’ name is no mistake. His given name was Joseph, meaning “God will increase,” after the great patriarch. His other name, Barnabas, means “son of encouragement.” This man was given the role of being a great encouragement to the ancient Church, and particularly to Paul and the mission to the Gentiles. It is often all too easy to forget how the Lord encourages us. People are put in our lives. A well-timed gift or a kind word can lift us from our weakness. And very often, we’re given a friend to stand with us through trials and successes. I don’t think it’s any mistake that we see a friendship in the midst of the Church’s earliest days. The Church exists as a fellowship of people whom God has called, a deep sharing in the things of God. I am convinced that friendship is one of the most splendid gifts of the Gospel. While it is true that Christian fellowship must always be realized in and through the Person of Jesus Christ, this is all the more reason to believe that friendship is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus himself says it to the disciples: “I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) In the Middle East to this day, to eat a meal with someone is to become their friend. The breaking of bread brings about and solidifies deep friendship.
Consider for a moment, the gift of the Eucharist. Paul says “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16 ESV) An alternative to the word participation is the word fellowship, which we could even translate as friendship. When you and I receive the Blessed Sacrament, we are both becoming and being friends of God, those who share the fellowship of Christ’s Body and Blood.
Hans Boersma has recently drawn attention to the truth that participation in the Eucharist truly turns us into the Body of Christ, even as it is the Church that makes the Body of Christ. We must ascend to the altar, we must take hold of the gifts, we must offer up our lives. Perhaps on this day, we should spend some time meditating on what it means to be friends of God, fed by the Body and Blood of Christ, made for participation in and partaking of, the divine mysteries. And maybe, encouraged and strengthened by this truth, we might seek to encourage others. In this time in which so many are angry and others apathetic, we could use that courage. In this time in which the Gospel speaks directly into our world, speaking of friendship rather than division and hatred, we might proclaim the Gospel simply by being good friends who encourage one another.