36After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Today’s sermon is about breaking up, something which I’ve heard is hard to do. It’s so hard to do that even when a relationship comes to that point where breaking up is absolutely necessary, we still don’t want to do it. We end relationships with letters, text messages, or no messages at all in attempt to avoid the pain of confrontation. We come up with tired and shallow cliches to try to smooth over that pain–It’s not you, it’s me. This is for the best, really. We can still be friends.
I know this is probably nearly impossible for any of you to imagine, but I myself have been on the receiving end of some of these lines, perhaps more than a few times in my life. In fact, I think that, before Amy finally agreed to marry me (which was only 9.5 years after the first time I proposed to her) I was beginning to become somewhat of an expert judge of bad breakup lines. And so with that expertise, I thought I’d share a few really bad, really classic ones with you today:
*It’s not you, sweetheart, it’s me…and my absolutely horrible taste in men.
*Darling, I think you are just perfect…for anyone else but me.
*You know, I was utterly lost before you found me. And I’ve decided I kind of liked it better that way.
*I think maybe we should start annoying other people.
*There are too many religious differences between us…you believe you’re God, and I don’t.
*I’m sure you’ll make someone else very happy…for about three weeks before they get to know you.
*Do you remember the first time we met? Of course you do. You would tell me about it every chance you had. Over and over and over. You would tell me how I took your breath away, how my smile captivated you, how beautiful I looked in that yellow shirt. But here’s the thing: I don’t own a yellow shirt. I never have. And that is why we’re breaking up.
Just last week, we heard about the coming together of Barnabas and Paul–the great power duo of the New Testament. Some of you might be a little confused to seem them splitting up just one week later. In reality, the space between last week’s scripture passage and todays spans five chapters and about fifteen years. I wish we had time to cover all of the miraculous things Paul and Barnabas did together, all the places they traveled together, and all the churches they planted throughout the Roman Empire.
But if we went at that pace, I’d still be preaching from Acts through summer, fall, and into the next year. Instead, my hope is to stir up your interest with some key stories from Acts, enticing you to read it in greater depth on your own. And so when it comes to the story of Paul and Barnabas, we get the bookends: Last week, the story of how their partnership, their ministry came together; and this week the story of how it came to an end.
Make no mistake, this is an important story, and I think there’s a lot for us to learn from it. In our life as a church, and in our lives as individuals, from time to time we have conflicts and disagreements. People come into our lives for a season, and then they leave, sometimes on good terms, and sometimes not so much. As I said earlier, breaking up is hard to do. But sometimes (not always!) it’s the right thing to do, for the sake of our integrity, our faithfulness to God’s calling, and our witness to the world.
First, let’s unpack this story a little bit, the story of Paul and Barnabas as they part ways. It’s a short story, just six brief verses compared to the hundreds they occupied together before this point. At the outset, Paul and Barnabas are united in their overall purpose: “Let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” No disagreement at the 500 foot level. But as often happens, it’s when we get to the particulars, the details, that the division appears.
Verses 37 and 38: “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.”
Who is John called Mark, and why does he have the misfortune of being the guy who split up the dream team, the Yoko Ono of the ancient world? Well, to be honest, we don’t really know. These two names occur in other places in Acts and the New Testament, but we’re not really even certain it’s all the same person. John is the most common name in 1st century Hebrew culture, and Mark is the most common Roman name. It’s kind of like walking into a bar somewhere in Arkansas and asking if anyone knows Billy Bob.
But just from this passage alone, we know something: John Mark set out with them on one of their trips, but for whatever reason left them at a critical point. Because of this, Paul doesn’t trust John Mark. But Barnabas is willing to give him another chance. That’s not surprising, when you remember that Barnabas is the one person among all the apostles who was willing to take a chance on Paul himself, the persecutor of Christians turned convert.
But I think there’s something else going on here, too. There usually is. John Mark is a surface level issue, but there’s something bigger, something deepr going on as well. Something between Paul and Barnabas, that takes place only a short while before their split.
In the verses right before today’s passage is the story of what’s called the “Council of Jerusalem.” It’s basically an agreement between the Jerusalem Christians (represented by Peter and James) and the Antioch Christians (represented by Paul and Barnabas) that settled a disagreement about whether or not non-Jewish Christians needed to be circumcised. The council validated the growing ministry of Paul and Barnabas to the gentiles.
Immediately after the story of the council, we get today’s passage, and the split between Paul and Barnabas. What happened? The Book of Acts doesn’t tell us, but Paul, in one of his letters, gives us the rest of the story:
Galatians 2:11-13: “But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face . . . for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”
Paul goes on to talk about how he confronted Peter (and presumably Barnabas). But he never actually tells what the outcome of the confrontation is. And that’s a bit suspicious, because you’d think that if Peter and Barnabas came around and ultimately agreed with him, he certainly would have told that story.
No, I think it became an unresolved issue between them, one that continued to grow right up until the time they parted ways. As they prepared for their next journey, Barnabas was willing to take a chance on John Mark, but Paul was likely feeling nervous about having not one, but two people he wasn’t absolutely certain he could count on, based on past experience.
And so we read in verses 39-41: “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
At this point, the author turns his focus squarely to Paul and Silas. Barnabas, while clearly still working to spread the gospel, is never mentioned again in the Book of Acts. But I think we need to be careful not to see that as a commentary on who prevailed, who “won” the argument. The author of Acts, writing long after these events took place, knowing the path that Barnabas ultimately chose, still calls him a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” There is no commentary, no judgment implied either way as Paul and Barnabas go their separate ways.
And that’s where I want to transition to what we can learn from Paul and Barnabas in our own disagreements, our own breakups.
Sometimes, our disagreements (as individuals, and within the church) are not so much about “right” or “wrong,” but just different, often equally valid approaches to the challenges we face. This is especially true if we are united in our larger goals. There is rich, beautiful diversity in God’s kingdom. It’s okay to disagree sometimes about how we get there.
But at the same time…Paul and Barnabas still go their separate ways. I often think that if they had stayed in Antioch trying to resolve their differences, they might have been there for a long time, stuck, at an impasse, not going anywhere at all.
This is an important lesson, too. I’ve seen too many churches, too many communities that are so afraid of disagreement, so afraid of losing anyone, letting anyone go, that they avoid confrontation at all costs. They avoid decisions at all cost. They avoid choosing a path forward, and so they end up choosing no path at all. Paul goes this way. Barnabas goes that way. But they both still go somewhere in service to to gospel.
Sometimes it’s better to split and go where God leads us, than to sit and go nowhere at all.
And that leads me to my final point: If we are truly following where God leads us, the end of one relationship is often the beginning of another one. When Paul and Barnabas split up, Barnabas takes John Mark with him. John Mark gets his second chance. He gets the same wise and experienced partner who mentored the great Apostle Paul.
And Paul takes Silas with him. Eventually, Paul mentors not only Silas, but also Timothy, and Luke, who is traditionally held to be the author of the book of Acts. Imagine if Paul and Barnabas had remained in Antioch, in a futile effort to resolve their genuine, passionate differences: No John Mark, no Silas, no Timothy, no Luke. No next generation of leaders in the church, who in turn mentor and reach countless more, and on and on it goes. In the split between Paul and Barnabas, we see division turning into multiplication.
If we are truly following where God leads us, even painful partings can become beautiful beginnings.