When Barnabas arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.
“I told you and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice: I know them, and they follow me.”
Father Adrian van Kaam would often say that all of life is appraisal. Because we are free, we give form to life and world through the continual choices we make in the course of the “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” Whatever our stage of life or our state of health, each moment of our life presents us with a decision to make. When we are active and healthy, those choices are both exterior and interior. As we diminish and age, the choices become increasingly interior, that is about the depth of acceptance or rejection of life as it is visited upon us, the choice for appreciation or depreciation of the Mystery in which “we live, and move, and have our being.”
There is an inextricable link between the persons we are and the choices we make. We hear this in today’s reading from Acts as we are told that Barnabas is sent as something of an inquisitor to Antioch by the Jerusalem Church. He is sent to look into the fact that some recent Cypriot and Cyrenian converts are now preaching to the Greeks there. For one with a suspicious and jaundiced perspective, it would probably have been quite easy to see a problem, perhaps even a heresy, in what the Cypriots and Cyrenians were doing by speaking with non-Jews. Yet, we are told that when Barnabas arrives, he readily recognizes the grace of God in the works he sees and, as a result, rejoices and encourages those doing it. Had he come looking for trouble, he would have found it. As he comes looking for the manifestations of the Risen Lord, that is what he finds. The text tells us that all of this is due to the fact that Barnabas “was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.”
As a very young teacher I was in community with an older brother who had spent much of his life teaching in Kenya and Uganda. So often, brothers who returned from Africa would find it difficult to adjust to American students, but not so this one. This brother each year would teach, among other things, the lowest freshman English class. He became a grandfatherly figure for these students, who often found school burdensome and difficult. Inevitably, within a few weeks of the beginning of a new school year, this brother would declare: “These are good boys. This is the best class ever.” As any teacher can readily imagine, this was not a consensus view most years. Yet, for this brother, this was the truth. For each year, it was those young men before him that he appreciated for their gifts and possibilities. Where depreciation was always a possibility, he chose appreciation.
In today’s gospel from John, Jesus is speaking to those who refuse to believe him despite his good works and honest words. And he says that they do not believe because they are “not among my sheep.” The distinguishing mark of those who are Jesus’ sheep is that they hear his voice. As the sheep hears and recognizes the shepherd’s voice, and in turn the shepherd knows them, so too with those who belong to Jesus. They hear his voice and are known by him.
To hear Jesus’ voice in all the moments of our lives and to be known by him constitute the way in which we shall see those moments and respond to them. If all of life is life in formation, then each moment of life, each person, situation, and event is an invitation and call to realize more fully the unique image of Christ we are called to be. This call is the voice for which we are listening. When Barnabas arrives in Antioch, he is not there as one seeking to establish dominance or exercise power. He is truly there to listen for the voice of Jesus. And so, he hears that voice in the work that the Cypriots and Cyrenians are doing. He has not prejudged the situation. Rather, as a good man, he has come to listen and to respond, that is to give form to and receive form from the moment in accordance with the voice of Jesus which he hears. The form he receives is manifested in his rejoicing, and the form he gives is reflected in his encouragement.
In one way, it is not easy for us to be surprised by life. We are prone, by our own security directives, to see life and our way of living our life as repetition. The new does not easily break into our consciousness. Yet, for the brother mentioned earlier, every year was a new revelation of the goodness of the boys before him. He did not have the attitude of having “seen it all.” The result of that openness, as with Barnabas, was appreciation. There were other teachers of that same group who were looking for trouble, and so found it. We can attune to the voice of Jesus or we can attune to the voices of our lesser angels, of the demonic. In the cynical, fearful, and negative world in which we live, it is all the more important that there be disciples who are listening for Jesus’ voice. Unfortunately, there are many declared disciples of Jesus who seem only to be listening to others and the world for the voices of evil. It can seem as if depreciation is the prevalent, and perhaps commanding, disposition in our time.
To appraise as a disciple, as a good woman or man, we are also, says the gospel, to be known by Jesus. The difficulty for us in being known by Jesus is that to do so we must also be known to ourselves. Barnabas is able to appraise rightly the situation in Antioch because he, as Jesus, does not come to judge. If we know ourselves truly, we know that we are in no position to judge others. We do not cast stones because we know that we are not without sin. To live in a world that seems to run on power dynamics makes such self-knowledge a source of vulnerability. Nietzsche was convinced that every human meeting was one of power with power. In our common law legal system, we believe that the truth emerges from winning an argument. Had Barnabas gone to Antioch, however, from a position of power or hierarchy, he would have seen reasons to shut down the good work that was being done. This was the place of those who could not hear Jesus when he spoke or recognize him in his works. To live with the knowledge of the one we are that Jesus knows is to be in a place that is open to appreciation and to receiving form. It is to appraise from a life that knows “a freedom and liberation never before imagined,” and so to be able to give and receive form from whatever is without needing to control or manipulate the situation.
Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that to know the world, and so myself, as God’s and as mystery is to begin the long journey from “self-love to love.” When the volume of my own voice diminishes, I can begin to let in the voice of Jesus, whose life and love is the life of the world. So, to grow in the one-pointed attention of listening to his voice is to begin to hear clearly the true voice of the world, undistorted by the voice of my own fears and ambitions. We appraise the world and make our choices out of many motivations. The good person, however, in the scriptural sense of the term, has a single intention: to hear and to follow the voice of the Lord.
The whole history of humanity is thus comparable to one’s individual life. We do not have the power and the wisdom to overcome the ambiguity of our existence. We must and do increase our freedom, both as individuals and in the total human enterprise; and our creativity is enhanced by the growth of our freedom. But this freedom also tempts us to deny our mortality, and the growth of freedom and power increases the temptation. But evils in history are the consequence of this pretension. Confusion follows upon our efforts to complete our lives by our own power and solve their enigma by our own wisdom. Perplexities, too simply solved, produce despair. The Christian faith is the apprehension of the divine love and power which bears the whole human pilgrimage, shines through its enigmas and antinomies and is finally and definitively revealed in a drama in which suffering love gains triumph over sin and death. This revelation does not resolve all perplexities; but it does triumph over despair, and leads to the renewal of life from self-love to love.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History, quoted in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Live, ed. Larry Rasmussen, pp. 229-30