The Spilts

Acts 15:36-41

36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

We had an unwanted visitor at our home over the last few weeks. He tore things up, knocked over the garbage, and sometimes he just stunk. Our visitor was a skunk. We smelled him before we actually saw him, and if you have ever smelled a skunk, you know that the odor is unmistakable. Sonya later saw it scurrying down our driveway one night when she returned from work, and we also met it face-to-face one evening just outside our back door.

It was time for us to say goodbye.

So we borrowed a live trap and set it along a wall in our backyard. Then, early Monday morning, Sonya looks out the window and says to me, “We caught the skunk… Now what do we do?”

And by “we” she meant me.

You see, the problem with a live trap is that the captured creature is still, well, alive. Some suggested that I shoot the skunk from a safe distance. But I live in the city where it is illegal to discharge a gun, and I don’t own a gun. Someone else suggested that a trashcan full of water could quickly do away with the skunk. Sure, I’ll just tell the skunk to keep calm as I baptize him. I am, after all, a member of the clergy.

Each of these options defeat the purpose of a live trap. I was okay with the skunk living, I just didn’t want him to live in my backyard. So I spoke with my friend Dwight, who lent me the traps. And we discussed how to cover the trap with a blanket or tarp and that a skunk won’t spray you if he can’t see you…or so they say. And Dwight has a truck, which is great, because I wasn’t putting a live skunk in my car. Let’s just say that I am thankful that I have a friend like Dwight. Some friends say that they would take a bullet for you. But how many say that they will take a skunk for you?

We are in our fourth and final installment of our sermon series on Barnabas, the son of encouragement. We have reflected on those who have encouraged us along the way. We have looked at our call to minister in some capacity in our community, and we have considered the role of the Holy Spirit as we work together as a church.

Our esteemed worship leader asked me earlier this week how I was going to tie my experience with the skunk to our series on Barnabas. I didn’t need to think long before I came up with the answer: just as Paul and Barnabas did, the skunk and I have now gone our separate ways.

Our text for today comes from the same chapter as last week’s lesson. We really don’t know how much time has passed, other than what the author of Acts, Luke, tells us in verse 36, “Some time later.” Let’s look at the entire verse as it sets up our text for today, “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’”

Paul is often said to have gone on three (some say four) separate missionary journeys in the 1st century. As he went from city to city, he preached the gospel and helped start churches. Paul was accompanied during his first trip by our friend Barnabas, and Paul is inviting Barnabas to go on a trip again. This time, they will visit some of the places that they had previously visited to see how the church and the new believers were growing and developing. So far, so good.

Verses 37-38 set up our conflict: “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.”

At this point I’m wondering if anyone goes by their real name. Joseph, also called Barnabas, wanted to take John, also called Mark. But Paul, also called Saul, did not. Kevin, also called confused, needs a little more information.

Let’s start with Acts 12:25: “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” Paul often travels on his missionary trips with another experienced Christian, like Barnabas or Silas, and also with a less-experienced Christian. Later, he will have Timothy with him as a bit of a disciple or mentee. We are told in Colossians 4:10 that Mark and Barnabas are cousins, so they have that extra connection there.

So Paul and Barnabas are taking off on their first missionary journey, taking Barnabas’s cousin Mark along with them. They make a few stops in cities whose name I won’t try to pronounce. They are doing good things, but there are also some scary things going on. Then in Acts 13:13, we find this brief comment that we could easily overlook: “From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.” That’s John, also called Mark.

He just left them to go back home.

Now I want to be very careful not to read my own emotions into this one verse. I am tempted to say things like “Mark deserted them, left them to go home. When the going got tough, Mark got going.” I’m tempted to say that, but I won’t (or did I?). The reason I want to refrain from using that kind of language is because the author of Acts, Luke, does not offer any kind of judgment on Mark’s decision to go back to Jerusalem.

We don’t know why Mark went back; he may have had a really good reason. What we do know is how Paul and Barnabas reacted to Mark’s decision. Barnabas wants to bring Mark along on their second missionary journey, Paul does not. Continuing in verse 39, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.”

Like me and the skunk, Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. And like me and the skunk, they did it because at least one of them thought the other “stunk,” at least when it came to issues of discipleship.

This is where I really want to weigh in on the issue. I’m impressed with Barnabas, the son of encouragement. Here he is, doing what Barnabas does. He is giving Mark a second chance. Perhaps Mark made a bad decision, and maybe he left them hanging in Pamphylia, but Barnabas is willing to invite Mark along again. This seems very consistent with how Barnabas encouraged the other disciples to welcome a man named Saul among them just a few short years earlier. It also seems consistent with the teaching of Jesus to forgive others, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. I really like Barnabas’s willingness to be patient and offer forgiveness to Mark. To offer him as second chance, even after Mark has failed them.

But then again, I can see Paul’s point of view. It isn’t like they are trying to pick a place for lunch and they are trying to decide if they should go to that one pizza place again after they received bad service last time. We are talking about Paul’s safety and the safety of the other missionaries. We are talking about the potential for success or failure of their missionary journey.

So who was right, Paul or Barnabas? Should they have taken Mark with them or not? And was it a good thing that they went their own way after this sharp disagreement? Again, when you read Acts, Luke presents this split without judgement. He is neutral.

I find that it is always easier to look back on issues and pronounce judgement. These things always look clearer 10, 50, or 2,000 years later. But at the time, both Paul and Barnabas felt strongly about whether or not they should take Mark with them.

Splits happen. Marriages end in divorce. Families divide over inheritance, over politics, and over favoritism. And we know that churches split, too. Now I realize that the split between Paul and Barnabas is not 100% analogous with these splits, but I am pretty sure that a split is a split.

As members of the Protestant faith, we are children of divorce. Our denomination exists because Martin Luther posted 95 grievances against the Catholic Church on the front door of his church for all to see. And when a group of believers thought that the Reformation wasn’t going far enough, we started another reformation, out of which the Mennonites were born.

Here’s the thing, I’m glad that the Reformation took place. I also think that there is a place today for denominations, which allow us to disagree on some really big things. I won’t say that the Reformation or modern denominations are a bad thing. What is bad is when a split leads to hatred, anger, name calling, and finger pointing.

I like to joke with my Presbyterian friends about the governing documents found in the Book of Confessions. This confession, was written about 500 years ago, says this: “Anabaptists: We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that new-born infants of the faithful are to be baptized…we condemn also the Anabaptists in the rest of the peculiar doctrines which they hold contrary to the Word of God. We therefore are not Anabaptists and have nothing in common with them.”

I kind of thought that whole idea about following Jesus might be something we had in common.

I laugh about this today with my Presbyterian friends, but guess what. This passage is still in the Book of Confessions to this day. When they amend this book they only add to it and never subtract. So the “official word” today from the Presbyterians on the Anabaptists is condemnation, they call our doctrine “peculiar,” and they say that we have nothing in common. But then again, they probably believe that God predestined it to be that way, so their off the hookJ.

That’s kind of funny, but things quickly get less so. There is a story that is well-known in our area about a church split that happened in a Mennonite church just a little more than 60 years ago. There was a pastoral transition in the church and the leadership was divided over who should be the next pastor. The winners of the argument got their pastor and the losers went and started their own church just 5.9 miles down the road. Like most church splits, this one divided friends, classmates, coworkers, and yes, even families. The story isn’t that troubling to me until you hear the ripple effects of the split. This family feud, which again split families, was so intense that the family on what I have called the losing side of the divide decided to change the spelling of their last name. They did not want to be confused or associated with the other.

I can’t speak for God, but I would guess that the split itself isn’t always the worse thing in the world. Sometimes it can even be good. Many churches have been planted because of church splits. I think that the biggest disappointment to God is when we allow the things that cause us to split from one another to keep us from loving one another, working together for a common good, or even just being able to be in the same room together.

Maybe Luke doesn’t offer much as far a judgement on the split between Paul and Barnabas, but Jesus does say in Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

First, go and be reconciled to them. Jesus says, “Even before you worship me, go and make it right with your brother or sister.”

Just look at what Paul wrote later in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

So did Paul change his mind or did he simply fail to practice what he preached? In the same book, chapter 9, Paul refers to Barnabas as a fellow Apostle. And toward the end of “Paul’s” life, we find him writing this in 2 Timothy 4:11, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”

Paul sounds a little bit selfish there, asking for Mark because Mark would be helpful to him. But Paul trusts Mark again and is willing to give him a significant amount of responsibility. Reconciliation has taken place.

I think that this is where my opening story about being separated from the skunk breaks down a bit. While I hope that he can happily live out the remainder of his days where Dwight left him (in a neighbor’s backyard?), I’ll be okay if I never meet that skunk again.

Splits are inevitable, in our families, in our communities, and in our churches. And sometimes, I am sure that these splits are for the best. But can we continue to work together for the greater good of God’s kingdom, even after a split?

A little over a year ago, Mennonite counselor Harvey Yoder wrote an article about church splits. He said that in his 50 years as a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference, he has seen Rockingham/Augusta County go from three distinct Mennonite groups—which included two plain-clothes Mennonite groups—to at least a dozen.

I bet that if we went through some of these groups and looked at their beliefs and practices, we would probably be okay with the fact that some of these splits occurred. There are, after all, still Mennonites to our north that drive horse and buggies. Good for them, but I think I’ll keep my internal combustion engines, thank you very much. But the thing that always impresses me is that come the first weekend of October, people across the theological spectrum will come together for a greater cause.

If you go to the Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale you will find plain-clothed Mennonites with head coverings and beards. You will also find women with short hair wearing pants. We work together, in spite of our differences, because we believe that Jesus called us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and offer help to those in need.

Splits are perhaps inevitable, full reconciliation may never be possible. But rather than changing our names so we aren’t associated with one another, let’s remember that there are things that God calls us to do together that are bigger than our differences.

One last word on John Mark. Does anyone know what happened to that young man, the cousin of Barnabas? He went on to write one of the first books about the life of Jesus, and we still have copies of that book today. In fact, we’ve canonized it, and you can find it right between the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most scholars even believe that Matthew and Luke gathered some of their information from Mark’s book. That’s right, the Gospel of Mark was written by none other than Mark, the one who deserted Paul and Barnabas, the one who led to these two leaders of the early church parting ways.

Splits will happen, but really good things occur when reconciliation takes place. Our Bible is proof of that.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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One Response to The Spilts

  1. Kathy Zendt says:

    Thanks for the message! “There are things that God calls us to do together that are bigger than our differences” – hope we can remember that!

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