Recently at Christ Presbyterian Church, Pastor Scott Sauls said that at any given moment he is just five or six poorly chosen words from losing his job. Most of us are. We see it happen all the time—this fall from grace—with pastors, politicians, and celebrities. Maybe this is your story too.
This is the way of our world now. When our words go online, they are open to being parsed, taken out of context, or in some cases seen in their actual ugly context. And they can follow us for years, even decades. We all know stories of celebrities who said awful things and later apologized, but our culture tends to remember the transgression more than the apology.
Do you believe you are your past—that the bad things you’ve done have so defined who you are that you will never be anyone other than the screw-up who made all those mistakes and committed all those sins? Do you know anyone who likely believes this about themselves, and needs to be brought in out of the relational cold?
The Apostle Paul was a man like this. Before his conversion, Paul was committed to ridding the world of Christians. Paul was actually converted to Christ by Jesus Himself while he was travelling to Damascus to round up Christians and have them put to death.
Three years after his conversion, but before he had begun his ministry to the Roman world, Paul travelled to Jerusalem to meet with Jesus’ apostles who were living there. They were wary of him, which, of course, they had every reason to be since Paul had overseen the stoning death of Stephen, one of the deacons in the Jerusalem church.
Barnabas was Stephen’s friend. And now he was being told Paul had become one of them. Was Paul a lost cause? Barnabas took a risk. He listened to Paul and prayerfully considered how he should respond. Embracing Paul was complicated for Barnabas. It would cost Barnabas something. He would have to personally forgive Paul for the pain and suffering he had caused. Barnabas had felt the heat of the persecution Paul ignited three years back. Some of Barnabas’ close friends, like Stephen, had been martyred, others tortured, and others still were living as exiles because of Paul’s persecution.
Not only did Barnabas need to forgive Paul, he also had to believe in Paul’s call to minister the very Gospel he worked to so hard to destroy. He had to trust that Paul was not a wolf among the sheep Barnabas loved.
So what did Barnabas do? He spoke with Paul and sought out the genuineness of his faith. He soon became convinced that the God who had raised Jesus from the dead had also given new life to this infamous Pharisee. So Barnabas took Paul by the hand and led him before the Apostles. He stood as one with Paul, lending his own reputation by affirming God’s work in Paul’s life before the wary apostles. When Barnabas put his arm around Paul, he wasn’t just confirming Paul’s calling to the apostles. He was confirming it to Paul too.
This is a beautiful picture of what it looks like to bring someone who feels like a lost cause in out of the relational cold. It can cost us something, and it usually involves risk. So why should we do it? Because none of us are very far from finding ourselves in the same place—where we’ve failed or sinned in some way that leaves us dependent on the kindness of a friend to pull us up from the pit.
© 2017 Christ Presbyterian Church. All Rights Reserved.
Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary. Follow Russ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.