The Holy Trinity

Pastor Eric Deibler

  • Acts 4:32-37
  • Psalm 8
  • Acts 9:10-17
  • Matthew 1:18-25

Acts 4:32-37

32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

A Meditation on Barnabas

Imagine being so well known for comforting and encouraging the people around you that people stop referring to you by name, choosing instead to call you by a nickname. Suppose that nickname becomes so common that some people who hear about you don’t even know your real name!

That’s exactly what happened to Joses, an influential leader of the early Church.

Luke, the author of Acts, introduces us to this Levite from Cyprus at the end of the fourth chapter, explaining that Joses was also known as Barnabas (verses 36-37). Barnabas is defined as “son of encouragement.

Luke never again refers to this individual as Joses, but calls him Barnabas 23 more times. The apostle Paul refers to Barnabas five times in his epistles, but never once by his real name.

Barnabas did not earn this nickname with a few pats on the back or “attaboys.” Barnabas was known not for just offering a few words of encouragement or comfort, but for standing beside people in their trials. He was not emotionally detached from them, but joined with them in their troubles. It is altogether fitting that we first hear of this man selling a parcel of land so the money could be distributed among people in need.

Paul himself was the beneficiary of such support from Barnabas. The early Church did not trust Paul (also known as Saul), who had vigorously persecuted early Christians. It’s no wonder, then, that when Saul returned to Jerusalem, the disciples there “were all afraid of him” (9:26). They did not trust him. They believed his claim of conversion was merely a ruse that would make it possible for him to capture more believers.

Then Barnabas stepped in. Taking Saul before the apostles and presenting evidence of his conversion, Barnabas acted as an advocate. He stood by Saul when no one else believed or trusted him. He saw the potential in Saul, as he later saw the potential in John Mark.

Barnabas did far more than offer a few choice words of encouragement while maintaining a comfortable distance from the problems of other Christians. So how did he become such an effective comforter?

To stand beside someone, we must be prepared to share the burden and to endure the struggle with that person. He looked beyond the immediate situation, evaluating not only the problem, but the needs of the people facing those trials.

In Paul’s case, Barnabas set aside any fears and distrust, focusing instead on the preaching Paul had done in the synagogues of Damascus before arriving in Jerusalem. Barnabas was not ignorant of Paul’s history, but he chose to believe that Paul had changed.

If we want to be more like Barnabas, we will also be faced with choices about how we view our brothers and sisters. If we want to be advocates, standing beside them, we must first believe in them. We must believe in their value before God, and we must choose to consider their future rather than dwell on sins and mistakes of the past.

In addressing the church at Corinth, Paul described this very trait. Love, he wrote, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

To stand beside someone, we must be prepared to share the burden and to endure the struggle with that person. We must believe in the person, and we must hope for the best, always realizing that love entails risk.

When we do all this, we will be the kind of comforter Barnabas was.

Acts 9:10-17

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house.

Meditation on Ananias

This story from Acts 9 and involves just two people, the disciple Ananias and Saul. Saul, notorious for persecuting Christians, has departed Jerusalem after obtaining a letter granting him authority to arrest any Christians he can find in Damascus. He is to bring these believers to Jerusalem for trial before the puppet court of the Sanhedrin. But lo and behold, while on the road to Damascus he has a dramatic, life-changing conversion experience. Out of a shining light Jesus calls to him and said “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul is struck blind. Jesus commands Saul to go to Damascus and wait to be told what he must do. He is led to the city by those who are traveling with him and he waits for three days and nights without any food or water. What these days are like we can only imagine. They must be filled with pain, remorse and repentance. They must be filled with great confusion and despair.

As Saul sits and waits, the scene fades and we are introduced to Ananias, who is called “a disciple at Damascus.” The Lord appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him “Arise and go to the street called Straight and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.” God tells this disciple to run an errand on His behalf.

Ananias’ response is remarkable. Somehow, he forgets his place and attempts to give God a bit of a newsflash. You can just picture Him stammering a bit as he takes it upon himself to remind God of just who this Saul guy is. He probably began the sentence with uncertainty and confusion, and perhaps with with the words “Ummm…God….?” He says “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” Ananias had not only heard of how Saul had been systematically destroying the church in Jerusalem, hunting down men and women and turning them over to the authorities, but also knew that he was on the march to Damascus, ready to destroy that church as well. Paul’s hatred for Christ and His followers was common knowledge. We can well imagine that Ananias and the other believers were terrified as they awaited Saul and his cohort, because they knew their lives might be lost for the sake of Christ. They must have awaited his arrival at the city with dread. And now here God asks Ananias to go and confront the ringleader of the persecutors. Ananias takes the opportunity to remind God of Saul’s credentials. After all, he has done “harm to Your saints in Jerusalem” and is now ready to “bind all who call on Your name” in Damascus.

Ananias showed weakness here. He did not have unwavering trust in God. In that regard, he reminds us of ourselves! We might well have said the same thing to God just in case He had somehow forgotten a little detail. After all, this Saul guy was dangerous! Didn’t God know that?

God knew all about Saul. He tells Ananias “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My sake.” God knew exactly who Saul was and gave Ananias the assurance that He was still in control. As a matter of fact, providence dictated that He would use this man to do incredible things for His kingdom. Saul, the chief of sinners, the persecutor of the church, was God’s chosen means of bringing the gospel to great and small, Jew and Gentile alike.

Ananias is obedient. He appears before Saul and lays his hands on this broken man in the name of the Holy Spirit. At that moment Saul’s blindness is ended. We then read that “Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.”

At this point Ananias fades from the story and we hear nothing more about him. His role in the drama of Acts is small, yet significant. We see a man who wavered when he heard God’s voice, yet despite his initial hesitation he was faithful and obedient. While at first he thought he might have to correct God, in the end he submitted himself and his very life to God’s call. God then used this man to further His purposes in launching the career of the most influential of the apostles. Ananias’ small act of obedience led to a great harvest for the kingdom.

This is the lesson Ananias has to teach us. Small acts of obedience that are premised on the Word of God, even when they seem contrary to reason, and even when they seem to challenge what seems so plain, can have great significance. Our perspective is so small, so limited. God’s perspective is wide, taking in all of history in a single glance. We need to rely on Him, on His Word, on His voice, trusting that He will not lead us astray.

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Meditation on Joseph

We can’t blame Western artists for giving Joseph short shrift in depictions of the Nativity. They didn’t have much to go on.

Joseph is given no lines to speak in any of the Gospels, is not mentioned by name anywhere in Mark’s Gospel, and he disappears entirely after Jesus’s childhood. Significantly, he is absent during Jesus’s public ministry and even at the Crucifixion, where, by contrast, Mary is featured prominently. This has led many scholars to conclude that he died before the end of Jesus’s earthly life. In the Church of St. Joseph in Nazareth is a moving stained-glass window entitled “The Death of Joseph,” a rare scene in Christian art. The dying man lies in a bed, his right hand held tenderly by Jesus, his left by Mary.

So, what do we know about Joseph? Apart from his trade—he’s called a “tektōn” in the Gospels, which is usually translated as carpenter but is more likely a general craftsman—not much. But Pheme Perkins, a professor of New Testament at Boston College, [says] that we can draw some interesting conclusions if we read the Gospels carefully.

“The most obvious assumption in antiquity would have been that Joseph had been married before and was a widower… Most likely, an arrangement was made for him to find a young wife.”

Though most of Joseph’s life goes unmentioned in the Gospels, he carried out an exceedingly important task: helping to raise the Son of God. For the first years of Jesus’s life, and perhaps into his young adulthood, he would have learned much of what he knew about the Jewish faith—its beliefs and practices, its history and ethics—from his mother and his foster father. Perhaps the skills Jesus learned alongside Joseph in the carpentry shop—patience, hard work, creativity—were put to use in his later ministry. In this way Joseph represents the holiness of the hidden life, doing meaningful things without a great deal of fanfare.

Joseph’s actions during the Nativity story offer a powerful model to Christians. The Gospel of Matthew describes him as a “righteous man” who does what God asks of him, after his initial confusion. After discovering Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph thinks of “quietly” ending their marriage plans, so as not to disgrace her. But the Gospel of Matthew tells readers that an angel reassures the clearly confused Joseph in a dream: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” says the angel, who then explains the unusual circumstances of the birth. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

In both the Old and New Testaments, dreams are privileged ways in which God communicates with people. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. Jacob’s son and Joseph’s namesake, the Joseph of Genesis, receives messages in dreams about his future and later, as a servant in Pharaoh’s court, becomes an interpreter of dreams.

Joseph faced an agonizing decision. But with God’s grace he moved from confusion to a process of discernment, and finally to acceptance. In this way he mirrors Mary more than we might initially suspect. While the sequence is different for Mary and Joseph, both face confusion, both have vivid experiences of God, both are confronted with a never-before-made decision, both assent to God’s will and both then prepare themselves for a life that will be, needless to say, confusing.

Matthew, by the way, may have been more intent on describing Joseph’s role because of the evangelist’s desire to present Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. His Gospel begins with a lengthy genealogy starting with Abraham, continues through David and ends up with Joseph. In this way Joseph is a symbol of both continuity (the continuation of the royal line of David and the placement of Jesus in the long line of Jewish prophets) and discontinuity (the unique way that Jesus’s birth will come about and the utter newness of his ministry).

During the latter part of the Christmas story, the Holy Family leaves their homeland. Again, in a dream, Joseph is told to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the rage of Herod, who will order the slaughter of all male children under two years of age. “Now after they [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’”

Throughout the story, the personality of Mary’s husband shines through, wordlessly. Pheme Perkins says, “Here is a model of someone who represents all the virtues in the Hebrew Bible. He is asked to do something shocking, but because he’s righteous, he follows God’s guidance.”

Joseph was responsible for protecting Mary and her son in extreme conditions. Perkins calls him a “model for how people can follow God through difficult times.”  – Father James Martin, SJ

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