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The Man Who Discipled Failures

  • John Sloan
  • Published Oct 08, 2002
The Man Who Discipled Failures

When we think of a disciple maker in the first century, the rugged, crusading apostolic image of a Peter or a Paul forms in our minds. They were individuals who had a single vision in their heads about what they were going to think, say, or do about the expansion of Christianity and leaders who were continually finding faithful disciples who never wavered or failed. They were visionaries who charted graphs of church growth with bearish, Dow Jones-like lines that routinely climbed at a 45-degree angle upward.


And yet there was Barnabas. Oh, he had his successful stint with Paul in Asia Minor on the first of the missionary journeys given Paul's name (Acts 13:4-14:26). But the travel highlights of that journey do not provide a look at the most memorable part of Barnabas's character which determined how he saw people, especially people who had failed or who needed a second chance in life.


It was Barnabas who believed in the man Saul, who later took the name Paul, after a life of persecuting Christians.  None of the Christians wanted to sign him up for their fellowship group (Acts 9:26).  Who knows, he could have been a double agent who was infiltrating their fellowship to pinpoint their location for an SS squad. 


But Barnabas, on the basis of Saul's narrative about what had happened to him on the Damascus road, stood by Saul and spoke up for him (Acts 9:27). For the persecutor, for the enemy, for one who needed a second chance. 


Later Paul forgot the lesson about giving somebody a second chance when he barred John Mark from the Second Missionary Journey because of the younger disciple's failure to finish the first. But there came Barnabas again, stepping up for the underdog, and he took John Mark under his wing, believing that John Mark still had much to give (Acts 15:36-41).


Had Barnabas not taken on the cause of the one needing to at least be given a chance, regardless of what had gone before, we wouldn't have most of the New Testament epistles, or the Gospel of Mark, or spread of the gospel across the known world of the first century.


A Needed Skill


The character trait of "encouraging the discouraged" could possibly be the most needed people skill for a Christian disciple maker in the 21st century.


Maybe it was for people living in New Testament times, also, because it all didn't go well for the first century Christians, who worked with a variety of people as they watched over the growth of their movement. 


Every new believer didn't flower into rich, mature fruit. Every mission trip didn't go well - there were beatings, floggings, imprisonments, other tortures. Every church didn't demonstrate harmony, growth, and a first-rate love for one another and for Christ. (The New Testament epistles talk of lethargy, immoral behavior, splits, gossip, and a creeping coldness of heart.)


Those descriptions are reality, then and now. We often forget that. And so sometimes it takes our culture to remind us of what that reality looks like, of how to give someone who has failed a fresh start or become an ally who won't give up on a friend who is losing – even when that reminder comes packaged as something other than a sermon. Like as a movie.


One film actor has at least three roles in which he portrays a person who takes up for the failures most of us would leave behind.  Tom Hanks, the most successful actor of the nineties, is described as the Jimmy Stewart of our generation.  We get the feeling in his movies that were he to step out of the screen and see our troubled lives, he'd sit down and help us try to work things out.


In the animated movie “Toy Story,” Hanks is the voice of the lovable Cowboy Woody who endures the loss of his favored-toy status when Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) beams into boy-owner Andy's life. Woody moves beyond his initial anger to rally a troop of older, outdated toys - themselves losers - to the side of newcomer Lightyear who is about to be launched to the heavens strapped to a skyrocket belonging to the evil kid, Sid, from next door. In leading the rescue, Woody has to convince Rex, Mr. Potato Head, Hamm, Slinky, and others that their useful days have not ended, and that their finest hours are ahead.


After the bloody but successful D-Day Invasion of Omaha Beach, Hanks as Captain John Miller is given the second-rate mission of guiding a patrol behind enemy lines to find and save Private James Ryan whose brothers have all been killed in World War II action. The decision to Save Private Ryan comes as an act of charity from U.S. Army brass, but its success depends on the captain's ability to dignify what some under his command see as a second-class, loser of a mission. Captain Miller supplies that dignity. To many it was a lousy, risky rescue idea from Washington for a guy who probably didn't deserve it. For Miller it was worth his own life.


Paul Edgecomb is a prison guard in Cold Mountain Penitentiary supervising the day-to-day routine on Death Row in the book, The Green Mile, and Hanks plays the character in the movie. One larger-than-life figure is convict John Coffey, sentenced to die for two murders he didn't commit, but endowed with miraculous powers, which have their effect on everyone including Edgecomb. 


But the brightest colors in the background story come from Edgecomb's gradual change of heart toward the condemned men in his charge with whom he has to walk a final "mile" over green-colored linoleum down the hall to the electric chair.  For Paul Edgecomb, revulsion is replaced by pity, which gives way to sorrow, which finally becomes mercy as he moves through the final days of each of these men. Edgecomb transforms into a kind of a minister for those who would seem to deserve no chance at all.


Casting Call


Why compare Hanks' characters with Barnabas? Paradoxically it is not really because of his comparison to Jimmy Stewart or his ability on the screen to help people in their time of need.


No, the comparison to Barnabas is valid for the opposite reason. It's valid because Hanks in these roles shows insecurity, jealousy, naiveté, fear, pettiness, indifference, and ... fallibility.  He's just like all of us.  And just like Barnabas.


This should be good news. We identify with the humanness of Barnabas, who was drawn away into a path of legalism and hypocrisy because of peer pressure at the Jerusalem Council (Act 15; Galatians 2:13).  We understand a man who, like us, loses his temper in the disagreement he had with Paul over John Mark's value for a second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-39).


Barnabas is a man we can identify with, as we can with the created characters of Hanks, because of their humanness.  Barnabas is good news.  We don't have to be perfect, to be Jesus, to encourage those who need a second chance.  And isn't giving people a second chance what Jesus came to do?


In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), in Jesus' parables and stories that fill up the gospels, isn't it the failures and those who knew their lostness who He came to save?  This is reclamation, this is redemption and forgiveness, this is restoration and the promise of renewal.


As it was for those toys whose paint jobs were old and whose novelty had worn thin and who'd lost sight of their original purpose.  Or the prisoners who knew of their sin, the death they had caused, and the death they were going toward, for whom only the mercy and forgiveness of another could bring hope.  Or the soldier who was caught behind enemy lines and didn't realize his worth until a lifetime of reflection upon the price that had been paid to give him a second chance.


Life may not play that dramatically for the ones we encounter who need a second chance. But maybe that's not true. What is so un-dramatic about the isolation felt by a divorced person from their Sunday school and church in the aftermath and wreckage of a marriage failure? Or the stigma and disqualification from ministry directed at someone who's needed therapy and treatment for their depression?  What about the guy in the Christian group whose life started to come back together after going to AA-and then he dropped out of sight?  Or the youth worker who started questioning his faith, left his family, and yet showed up a few months ago, wondering whom he could turn to?


The question about where we can find people who need a Barnabas is answered when we simply walk out our front door, or across the street, or over to the park, or into our church and workplace. There are plenty of people God wants to help who have been passionately opposed to our faith and worthy of blackballing from Christianity because of how they've treated us in the past. There are even more people who have backed down, walked away, given up, and so caused us a life's worth of disappointment who Jesus wants to encourage. These are the people who populate the Barnabas Way.


Do I think God would cast Tom Hanks in the role of "Barnabas?" No. I think He wants to cast you and me there. 


Copyright © 2002 by John Sloan.


John Sloan is an executive editor with Zondervan Publishing House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a subsidiary of HarperCollinsPublishers in New York. He is the author of The Barnabas Way and Our Faith Friend: Building Intimacy with God.  John lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and three children.