Color vs. Math - Acts 15:36-41
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Acts 15:36-41 (NRSV)
Until 8th grade I loved science and especially science fairs. In 8th grade, however, the science geek in me died. I had a great idea for a fair project: I’d make parachutes in different patterns and then test them to see which worked the best. I had a ton of fun constructing my chutes, timing their drops from the school roof, and calculating the ratio of chute-area to drop speed. I spent so much time doing the experiment that my actual presentation was pretty bland—a big poster board with a picture and my handwritten results taped to it and the parachutes laid out on the table.
Three tables down from my presentation was the son of one of our school’s science teachers who also happened to be a judge for the fair. The boy had done the exact same project as me. When the results were announced he was the winner of the entire science fair and I didn’t get squat. I complained to my math teacher, feeling as though I’d been served a great injustice. He pointed out that the winning presentation was more colorful than mine. I pointed out that the winning presentation had completely miscalculated the same math that I had nailed. So I said, “You’re telling me that color matters more than math at the science fair?!?”
The truth is there are lots of settings where people care more about “color” than “math.” Unfortunately, that’s even true when we talk about the Bible and its characters. It always amazes me that we have this tendency to focus on the great accomplishments of Bible folks, which leads us to put them on some kind of pedestal. One of my big goals as a teacher of scripture is to show that the Bible itself doesn’t worship its characters. It’s perfectly comfortable pointing out the incorrect “math,” of Bible heroes. In fact, the authors of scripture typically love to remind us that these people were flawed and broken. But we love color and avoid admitting the math doesn’t add up.
Paul, for instance, was simply not perfect. I will illustrate this thoroughly on Sunday, but for now, trust me that he was wrong in this argument with Barnabas. My thought is that we overlook his flaws because he was one colorful guy. His conversion story is flabbergasting. His letters are eloquent, lucid, complex, and theologically foundational. His missionary journeys were stubborn, heroic, arduous, and produced tremendous fruit. Paul himself, however, knew none of this made him pedestal-worthy, but pointed to the splendid grace of a God who would choose to use him in spite of his stubbornness and brokenness.
Barnabas, on the other hand, well Barnabas is a lot more like my science fair project. He was steady and accurate, but there was no romantic window dressing. He falls into the Christian subconscious; slipping out of our minds, perhaps, because he’s always just a few tables down from the flashy Paul.
There’s a terrible, street-level consequence to our fixation with gaudy Christian heroism—we fail to appreciate, support, and acknowledge the Barnabas’ among us. There are so many servants who steadily put forth their work to the Lord without any ostentation. There are many who will risk their reputation to hang out with a dropout like John Mark. There are many who clean the bathrooms or quietly slip a thoughtful gift to someone who is low. There are many who encourage the cashier, the waiter, the mechanic, the daily “intruders” in our routine. There are many who faithfully work out their salvation with fear and trembling . . . no color and no prizes.
My challenge to you is, love on a Barnabas. Write an encouraging note. Tell them how much their work means to you. Get your eyes off the color and onto someone who could probably use your attention.
AND, let’s stop thinking we have to be Pauls. Barnabas furthered the Kingdom in a beautiful and quiet way. I promise you that when anyone stands before the Almighty he will not remark with adulation, “Boy, you sure did put on a colorful display!”
 And makes us feel continually guilty because we think we’re so unlike them that there must be something wrong with us. The reality is that the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, for instance, are portrayed as being awfully dense and yet still drive out demons and heal in the name of Jesus. This is because the power comes from the Spirit, who graciously utilizes and loves poor saps like me and them.