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25th October 2020


Passage: Acts 9;19-28


You have probably heard the story of how St Paul became a Christian. He had been brought up as a devout Jew and, when the first followers of Jesus started preaching that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah- the Son of God, Paul (then known as Saul) reacted furiously. As a strong, passionate young believer, he took it upon himself to hunt down these subversive Jewish Christians, to get them arrested, imprisoned and executed before their religion could spread.
Then, whilst travelling to a town called Damascus, where he knew Christians were hiding, Saul literally encountered Jesus. (Don’t ask me how but he most certainly did) In a dramatic conversion experience, his whole life and understanding were turned around and he became as passionately committed to Christianity as he was once passionately against it.

But not everybody was convinced. Would you be? If a man who had been hunting down your fellow Christians; who had brought about the execution of your family members and friends and had spread terror through the area suddenly turned around and said, “It’s OK now. I’m a believer and I want to join your church…” would you welcome him with open arms?
It took one very brave man, called Barnabus, to get Saul accepted by the Christian community. The name “Barnabus” means “son of encouragement.” It was this Barnabus who actually took the risk of meeting Saul and personally bringing him to the Christians in Jerusalem.

I was trying to think of a modern equivalent to Barnabus and found it here in Street Pastors. Most people on the streets of Orpington on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons have no time at all for God or for the Christian church. Their own experiences of life and the things they have been told about religion have left them not wanting to know. Like Barnabus, our Street Pastors personally take what the church is about in terms of faith, hope and love to these people. I asked our two Street Pastors-Jackie and Glynis to read us the story of Saul and Barnabus. Jackie online and Glynis in church.
READ: Acts 9, verses 19-28

Most of us are wearing masks at the moment and don’t we just hate them? But they do help to protect us and the people we mix with right now.
And I was thinking of how we all-to a certain extent- wear a mask, even under normal circumstances. It is part of growing up and being civilised. Small children can get away with throwing tantrums when they are angry; the rest of us cannot.
So, we wear a patient, smiling mask when someone is annoying us and count to ten under our breath.
When things are going badly, we wear a brave, heroic mask and answer “Not too bad, thanks” when asked how we are, no matter how much we want to lie on the floor and scream. These “masks” protect us from the extremes of destructive behaviour and that is good.
But some masks can do more harm than good- the mask of success, never admitting to failure; the mask of the victim, never admitting to hope; the mask of the clown; never admitting to sadness; the mask of the deeply religious, never admitting to doubt.
We assume masks like these because we do not like what we really are and because we want to protect ourselves and others from that person we really are. It can be exhausting and soul-destroying perpetually to project an image which is not our own and, whilst wearing our masks, we mentally place masks on others, expecting them to play the parts we need them to play, such as our hero, our enemy, our victim. And we end up living a story which is not our own and with people who are not real.
As Karen Carpenter sang, “Are we really happy with this lonely game we play?....We’re lost in this masquerade.” And no-one knew more than she did just how much it cost to project an image which was not her own.

One of the greatest privileges in being a Minister is that sometimes you get to see behind the masks.
I have seen incredible power behind a mask of timid fragility. And I have seen unbearable pain behind a mask of confident strength.
I have seen deep rooted guilt behind a mask of arrogance and amazing love behind a mask of apparent indifference.
I have seen fear at the prospect of lowering the mask and letting anyone see the real person. But I have seen too, the relief at being able to share who you really are without being condemned or ridiculed.

It stands to reason then, that if there is a God, this God must be able to see behind the masks we wear. In the Old Testament, when the prophet Samuel goes to find the person God has chosen to be King of Israel, God warns him, “don’t forget. You only see the outside appearance; I see the heart.”
God is not deceived by the appearance of strength or goodness or religion. God sees what is going on inside.

Saul started out wearing the mask of a fanatical religious leader. Jesus got behind the mask and saw Saul as he really was.
In Saul’s story and in the letters he wrote to churches as Paul, the apostle, you see that in fact, he was very vulnerable, uncertain, afraid of saying or teaching the wrong thing.
He spent hours thinking, praying, writing down the Christian faith as he understood it and how it related to his Jewish upbringing, aware that he was on a steep learning curve and liable to get things wrong. He was not a super-confident preacher.
He was not the supreme ruler of a sect, with all the answers at his fingertips.
The Paul we see walking the way of Jesus, is infinitely more fragile and unsure of himself than the Saul at the start of the story.

The one thing which remained all through was his passion for God. But Paul has turned away from the God he had once created for himself, who had demanded brutality, violence and intolerance from his worshippers.
Paul came to follow a God who had come into the world as a fragile human life in Jesus Christ; who had made himself vulnerable by tearing off the “mask of God” which others had created, showing himself as he truly was. And in that very vulnerability there was incredible strength- the strength of love.

Jesus not only saw behind the masks people wore but loved what was there. And in that love there was power- power to enable people to accept themselves for who they truly were; power to enable them to turn their lives around and face truth rather than live by lies; power to enable them in their turn to see behind the masks that others wear and to love them.
Paul found himself able to accept his own frailty rather than hide behind a mask of ruthless arrogance because, he said “it’s no longer all about me. It is about Christ. The power of God just gets stronger when I am weak.”
And Paul found himself able to love others, even the races he had once hated. He no longer saw them in light of the masks he placed upon them but in the light of Christ’s love, meaning that the Christian church- despite its own fragility- became an all-inclusive community in a hostile and divided world.

It is not easy to look behind the masks people wear and to see them as Christ sees them. We all know people who annoy us, frustrate us, hurt us, baffle us, even scare us. And we know that feeling of utter helplessness when it comes to sharing our faith, of reaching out to people who don’t want to know.
Where do we start?

We start right here, inviting Jesus Christ to see behind the mask we might be wearing, allowing him to show us what is really bugging us; sticking with him even as he shows us truth about ourselves, we would rather not face.
We walk each day with him, one step at a time, learning to see not only ourselves but others in the light of his love.
Barnabus, by all accounts, was a quiet Christian man, getting on with his faith, serving his church, minding his own business, when Jesus showed him Saul, who needed a friend brave enough to trust him and to take him into the Christian community. And because Barnabus was himself walking with Jesus day by day, he was “tuned in” enough to get the message and to do what was needed. Without him we might never have known St Paul.

The same story has been heard over and over again. Street Pastors grew from the frustrations and the frailties of modern-day Christians, despairing over a secular nation not wanting to know God, yet desperately needing God. These Christians kept praying, kept looking, kept walking with Christ until he showed them a mission called Street Pastors.
St Francis was shown the lepers; William Wilberforce was shown the slaves;
Josephine Butler was shown the prostitutes; Florence Nightingale was shown the war-wounded.
None of these people set out to do great works. They simply walked with Christ; allowed him to show them the faces behind the masks; learned to love them and trusted his power in serving them.

Barnabus- the name means “son of encouragement.” It does not mean “infallible” or “super-hero.” But is amazing what encouragement can do.
Let’s keep walking with Christ and allow him simply to encourage us day by day.
And let’s ask him day by day to show us the people who need our encouragement.
And trust him to make us strong in the giving. Amen.