Acts 15:36-41 (NLT)
After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.
There’s no real way to determine who was right in the argument Paul and Barnabas had about taking John Mark along on a second journey. In searching for an answer, I could spend all day discussing topics like immaturity, loyalty, grace, forgiveness and unity, and I would never get to the important point.
The mission of the church comes first.
The disagreement these two apostles had was so sharp that their basic tasks of growing the church and encouraging continuing discipleship were imperiled. Remember, there were vast territories needing to hear about Christ and infant churches full of questions, but very few apostles to do the work.
Rather than letting the disagreement slow them further, they went their separate ways, Barnabas taking his cousin John Mark, and Paul choosing Silas to travel with him.
I have no doubt both men felt great pain as they separated. They had, after all, been through much together.
But again, the mission of the church comes first.
Why the Holy Spirit did not intervene in some way in a dream, a vision or a miracle, I cannot say. In some ways it is comforting to know that in the earliest days of the church, God sometimes left people to experience their emotions, think matters through and come up with difficult answers on their own. In terms of kingdom building, something about this process must be valuable.
It’s not hard to see how this passage relates to the current situation of the United Methodist Church and its internal argument over scriptural authority and application. We are at an impasse, sometimes a sharp one. And the mission of the church still has to come first.
Be encouraged, however. What we’ve heard from Acts today is not the end of the story. Christ somehow managed to bring Paul and John Mark together later in life.
Writing from prison in Rome nearly two decades later, Paul asked Timothy, “Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11.) This brief request is clear evidence something changed as John Mark grew up and Paul grew old.
As painful as conflict can be, people genuinely dedicated to the mission of the church will find themselves restored in their relationships, in this life or the next. I feel certain this is true.
Lord, may we always remain dedicated to the Great Commission, the need to lead people to a belief in Jesus Christ and grow them as disciples. We give thanks for all who make this their first priority. Amen.