Acts 27:27-44 "All Encouraged"
Last Tuesday at our Women's Guild meeting we were looking at the Gospel of Luke, which prompted someone to make the comment that Luke must have been the kind of person you'd like to be your doctor: he seems to be so warm and compassionate in the way he writes and presents stories. But if Luke the physician really is the person who wrote both the gospel and the Book of Acts, you could almost wonder if Luke maybe missed his calling in life. In truth, we have no idea what kind of a doctor he was, but what we do know is that he was a cracking good writer and storyteller.
In the New Testament, after all, it's Luke who gives us what has become the classic telling of the Christmas story. If it weren't for Luke, we would never have heard the line "There was no room at the inn," nor would we know about the stable, the shepherds, or the angels. Luke alone gives us the memorable parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Luke is the author who introduces us to wee little Zacchaeus and it was Luke who crafted that moving post-Easter story about the now-famous "Road to Emmaus." In the Book of Acts, Luke gives us the stirring story of Pentecost, the drama of Ananias and Sapphira, the tale about the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul's conversion on the Damascus Road, Eutychus toppling out of that window during a really long sermon, and also all those richly embroidered stories about the missionary journeys of Paul, Peter, and the other apostles.
But nowhere are Luke's literary powers on display better than in these last two chapters of Acts. Luke's account of Paul's perilous journey by sea is widely regarded as one of the best dramatic stories ever written in the ancient world. It has even been studied by scholars as a kind of primer on ancient sea-faring techniques. Luke's descriptions about the sailors, the ship, the riggings, and the like are so detailed as to proffer an accurate glimpse into how they used to navigate the seas back then.
But as an evangelist, Luke never wrote sheerly for the artistry of it all. His purpose was not simply to write a gripping story that would become a best seller or something. Instead, Luke always packaged these stories very carefully with the goal of helping readers come to a better and stronger faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior of the world. The Book of Acts is not like the diaries kept by Lewis and Clark in the sense of being a merely factual, blow-by-blow account of what happened as Paul traveled from here to there. Instead Acts was intentionally designed to let the facts of history direct readers again and again back to the Lord of history, who is also the Lord of the church.
Both Luke's gospel and Acts were addressed to Luke's friend Theophilus and to the congregation Theophilus appears to have been serving as a kind of pastor. Scholars believe that Theophilus and company were going through some tough times of persecution and discouragement. If so, then it makes sense that Luke wrote Acts to remind these suffering Christians that even the early church went through a lot of trials and struggles. There never was some "golden age" of the church during which there were no struggles, no quarrels among believers, no mistakes, and no suffering. This world is a tough place in which to be Christians. That has always been so. Luke, therefore, wanted to encourage Theophilus and his flock. Just because they were suffering did not mean God had abandoned them. The life of a disciple is often rough, but God is present even so.
Perhaps nowhere in Acts can you see this message more clearly than in Acts 27. Even though I believe this story of Paul's shipwreck is historical, nevertheless it is clear that Luke has molded this story into a kind of living parable. The perils Paul endures on those high seas, the storms that come and the winds that howl, are all metaphors for the persecutions, trials, and difficulties that attend the lives of believers. Yet smack in the middle of all that turmoil and storminess, we find an image as comforting and as stunning as any in Scripture.
We'll get to that image in just a moment but first let's summarize the story. Paul is finally being transferred to Rome where he will have his requested audience with the Caesar. Paul has been under arrest for a long time and has pretty well exhausted all of his legal options on the local and provincial levels of the Roman judicial system. Finally, as a Roman citizen, Paul went for broke and appealed his case directly to the Caesar--a request that, according to Roman law, could not be denied.
So now, after many delays, he's being transported via ship to Italy. Against Paul's advice as well as against simple common sense, the sailors decide to try a wintertime trip despite the possibility of strong winter storms at sea. At that time, portions of the Roman Empire were enduring a severe famine. Caesar Claudius decided to import massive amounts of grain from Egypt and he offered sailors big financial incentives to keep bringing the grain all year long, including during the Mediterranean's equivalent of hurricane season. Paul was quite likely on a grain-carrying ship, and the decision to risk a winter-time trip was probably fueled by the greed of the sailors who wanted to get that extra spiff from the Caesar.
As Paul predicted, however, they get caught in a nightmare of a storm. You did not need to be too experienced as a sailor to know that there would be no saving that ship. Yet in the midst of it all stands Paul. He is not afraid. He is not panicky. Some ancient witnesses claim that Paul was a short, stocky, bald-headed little man with bowed-legs, a big nose, and eyebrows that met in the middle. He wasn't much to look at. So what an image we get in Acts 27 of this little fellow standing up in the midst of the gale, quietly assuring all 276 sailors aboard that God will spare their lives. Then, when the ship is only hours away from utter destruction from the pounding surf just off the shores of Malta, Paul encourages them to eat. They are going to need some calories and energy if they are going to have the stamina required to swim and flail ashore once the ship is reduced to kindling wood.
So Paul stands before them, takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and passes it to the sailors. In verse 36, Luke informs us that they were "all encouraged" by this. And well they should have been. We should be encouraged by this, too. Because in the middle of the storm, Paul somehow found it within himself to celebrate the Lord's Supper. True, it's not the Lord's Supper exactly the way you and I would think of it. Nor is it terribly likely that most of those sailors perceived the true spiritual meaning behind Paul's gestures. But for his part, Luke has clearly crafted this part of the story in a way calculated to remind readers then and now of Jesus' own eucharistic actions. Luke intentionally echoes himself in how, in Luke's gospel, he presented Jesus taking, thanking, and breaking the bread in the upper room as well as in that room in Emmaus after the resurrection.
There is no mistaking the rhythm of these gestures and words. As it was for the disciples in that upper room and later in Emmaus, so on that ship: those with eyes to see perceived Jesus himself in their very midst. There was the Lord of Life sharing the bread of his body to give strength for the journey ahead. As we have noted before, throughout the Bible the sea, and especially the raging sea, represents evil and primordial chaos. The roiling oceans stood for all that threatened the cosmos of God's good shalom. But in the midst of this particular storm, we see the risen Christ of the New Creation. And this is reason enough to be encouraged indeed: no matter how fierce it may get in this world, Jesus is here.
On the surface, asking the sailors to calm down long enough to eat hearty seemed like the height of folly. They'd all be dead in a short while anyway so what difference would it make if they ate!? Who cares if your stomach is full of bread if in a few minutes your lungs will be full of seawater?! It was like the captain of the Titanic asking the ship's band to play on deck so the passengers wouldn't panic. Such a spectacle looks rather silly and anyway, when a ship is going down, it is a pretty good time to panic! But Paul had already assured them they would not die. They were going to make it and if so, then eating made very good sense after all.
There is virtually no way that Theophilus and his congregation missed seeing this rich symbolism and encouragement. Luke's message to them and to us is clear: in the midst of the storms that rock us in life, Christ is here and is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. From that glorious fact we need to draw great courage and encouragement.
This month we at Calvin Church have the chance to reflect on and also to celebrate who we are as a congregation and as a part of Jesus' larger Church on earth. It has been exciting to think about, plan for, and dream about an expanded and spiffed up facility. It has been energizing to ponder what new things we can do now that we could not do before as well as to wonder about how we can do even our existing ministries better. But this morning, as we prepare to come back to the Lord's table, I want to call us back to the center and focus of it all--to that one stunning reality without which no amount of programs, physical square footage, or church work could mean anything.
Because we need to admit that even as we have been completing our expansion program, the world has become a much stormier and rougher place. It's never been smooth sailing in any event, but lately the waves have seemed that much higher and dangerous. In fact, last Wednesday, just as I was typing this very paragraph, my email bell rang to announce the arrival of a "breaking news" bulletin from CNN that informed me that a woman in New York City had just died of anthrax. With each piece of news like that, the winds seem to howl just a little bit more.
There is so much that is wrong with this world. The government keeps telling us not to panic but polls reveal that though we may not be in panic exactly, fear is chugging along nicely through the populace. In a world where skyscrapers crumble and bombs rain down death, where invisible spores bring death to the unsuspecting and hatred in the name of God gets passed down from generation to generation, how utterly innocuous, ineffective, and maybe even foolish it may look to some to keep breaking the bread and spilling the wine at little tables like this one in churches throughout the world. Is this sacrament the best we can offer in the face of this life's storms? As a response to war, terror, and evil, it looks impossibly weak, like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble or trying to stop a gale force wind by just blowing back through your own mouth.
The only reason it can make sense to keep doing this--and the only reason to keep telling people that it means something quite special--is if we really and truly believe that contained in this rhythm of taking, breaking, thanking, and eating is the living presence of the Christ. The only reason it made sense for those sailors with Paul to eat was if they believed they were going to make it. The only reason for us to take, eat, remember, and believe this morning is if we, too, believe that in the long run, in life and in death, are going to make it by God's grace through Jesus.
That's the core of what Calvin Church is all about: proclaiming the hope of the world and embodying that hope in the bread and wine of this table. A couple of weeks ago we gathered our young people around the font to remind them of who they are as baptized people. Today we all gather around the other sacrament of the church to remind ourselves of who we are and of whose we are. In the middle of this world's storms, we Christians at Calvin Church stand up to offer bread and wine in the firm belief that these elements offer true life--a life that will survive the shipwrecks that may come.
And so we come to the table. We come, we eat, we drink, and then we go back home and back out into our storm-tossed world. The world may look at what we do here and ask, "Well, what good does that do?" But we know the good it does. Because it is no less than Jesus himself who is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. In receiving this holy encouragement, what else can we say in response but "Thanks be to God!" Amen.