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I have to tell you I have a healthy respect for the sea. You might even want to call it a fear. I hear stories of people like our brother Dennis who take boats around the Greek islands (likely around many of the places mentioned in our story) and I think “Well God bless you and you can have that.” I like to keep my feet firmly rooted on dry ground and never even venture too far out when I find myself at an ocean beach. It’s a little ironic as my family immigrated from an island nation – one that used to send missionaries out in leather boats. My grandfather was in the merchant navy and travelled by ship all over the world. Many of my relatives and forebears worked in the shipyards of Belfast – where the Titanic was built and as they say there to this day “She was fine when she left here.”
So I think it’s a good thing I was born so far inland. In this way I’m like the ancient Israelites. Unlike the Phoenicians or the island-hopping Greeks, the ancient Israelites were not maritime people. It’s interesting that at the beginning of the Biblical story we read about darkness covering the face of the deep. At the end of the Biblical story we have a description of the new heaven and new earth and are told that the sea is no more (which makes me hope that there is still sea food at least).
This story has always been headed toward Rome. We’ve said this from the beginning. When we hear the words “We put to sea” we might hear them with a certain sense of foreboding. When we hear that the winds were against us, this foreboding might grow stronger. When we hear that much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous because even the Fast had already gone by (the Fast here by the way is the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur which happens in September or October) the situation seems even more bleak and we have Paul issuing warnings about loss of life and loss of cargo and we might be thinking “Why don’t they listen to him?”
A sea voyage is a normal part of ancient literature. We’ve already talked about The Odyssey. There’s the Adventures of Sinbad. To have a sea voyage in an ancient story is as much a trope as a car chase in an action movie.
What does this one have to say about God and God’s church? Someone has said that Paul’s voyage to Rome here is very much like Christ’s voyage to Jerusalem – the city that Christ set his face toward knowing what awaited him there. Both Jesus and Paul “go through the waters” as it were and in the end there is life.
Throughout the story though, hope floats. I want us to consider the image of Paul’s journey in a ship as an image of the church. Will Willimon describes the idea of a sea voyage like this – “Are we attracted to these tales of sea journeys because we know that we ourselves are wayfarers, voyagers upon uncharted seas, pilgrims at the mercy of the elements.” We’ve often talked about our status as Christians as pilgrim people – as wayfarers (poor wayfaring strangers as the song goes) and thought about it in terms of people making their way through the wilderness in a caravan. Here the image is being changed up somewhat. It’s like the Ship of State, except in this case it’s The Ship of the Kingdom. It’s an image that’s been used before. I like it. I like how we see the cross in the centre of it. I like how the shadow of the cross would fall across the sea if there’s light enough. And there’s always light enough when we’re sailing with the light of the world.
On the sea, you’re facing forces beyond your control. Go YouTube “ships in storms” if you want to know what it can be like. Maybe you’ve experienced it firsthand (I haven’t because as I said earlier – too much fear of the sea). It can be hard for us to face forces beyond our control in this world. There was a time when we wanted to think that machines would make life-like machines – rational, dependable, predictable. There was a time when we thought technology would save us or at least make things easier and give us lots of downtime. No one is against advances in machinery or advances in technology or advances in medicine or education or governance or whatever the thing that some think might be the salvation of humanity, of the world.
To get into the Kingdom Ship is to recognize that there is a greater force at work here, a greater power in control. It is to embark in this ship into a sea that if often stormy. Surrounded by a culture that bows down to other gods, that worships gods made with human hands while the people on the vessel live and proclaim the message that was Paul’s – gods made with human hands are not gods. To embark on this vessel is to live in the ultimate victory of Christ knowing that the ultimate victory is yet to be won. Knowing that the devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. To embark on this vessel is to make the invitation for others to get on board – to throw out the lifeline as the old hymn goes. It is to live as a colony of heaven as if in a ship surrounded by raging seas (or space) and hostile forces. We do this together as we’ve been saying throughout this months-long journey through Acts.
A ship full of people who have come to the end of their own resources. We see this happening in our story. Try to get the ship’s boat under control. Hoist it up. Undergird the ship. Run ropes underneath it to strengthen the structure, in other words. Lower the sea anchor to try and slow the ship down. Throw the cargo overboard (and when the cargo is going overboard you know things are serious as the cargo was the main reason the ship was sailing in the first place), then the ship’s tackle – the things that made the ship steerable, ropes and such.
Neither the sun nor stars appeared for many days. No small tempest rages. All hope of being saved was at last abandoned.
Hope is gone.
The thing is on the Kingdom Ship, hope is never gone. These three things abide remember. These three things remain faith, hope, love.
Paul brings the message. Good old Paul. Just as he’s been doing for years now. Of course, before he brings the message he tells these people “I told you so.” “Men, you should have listened to me and not set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss.” Not helpful, as those of us who’ve been on the receiving end of a good I-told-you-so can affirm. Someone has said that it’s obvious that tact is not part of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, tact). Let’s not use this as an excuse not to be tactful though. Then Paul brings the message. Keep up your courage. There will be no loss of life among you.
Because on this ship, you see, there is life. How are we assured of this?
Because of the God to whom we belong. Look at how Paul puts it, and I love this phrase. Last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship.
The God to whom we belong and whom we worship. In this God is life. This God has made promises. This is the God about whom we are reminded and whom we worship as we go along in the Kingdom ship. Sometimes the waters are calm and the wind is favourable. Other times we’re in the midst of a tempest of grief or doubt or uncertainty or fear or….
Paul has received a very specific promise from God that he would stand before the emperor in Rome. We have received fairly specific promises from God that we cling to.
The promises of God.
And these words from Paul. “So keep up your courage men (and women and young people and children) – for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have told.” We’re reminded of some of Paul’s great lines throughout Acts. Gods made with human hands are not gods. Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me might become such as I am. One who can say “The God to whom I belong and whom I worship.” The God to whom we belong and whom we worship has made promises to us and God is faithful to His promises.
This God is Lord of all, even the raging sea. So take courage, because the ship is still drifting and they’re nearing land and they’re still trying everything they can think of to take matters into their own hands. Throwing down sea anchors to slow the progress of the boat before it’s dashed against rocks. The ship’s crew trying to escape – abandoning passengers and whatever cargo might remain – in the ship’s boat. Paul letting the centurion and soldiers know and the soldiers stop the crew because help in the Kingdom Ship often comes from unexpected places.
Then this instruction from Paul. Take some food. To not eat here is to give up hope. To not eat is to not see a future. Is it any wonder that God instructed His people to eat a meal before fleeing Egypt? Is it any wonder that Jesus instructed his followers to share a meal? To eat a meal is to look forward to a future – otherwise why bother? Someone has said, “The Eucharist is food of confidence shared in the middle of a storm.” These men have been without hope and not eating for 14 days. This isn’t a Eucharist meal per se but how can we not think of the Eucharist, how can we not think of the one who called himself the Bread of Life when we hear that he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Is it any wonder that one of our central rites is centred around eating and drinking? To share a meal is to look forward to a future. If this is not the Eucharist it’s what you might call an Eucharistic meal (a meal of thanksgiving) which not only looks forward with hope but gives thanks for life and light. It’s a meal that shapes a Eucharistic life. Someone has described such a life like this – “A Eucharistic life proclaims to the world that everything is infused with the grace of God and controlled by the will of God. Luke specifies that those who observe Paul are encouraged and they take food. If it is not the bread of the Eucharist, it is the bread of hope.”
The bread of hope. The bread of life. Here is life. On this Kingdom Ship there is life and that cross we see at the top of the mast reminds us of it constantly.
Hope floats, even if hope is clinging onto to wreckage and washing up on the beach soaked and bedraggled. And alive. Because in this hope is life. They make a run for land. The ship gets hung up on a reef. The waves are breaking it apart. In one last act of self-preservation, the Roman soldiers plan to kill the prisoners (as it was their own death if a prisoner escapes). The centurion, who didn’t want Paul to be killed, nixes the plan and again help comes from unexpected places. Some swim, some hold onto planks or just pieces of the ship.
Because sometimes we don’t feel like we’re sailing along together. Sometimes we feel like we’re clinging on to planks, pieces, scraps of faith.
It’s not up to us thankfully. They were all brought safely to land. Note they didn’t safely bring themselves to land. They were all brought to land. They were all saved. To be saved means to be given life.
Aren’t you thankful? Wouldn’t you like to join us? The invitation is always there. Come aboard. We don’t promise it’s always easy but we do know that on this ship there is life and we sail toward that land of promise. Living in the promises. Praising and thanking. Gathering to eat together in the midst of certainty or uncertainty looking toward a future that is certain. Thanks be to the God to whom we belong and whom we worship.