We know that the reason we keep rereading the Bible is not that it changes. It still says the same things. But our circumstances change. So we read it differently.
When I saw this morning that I was getting to the storm-and-shipwreck story in Acts 27, it seemed fitting to me, because of where my head has been recently.
So this story in Acts 27:
First, the dramatis personae:
- Paul, the apostle, having been arrested in Jerusalem, and having appealed his case to Rome, is being transported thither.
- A Roman centurion and the squad of soldiers escorting Paul to Rome.
- The captain and crew of the ship on which the centurion is transporting Paul.
The hero of our story in the second half of the book of Acts is Paul. But if you know the Bible at all, either testament, you know that the human hero of any part of the biblical narrative is not a real hero in the sense in which other literatures have heroes. The biblical hero is a pointer to God. So we have our fourth character:
Read the story (if you don’t have a Bible handy, you can pull it up online).
Where does this shadowy fourth character, God, show up in the story?
Is God there in verse 10, in Paul’s “I can see . . .”? When Paul foresees disaster, including the loss of the ship and loss of lives, is this a divine revelation? We don’t know yet. We must wait and see.
So we read further. The ship sails. A storm arises. Paul says I told you so. But then God shows up. Paul says to the captain and crew of the ship, and to the Roman soldiers as well:
“I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor, and, indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island.”
Who is God? Paul identifies him as “to whom I belong and whom I worship.” Paul is a prisoner, on a ship, in a storm, accompanied by the soldiers who are keeping him captive and the sailors who are hauling him away to stand trial. And he is nevertheless mindful of the one “to whom I belong and whom I worship.” And God’s messenger speaks to Paul, revealing that Paul’s own earlier prediction was only half right: the ship will indeed be wrecked; but no lives will be lost.
Is that not meant to be the role of God also in our lives, amid our own storms, even if we are surrounded only by people who are trying to do us in? When Paul focuses on the one to whom he belongs, and whom he worships, he is able to speak to them all calmly, generously, encouragingly, stilling their fears. He urges his captors to keep up their courage!
He can do this because, as he says, “I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” Readers of the whole two-part narrative, Luke and Acts, will recall Zechariah, who did not believe (Luke 1:20), and Mary, mother of Jesus, who is blessed by Elizabeth as “she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Paul, the narrator is telling us, follows the model of Mary in believing.
And they all persevere together through the storm.
When they draw near to land, the sailors sneak off to lower the ship’s boat and escape in it to land; but Paul spots them and tells the centurion, who cuts the boat loose. Then, just before daybreak, this truly remarkable scene:
Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive, for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” After he had said this, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. (We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.)
Again, the reader recognizes something significant in Paul’s gathering all the soldiers and sailors together, giving thanks to God and breaking bread with them. Meals in the Bible are celebrations of fellowship, and then they become remembrances and celebrations of the death and resurrections of Jesus, who on the night before he died gathered his disciples, gave thanks, and broke bread (Luke 22:14–23). Now in Acts 27 the narrator deliberately describes Paul’s shared meal with his 270+ captors, his 270+ enemies (at least one companion of Paul is also traveling, perhaps more), in terms that closely echo the words and actions of Jesus on the night before his crucifixion.
What are we to make of this? Well, not too much. The soldiers and sailors are not disciples, and the meal is not a liturgical eucharist or holy communion or Lord’s supper. But it sure does deliberately mimic one. Why?
I have not noticed this before. But in this season of storms, and of contemplating the high likelihood of impending shipwreck, what this text says to me is: Remember who you belong to. Remember that the one you belong to is the one you worship and serve. Believe whatever that one has promised you. Let your confidence in that one flow through you, and out to others around you, even if they are not disciples and fellow-followers but footsoldiers of a power that is out to do you in, and speak grace to them: calm their fears; encourage them to keep up their courage. And even if the ship is wrecked, hope that they and you will all survive, and that you will break bread together.
I’m not fully sure where to go with that. But that’s what I read in this text this morning.