This Sunday, I am preaching on Acts 29. You need to read the whole chapter – but it hangs together as one thrilling story. I think The Message version makes for a good read.
I’m not an action flick kind of girl – not when it comes to movies and not when it comes to time with the Bible. At the theatre, I choose romantic comedy or drama every time. When I sit down to read the Bible, I open to the psalms, the prophets, or to the stories of Jesus. Those epic tales of kings and warriors, wall tumbling down and armies in defeat just aren’t my thing. Well, they weren’t my thing until I had sons. And then I decided, frankly, that some of these stories might be in the Bible for no other reason than to capture the interest of little boys. And if Hollywood were looking for the stuff of a good box office hit, this passage from Acts certainly provides some amazing material. A huge cast, interpersonal conflict, threat at the hands of natural disaster, suspense, potential violence, and the opportunity to pull out all of the stops with special effects…. Sounds like the makings of a pretty good movie – if you like that sort of thing.
But I’m pretty sure this story didn’t make it into the Bible for its entertainment value alone. A few years ago, I was at a conference in Montreat, NC and had the opportunity to spend a few mornings with Christine Yoder as she led a group of us through a study of this chapter in Acts. Since that time, I have returned to it over and over, convinced that this beautiful passage of Scripture was written not for parents looking to help their young sons develop an interest in the Bible, but for us – grownups who are in the midst of something we love getting totally wrecked, coming completely apart.
Some background: Paul is headed to Rome to plead his innocence before the Emperor. He has been imprisoned for quite some time under charges along the lines of “riling up the Jews.” The Roman government seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place and though the king can see no reason for Paul, a Roman citizen, to remain in prison, he honors Paul’s appeal to the emperor and sends him off to Rome under the guard of a Roman centurion. Paul is finally put on a boat with 275 other folks – soldiers, sailors, prisoners, and businessmen representing various nationalities and ethnic groups. The weather isn’t right for sailing and quickly goes from bad to worse. I imagine that a storm-tossed boat filled with sea sick men who speak different languages and have different customs is a pretty unpleasant place to be. In little time at all, fear replaces reason and each member of the cast of characters on the ship begins devising his own solutions for the problem. Some want to lower the anchors, get still, and ride out the storm. Some start throwing cargo overboard – resources that might be precious to someone else or at some time in the future but that feel more like dead weight at the moment. Others begin taking the ship apart with their very own hands – throwing the tackle overboard in a desperate attempt to lighten the load. Some of the sailors – the ones responsible for getting everyone safely to shore – even try to secretly lower the lifeboats and escape. It reminds me of those Mayhem commercials – only there’s no insurance for this. Real people have lost all hope in the vessel’s ability to get them safely to shore – and they’ve lost trust, confidence, and a sense of responsibility for one another.
In the middle of this desperation, chaos and despair, Paul stands up and speaks a General Patton style word given to him by his God: “Hang in there. We’re going to make it. This ship may be on the rocks, but not a life will be lost!”
Then, after two weeks of not eating because they were too scared and too sea sick, in the deep darkness that comes just before daybreak, Paul calls the whole population of the ship together and in one prophetic act, signals a new day. He takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it, giving it to his companions promising them strength for what is to come. And as the sun peeks over the horizon, the castaways catch sight of a sandy beach. They lighten the load, hoist the sails, and do their very best to bring the vessel into a smooth landing. It doesn’t work out quite that way. (This is an action story, not a fairy tale.) Long before they reach the beach, the ship runs aground on a reef. Its occupants are forced either to swim to shore or to be carried along on the broken pieces of the boat.
Against all odds, defying any human prediction, every person on the boat makes it to shore.
Not a single life is lost.
When Christine Yoder was teaching us about this passage, she reminded us that long ago, some poet or prophet began to use the image of ship as a metaphor for the Church. You’ve seen sanctuaries that look and feel like a great hull bearing us to Heaven’s shores. Today, a lot of us feel like this amazing vessel has been or is in the process of being wrecked on an underwater reef. We’re afraid the sharp edges of a titanic iceberg have ripped open a giant hole and frigid waters are taking us down while the musicians try to soothe us with festive melodies to keep us from freaking out.
The truth of the story is that the ship – whatever it symbolizes – whether it is the structures we have come to embrace as church, or our personal health, our marriage, our careers – the truth of the story is that things fall apart. There are moments in our lives when things are just wrecked and we can’t imagine how God can save us – if God can save us.
And the truth of the story is that not a single life is lost. God may be willing for the ship to come completely apart. Whatever human thing it is in which we have placed our hope and trust – God may be willing for it all to fall apart. But God is not willing to let us drown in the stormy waters. God is not willing for even one of the passengers, sailors, or soldiers on the ship to perish.
For me, the story hinges on the moment Paul takes the bread and give thanks and breaks it. As the church, we have to recognize that moment for what it is and for all that it calls us to be and to do. In that little loaf is the massive reminder of God’s love for us, of Jesus’ brokenness on our behalf, of our invitation to join Him around a Table of overflowing grace in the company of those we don’t understand, whose orthodoxy we can’t confirm, who might even attempt to betray us and flee in the middle of the night taking the lifeboats and our hope.
Paul breaks the bread and invites us to eat while it is still dark, while we are still afraid and quite queasy. He says we need this encouragement and sustenance because there is still hard work ahead and we are going to have to do things we never imagined and don’t think we’re quite capable of doing. But we need to eat – and we need to eat together. We need the company of one another.
It is not a mission for the faint of heart. This most certainly would not be the script I would choose. But it is the story that has been told. It might even be the story we are living.
Keep holding on.
It is going to be a wild ride.
But we’ve seen the last scene.
We’re going to make it.