Beyond the Lectionary Text: Acts 27:13-44
by Randy Blacketer
“Call me Ishmael.” So begins the epic sea adventure Moby Dick, in which the conflict between humanity and the Leviathan symbolizes so many other conflicts. It’s a story that captivates us, as we have always been captivated by stories of voyages and adventures at sea. The adventures and exploits of Odysseus, doing battle with mythical monsters. The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor from a Thousand and One Nights. The saga of a lone castaway in Robinson Crusoe. The fanciful voyages into unknown lands in Gulliver’s Travels. The fascination is just as strong today. If you live near the Great Lakes, Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald resonates and haunts. Many of us of a certain era grew up watching the castaways on Gilligan’s Island, and many of us can recite the theme song by heart like it was Amazing Grace (and some can sing the words of the latter to the tune of the former!) Sometimes in our stories the sea is replaced by outer space, such as in the voyages of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek. Still, the archetypal theme of voyage and return capture our imagination.
The story of Paul’s perilous voyage and shipwreck, then, has the potential to hold the attention of the congregation, but how do we preach it?
First, it is important to note the motif of the sea in scripture, and its various meanings and connections to the story of Israel, and later the church. The sea is a symbol of chaos, such as in the primordial creation, before God speaks beauty and order into the world. It is the medium of God’s terrible judgment on a world infected with sin, in the great flood, while at the same time Noah captains a ship of salvation on a voyage to redemption (see I Peter 3:20-22). The sea is God’s means of salvation and judgement again when the Israelites cross the sea of reeds to safety, while the armies of Pharaoh are drowned; this ordeal was also a kind of consecrating baptism for the people, as Paul says (I Cor. 10:1-2). And the waters of the Jordan consecrate the people to the Lord their God as they enter the land of promise. The story of Jonah is a particularly interesting text for comparison. The Hebrews were not a seafaring people, thus the reluctant prophet Jonah had to hire a gentile ship and crew to help him escape the mission the Lord had given him. Like our text in Acts, there is a storm, and a gentile crew praying for salvation (cf. Acts 27:29 with Jonah 1:5). The pagans behave honorably: the crew of Jonah’s ship is reluctant to throw him overboard, and Centurion Julius saves Paul’s life from a bloodthirsty crew. And behind it all is God’s plan to bring his salvation to the nations. In the early church, readers might think of Jesus calming the storm, or Peter walking upon the water. Later, John will receive a vision of the new heaven and the new earth in which there is no sea, because the victorious Christ will have subdued the powers of chaos.
In addition, it is important to note a few themes or motifs that come through the story. 1. The narration of a perilous voyage may have communicated the idea that the life of faith is a journey, but one in which God is behind the scenes, directing and watching over those who belong to him. Just as the Israelites were sojourners through the desert, so early Christians viewed themselves as pilgrims who make their way through this world, and yet long “for a better country” (Heb. 11:13-16). 2. At the end of the text, the Lord vindicates his faithful servant Paul, when (quite amazingly) none of the passengers or crew are lost in the storm or shipwreck. Thus by Paul’s faithfulness and endurance, he provides a powerful testimony to the living God and to the gospel. 3. Before this conclusion, however, the apostle bears witness to those on this ship with both Word and Sacrament (or something very much like the sacrament).
First, Paul delivers a sermon of sorts to the panicking crew and passengers, who were starving and also short on hope (vv. 21-26). They had abandoned all hope of being rescued or saving the ship (v. 20). But unlike the gates of Dante’s hell, which admonished: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” Paul continues to have faith in his faithful God, and he addresses the men. First, Paul seems to indulge in a bit of “I told you so.” But perhaps there is a missionary motivation here as well, one based on the apostle’s credibility. Paul’s advice regarding seafaring was sound; they would have been better off had they taken that advice. The apostle’s counsel regarding God and salvation, then, may also be worth taking very seriously. He then challenges the men on the ship to be courageous (v. 22, an admonition repeated in v. 25), because, he predicts, not one life will be lost, even though the ship will be lost. He can be confident of this because of a vision that an angel sent by his God showed him. Note how Paul refers to his God: as the God to whom he belongs and whom he serves—the characteristics of a follower of Jesus Christ (v. 23). Paul’s confidence comes not from a strong ego, but from his firm conviction that his Lord is faithful, and that the Lord has a calling and a mission that Paul must fulfill. The angel tells him not to be afraid (cf. the angel’s annunciations to Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds, Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10). The Lord’s plan is for Paul to testify to the gospel before the Emperor himself. Because of God’s mercy, and for Paul’s sake, no one on the ship will lose their lives (v. 24). The reason the men should take courage is that Paul’s God is faithful and that he makes good on his promises, even though the ship will be lost (vv. 25-26).
Second, some days later, after Paul thwarts a plot by the sailors to abandon ship, he urges his fellow travelers to take food, and the scene is very clearly shaped by Eucharistic references, even if the meal is not exactly an apostolic administration of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 33-38). Paul delivers another short exhortation in which he urges the seafarers to eat (vv. 33-34), because they will need this food to survive—literally, they will need it for their salvation (σωτηρία). It is not wild allegory to suspect that there is a deeper shade of meaning here. What kind of food is necessary for salvation? Paul says not a single person will lose a hair from their head—one cannot help but think of Jesus’ statement that those who belong to God need not worry, because the Lord cares for them, and even the hairs on their head are numbered (Luke 12:7). But Luke here more closely echoes a passage in his gospel, where Jesus promises that, for those who stand firm in the faith in the last days, not a hair of their head will perish:
Acts 27:34: καὶ θρὶξ ἐκ τῆς κεφαλῆς ὑμῶν οὐ μὴ ἀπόληται.
Luke 22:18 οὐδενὸς γὰρ ὑμῶν θρὶξ ἀπὸ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἀπολεῖται.
God promises salvation to those who put their hope in him, no matter how violent the storm. Then Paul distributes the food that is necessary for their survival / salvation, and his fourfold action is clearly Eucharistic and clearly points back to a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30-31). He takes bread, gives thanks to God, breaks the bread, and eats. This is a very churchly act, as if that crippled vessel were the church, the ark of salvation, navigating through the storms of trials and persecution. The seafarers ate their fill (just like those 5000 whom Jesus fed), and then with confidence tossed the rest of the grain into the sea.
Tom Long writes:
What is the response of the church in the midst of discouragement and fear? Like Paul, the church takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and begins to eat. “What good will that do?” the world may ask. In this sign of hope in the power and presence of God, this Eucharistic witness to our confidence in God’s will to give us what we need even in the midst of the storm, the church not only feeds itself but witnesses to the world. …The Eucharist is food of confidence shared in the middle of the storm. (Acts commentary, Interpretation series, p. 184, emphasis in original).
This story demonstrates God’s providential care for his servants, Paul and his fellow travelers, because they belong to him, and because he has a mission for them to bless even their enemies with the good news of Jesus Christ.
For church traditions that use the Heidelberg Catechism, this is a fitting text to connect with the first Question and Answer of this outstanding statement of the Christian faith, and in churches that are not familiar with this catechism, it is a fitting opportunity to introduce it. The catechism intersects with Paul’s assurance to his fellow travelers that not a hair of their heads would be lost, even though they were facing a raging storm and certain shipwreck. The Heidelberg Catechism begins by asking the question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”