Acts 27:21-36 “In the Boat Together”
The Bible study group just finished a several weeks long study of the Book of Acts. I wanted to spend some time with this particular book of the Bible because it describes the beginning of the Jesus movement – the beginning of what has become the Christian Church around the world. During a time when church looks and feels so different, I wanted to go back to the source and see what we could learn there. For those who haven’t read the Book of Acts, I encourage you to do so. It is the continuation of the Gospel of Luke, which means it picks up where the Gospel ends. In it we hear how the message of Jesus spread, and, I believe we can find there guidance as we imagine what church will look during the current pandemic and after. Let me explain.
First, I need to set some context. The scripture we read this morning was plucked out of the middle of a much longer story – too long to be reasonably read in worship. We are towards of the end of the Book and are immersed in the story of Paul. Remember, Paul was not a disciple of Jesus, but he was rather a persecutor of the early Christians. He would track down those who were spreading the Good News of the audacious preacher who spoke about God’s grace, performed miracles in the name of that same God – even when it conflicted with the customs and laws of the time. A man whose example was leading to a movement that was upsetting the status quo and challenging the Empire – a man whose message could not be stopped even with death. Paul was NOT an original follower of Jesus, instead he gave into the fear that change and shifts in power can create. But, in that oft told story, on the road to Damascus, this persecutor of Christians encountered God. Paul, once living in fear of the upside down world Jesus taught about, became one of its most ardent supporters. Zealot like a convert can best describe Paul. He traveled the Middle East and the Mediterranean, creating small house churches, talking about the ministry and example of Jesus Christ. And his letters, or the Epistles as we call them, became a part of our sacred texts. Paul was an audacious man, not perfect in any way, but one who fundamentally believed in the Good News of Christ’s resurrection.
This story of a ship lost at sea comes in the middle of one of the many times Paul was arrested and put on trial. The ship from today’s story was one filled with many prisoners, Paul amongst them. Paul was demanding a hearing in front of the Roman Emperor and was on his way there when a storm hit, the ship got lost, and fear began to over-take all aboard.
And because Paul was not a perfect man, this section of scripture begins with an ‘I-told-you-so.’ Paul made sure everyone around him knew that he was right all along when he warned them that it was too dangerous to sail. But, after he makes his point he then goes on to reassure them. He tells the frightened prisoners and crew aboard the ship that in a dream God promised to protect them all – that God will not allow any of them to die. “So keep up your courage,” Paul says, “for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” Soon, the crew began to suspect they were nearing land and they began to measure the depth of the water, and seeing that the water was getting shallow, they put down anchors. But then fear and desperation began to overcome the sailors again and they lowered a lifeboat in order to safely find land – an act that would have abandoned the prisoners and caused them all to die. But Paul said to the guards and soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” And saved they eventually were. After eating to fortify themselves, they threw the remaining wheat off of the boat to lighten it and the ship did finally run aground but no lives were lost.
In a moment of profound fear, when the ship was filled with desperate people, the natural human instinct to run at the expense of all others began to take over. When faced with what many were sure was imminent death, they wanted to run away – abandon what they knew, forget the message from God that they would be alright. But there was Paul – telling them that the only way to survive was to stay together on the ship. Yes, it may break apart. Yes, it may feel like all is lost. Yes, it may feel like the only option is to flee. But God’s promise of life over death, Jesus message of community over isolation, Paul’s insistence that the work is not yet done – words of faith, hope, and perseverance – they conquered the fear. Together they stayed and together they were saved.
That is the message we have for what it means to be church today. To stay together, to remember the promise of God that life will always conquer death. When Jesus taught about community this is what he was talking about. Jesus didn’t mean a comfortable community, Jesus meant a community that stayed together no matter the obstacles. Paul told the sailors to stay together on the boat, to not give into fear, and reminded them that together they could survive. This message from Paul is an echo of Jesus – community over isolation, love of neighbor over love of self, trust in God – not fear of the unknown.
It is hard, hard work especially in a world that feels so chaotic. But to have faith is to have imagination. Imagination allows us to envision new possibilities, new ideas, new missions, new experiences. We know that what has always been will not always be – and imagining together as a congregation what will become is such a gift. And to do so by first grounding ourselves in the faith of Jesus Christ – who walked into Jerusalem, who did not hover outside its gates fearful of what may come. But walked through them because God promises life over death. Faith requires imagination – and imagination can begin to change the constant churning of negativity in our brains to ideas of exploration, newness, possibility – a promise of new life, of resurrection.
“We are an Easter people and alleluia is our cry.” That is my favorite quote, and you will hear me say it over and over again. It comes from an ancient father of our tradition, St. Augustine. “We are an Easter people.” We are a people whose faith is built on the foundation of resurrection. We are a people of faith who follow the audacious teachings of a man who entered into the temple, saw what was happening there was not of God, and over-turned the tables. We are people of faith who share in meal together with all of God’s people – the friend and the stranger, the sinner and the saint – because it is a living example of God’s Kingdom, of the great banquet, when all will be fed and all will be well. We are a people of faith who remember the instructions from another imperfect follower of Jesus that we must remain on the ship together – even if that ship breaks apart – because together we build one another up, fortify one another’s strength, and comfort one another’s spirit. We must remain on the ship together because together is how we will be saved.
We are an Easter people, on this ship together, and Alleluia is our cry. We cry alleluia as we make plans for the future. We cry alleluia as we remember the past and celebrate how far we have come. We cry alleluia because we are a people of resurrection, hope, imagination, and ultimately…faith. It is a wild and crazy thing to do together – this thing called church. This gathering of imperfect people trying to confront the pain and injustice we are faced with every day. But Church is not just a noun, it is a verb. It is action. It is a community of imperfect people with imperfect faith looking at the world and wondering together, How can we make it better? And in the work, in the doing of church, it can be easy to lose track of this simple truth – that we are an Easter people and alleluia is our cry. When the world says no, we remind the world that God says yes. When those whose fear has gotten the best of them, we remind them that we must remain on the ship together. When the change becomes too much, we remind ourselves to cry alleluia.
Let us pray:
God, you have called us together to be your people dedicated to serving you and our neighbors. We do this as a community together, we do this as your church. For all of the ways you provide us to come together, we thank you. For all of the ways you show us what it means to be your faithful followers, we thank you. For all of the ways you support and bless us along the way, we thank you.
Loving God, it is with this sense of gratitude that we also come to you in need. Our lives, both individually and as a worshipping community, continue to be so different. It feels like we need to learn what it means to be Christian all over again. As we continue to seek you and discern what it means to be church, we ask that you walk ahead of us to show us the path; walk behind us to urge us along; and walk beside us so we can lean on you.
And on this July 4th weekend, we in particular pray for our country. We give thanks and pray for all of those who selflessly serve in the military. We pray for our elected leaders, and ask that you help to guide their decisions. We pray for our neighbors and strangers in this country and give great thanks for the wide diversity of who we are.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, who showed us what it means to be a community together, our guide and teacher, who taught us to say together…