This is the conclusion of a post that I began yesterday. In the midst of a great storm (described in Acts 27), St. Paul finds himself among desperate and defeated people. Though the storm comes from nature, their problems are of their own doing and are rooted in a foolish refusal to listen to either natural warnings or God. All of this foolishness was described in yesterday’s post. Is there a way out of their situation? With God there is, but only by turning to Him in obedient faith. As long as we live, conversion is possible; things can change. Let’s consider how St. Paul, good pastor that he is, shepherds his doomed shipmates through the storm and to God, who can make a way out of no way. You can read the full text of Acts 27 here.
I. The Problem Described – Paul then came forward among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss.
So much of our trouble comes from our failure to listen to God, to obey Him. Of course God seldom speaks directly. He speaks through His revealed words, in the book of Creation, and most clearly through His Church in her defined teachings and dogmatic proclamations. Managing the weather is not usually among the Church’s dogmatic missions, but allow this storm to represent the moral and ethical storms that face an individual, a society, or a culture, that forsakes God and refuses to listen to His revealed truth.
The word obedience is related to hearing. The etymology of the word is said to be from ob (with or related to) + audire (to hear). Thus to obey is to listen with docility and compliance. Many if not most storms in our lives and in this world can be avoided if we just listen (obey). God laments, Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the Lord, your God, teaching you how to prevail, leading you on the way you should go. If only you would attend to my commandments, your peace would be like a river, your vindication like the waves of the sea, Your descendants like the sand, the offspring of your loins like its grains, Their name never cut off or blotted out from my presence. … But there is no peace for the wicked, says the Lord (Isaiah 48:17-19,22).
II. The Prognosis Declared – I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very 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 Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we shall have to run on some island.”
St. Paul bases his prognosis that everything will be all right not on mere wishful thinking, but on the firm experience of God in his life. Paul’s experience has been that while God has not allowed him to be without trials and difficulties, He has always permitted those difficulties only so that a greater good be achieved. St. Paul has learned that God’s power reaches perfection in human weakness; it is able to stand in the gap. God can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines. Paul has been in worse jams than this before! As he says, Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor 11:24-28).
Yet here he stands before them, not speaking as one who has never had trouble, but as one who has experienced being delivered from troubles. In effect, St. Paul is saying, “When you’re finished trying your gods, come and try mine. Stop telling your god how big this storm is and start telling this storm how big my God is.”
St. Paul also speaks based on the firm conviction (which God put in his heart) that he must and will appear before Caesar; therefore, he and his shipmates will make it to Rome.
Having tried everything else, and now chastened by their own foolishness, Paul’s shipmates finally seem to be willing to listen to him. But as it always does so beautifully, Scripture shows how they must go through a process of sorts in order to achieve saving trust. We can’t go from 0 to 100 immediately; we have to go through stages to get there.
III. The Process of Deliverance – Having secured their attention through suffering and their sense of helplessness, God, through the shepherd St. Paul, strengthens their meager faith.
Testing – When the fourteenth night had come, as we were driven up and down the sea of Adria, …
At first nothing seems to happen. The storm keeps blowing, the ship is adrift, the crew and passengers are seasick and unable to eat. What good is this faith to which St. Paul has summoned them? Yet Scripture says, I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord (Psalm 27:13-14). For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Is 30:15).
Our faith is often tested in waiting. If we persevere, it grows stronger. Faith becomes the basis of truer and deeper healing than would just having a particular situation worked out.
Trying – … about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. So they sounded and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they sounded again and found fifteen fathoms. And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let out four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come.
At midnight, when the night was perhaps darkest, there comes the sense that land is near. Having tried God, they now sense a change. The water is getting shallower; surely land is nearby. It is still too dark to see, but the evidence of a coming deliverance is beginning to mount.
We, too, start to get what we call “signal graces” in our journey of faith. Perhaps we see God rescuing someone else. Perhaps we hear the testimony of someone’s deliverance. It is like Jairus, who was on his way to ask Jesus to raise his daughter from deathly illness when he saw a woman healed merely by touching the hem of His garment. Perhaps some smaller blessings come our way. It is as if the Lord is saying, “Do you see what a little trust can do? Keep growing in trust and you will see greater things. Try me in this; prove me in this!”
Trusting – And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the boat into the sea, under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat, and let it go.
Ah, but some of the sailors—the ones most responsible for this mess—are stealthily trying to escape in a lifeboat that is just big enough for them. What cowards! St. Paul confronts them for their lack of faith and warns them that they and others with them will be lost. Faith is not just personal; it is also communal. Even if individuals in a dying culture have faith, it will not usually be enough. Faith has to grow in us all. If our very leaders exempt themselves from the sufferings that some of their own decisions have caused, they will surely be lost, and many of us along with them. Paul gives them a stern rebuke and warns of the consequences. Thanks be to God that his rebuke had the desired effect and they instead stayed at their posts.
So must we, especially the leaders among us such as priests and parents. Escape is appealing, but it shows cowardice. Although escape may win the moment, it seldom wins the day.
Toughening – As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore, I urge you to take some food; it will give you strength, since not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when 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 they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. (We were in all two hundred and seventy-six persons in the ship.) And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
They had found it difficult to eat and many were seasick, but they were going to need strength to get to shore.
So do we. We need food for the journey. The Lord gives it to us in the Holy Eucharist and in His Word. If we do not eat we will not be strong. Jesus reminded the Jewish people that God fed their ancestors in the desert and that if they had not eaten that food they would not have made it to the Promised Land. He said to them (and to us), This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me (John 6:50-55).
These people in the storm needed strength to make it to the shore and so do we. The Eucharist is our viaticum (a Latin conflation meaning “I am with you on the way” = via+te+cum), our food for the journey.
Tenacity – Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to bring the ship ashore. So they cast off the anchors and committed themselves to the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders; then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. And striking a shoal they ran the vessel aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was broken up by the surf. The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape; but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their purpose. He ordered those who could swim to throw themselves overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship.
So here it comes. It’s all or nothing, but they’ve been getting ready for this! The text says that by casting off the anchors and anything that might hinder them (even though they were depending on it), they commit themselves to the sea and the wind. It’s all in God’s hands now, and the God of wind and sea drives the ship ashore. Some final courage is still necessary, however, as they must swim or float the final distance. We, too, must finally cast aside all that we are depending upon in this world and commit ourselves wholly to God; surely for our final journey, but even now in increasing degrees. Only God can save us from our foolish storms and from this hellish world with which we have compromised. Increasingly, we learn to cast everything aside and to lean on and trust Him entirely. This dying to self and the world can be frightening as we close the final distance and swim ashore.
Triumph – And so it was that all escaped to land.
Yes, here is the end of the story for all who respond to the call of faith: all escape the storm to land. Consider the foolishness that brought them into this storm, and then consider the wisdom and faith that brought them out.
A little lesson for us as individuals, for the Church, and for our soul-sick culture.