Thanksgiving in Shipwreck

David AyresBaustelle BerlinLeave a Comment

Sunday before last, we finished our year-long sermon series in Luke/Acts, ending with Luke’s amazing narrative in Acts 27, in which he records his first-hand experience with a storm at sea. It is high drama, easily matching anything we might expect from Hollywood.

An Alexandrian cargo ship is bound for Italy with 276 persons on board including crew and a number of high-profile prisoners who are to stand trial before the emperor in Rome. Among the passengers is a contingent of Roman soldiers tasked with escorting the prisoners and (likely) protecting the ship against piracy. While seeking safe harbor for the winter, the ship is suddenly caught in a hurricane and blown into the open sea, where attempts to return to port are futile. The wind and the waves are so violent, the crew binds the hull of the vessel with ropes to keep it from breaking apart.

By the next day, the decision is made to throw over the precious cargo to lighten the ship, which is sitting way too low in the water. The day after that, in desperation, the ship’s tackle is thrown overboard. The storm rages on with such intensity and for so long, all hope of surviving is abandoned. It is certain, all will be lost, the only question is when? Which of the never-ending swelling waves will be the one to engulf them all in a watery grave? Astonishingly, this state of on-edge terror lasts two full weeks, as the ship is driven completely out of control to no one knows where. On the fourteenth night, when it becomes evident the ship is finally going to crash in the dark against the reefs of some unknown landmass, the crew conspires in mutiny to escape. They begin lowering the life boat under the pretense of lowering an anchor. They will navigate the lighter craft over the reefs by night to safety. The rest will, of course, perish when the ship is broken against the rocks by the pounding surf. It is, after all, every man for himself!   But the plot is discovered while it is still unfolding, and the soldiers, angry at the treachery, slash the lines to the life boat. The crew watches in horror as their only hope of survival falls into the churning sea. No doubt, any camaraderie of trauma shared by those aboard has been shattered by betrayal and fury. Bodies are exhausted. Nerves are raw.

In the middle of this tempest of waves and emotions, one of the prisoners stands up and suggests that everyone should eat something. In two weeks of dreadful suspense, food had been the last thing on anyone’s mind. The rolling sea would have made eating nearly impossible, even if anyone had wanted to. But days earlier, this same fellow had claimed an angel had appeared to him–an angel sent from the God to whom he somehow belonged, with a message that no one aboard would be lost. Now he repeats his declaration, that all aboard the ship will be saved, and after having said this, he takes bread, gives thanks to God in the presence of them all, breaks it and begins to eat.

This act must have struck Luke, companion to the prisoner (and our narrator), as quite extraordinary. Luke had witnessed and even participated in this act many time before, but to see it in this context aboard a sinking ship in the company of mostly unbelievers must have been astounding. Indeed, many of you reading this post also probably recognize this act as the one we rehearse and participate in each Sunday. It is, after all, Luke, who records the same words in the same order in Luke 22:19, where he writes of Jesus on the night He was betrayed: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”  

Many scholars, who admit the wording used here is the same as when Jesus instituted the holy supper, downplay the sacramental nature of Paul’s action because they feel the context is inappropriate. It is true, in the Acts passage, there is no sacramental formula recorded; that is, to say, it is not clear the apostle was conducting an official Eucharistic service. But I do not believe Luke’s choice of words in repeating the sacramental word order is simply coincidence. I am not suggesting that Paul was offering the body of Christ to unbelievers. But I do believe that his action was meant to be sacramental–communicating hope to his fellow believers (Luke and Aristarchus) and demonstrating before them all the salvation he had in the God to whom he belonged. He expresses his hope through thanksgiving over the bread which gives life: thanksgiving (which is what the word Eucharist means) in shipwreck.

I actually find the context to be most appropriate, for if we cannot celebrate within dark circumstances our greatest hope–that we belong to God and are welcome at His table–then where can we celebrate it? The Psalmist understood this sentiment when he wrote: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Indeed, the first Lord’s Supper was conducted in the midst of a swirling storm, where fear and darkness and betrayal would seem to win the day. The Eucharist was the filter through which Jesus wanted His disciples to view the darkness of the impending crucifixion.

In the storms and shipwreck we face in our own lives, may we find the apostle’s hope to be ours, as well: We belong to God, having been saved by grace through faith in Christ, whose body has been given for us, and we are welcome at His table!  Thanks be to God!

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