Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Down with the Ship, Up with the Courage: Acts 27

Apologies for last week. Sometimes you master the calendar; sometimes the calendar masters you. And then the Alexandrian/Koine Greek comes along and kicks you while you’re down.

Paul has been back-and-forth with the Roman authorities on the eastern fringe of the Empire. He appealed to Caesar, which our understanding of Roman History gives us as Nero Claudius Caesar, last of the Julian-Claudian Roman Emperors—yep, his family finalized the transition from Republic to Empire, and then he ended their dominance of that country. Nero is not exactly remembered as being a very good judge for anyone, but Paul knew certainly being turned loose, without any protection, in Judea would be a disaster for him.

So, off to Rome he goes. This chapter of Acts, Acts 27, is mostly the travel record of Paul moving from Caesarea on his way to Rome. A good commentary or Bible Atlas/History book will help you fill in details about the ship, its passageway, and where the various cities and islands mentioned in this chapter are. Those tools are really helpful in study.

I want to point you to one verse in the midst of this chapter that I think is worth noting. Take a look at Acts 27:25. Paul is telling the soldiers, the crew, the passengers, and his fellow prisoners that they have nothing to fear in the storm. Only the ship will be lost, but God is going to keep them all alive. He then tells them to do one thing:

Keep up your courage.

The Evangelistic Baptists in the crowd may now, collectively, cover their ears and throw a fit. Why? Because there are a group of us that would think Paul’s appropriate response to the situation would be to line out a Gospel invitation and hand out response cards. After all, we never know about tomorrow, do we?

Except in this case, Paul does know. He actually knows about the next couple of weeks, as the rest of the chapter gives us, there were at least fourteen nights to deal with in this storm-drenched saga. And no lives are lost at all.

Instead of pushing for a storm-promise response, Paul focuses on the need of the moment. The men involved in the situation (and possibly ladies, hard to be certain) need to focus on their survival. They need to trust that something or someone will carry them through.

In this case, they need to trust God. In the midst of the chaos, though, is no time for the likely superstitious Mediterranean sailors to add to their pantheon of gods. Paul chooses the right course in keeping them in the moment. His course reflects the importance of the Gospel message.

First, it reflects faith: Paul has been told by God that everyone will make it to a “certain island.” He shows his own faith in God’s words by not hedging and pushing some to think they may not make it. We do not get that type of message these days and so have to behave slightly differently, but how often do we act like we have no faith that God will provide the right opportunity?

Very often we Christians attempt to argue people into the Kingdom because we lack the faith that God can and will persuade them himself. If we witness with faith, it will include trusting that if we present the whole Gospel, the love and the truth, God can handle persuading people of the reality of the Gospel. Rare is the case where “I lost an argument with a hot-headed angry Christian” is the summary of a person’s testimony.

Second, Paul’s course of action reflects worship. Worship requires recognizing the greatness of God and the holiness of God. A corollary part of worship is not encouraging people into false worship. Paul could have pushed everyone on the ship to say a quick prayer in Jesus’ name for safety. Instead, he holds that back.

We as Christians in America need to consider this: Paul urges the people on the ship to virtuous necessary action: have courage and do your jobs well. He does not ask that they carve a quick “God Bless the Ship” into the mizzenmast or quickly print a Psalm on the topsails. We should be as concerned about whether or not someone who campaigns with “God bless America” on their lips actually knows thing one about God as we are with the person who refuses to bring God into their campaigning at all. Likewise with any celebrity or other person, including ourselves. Our problems are not skipping “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Our problems began with the people of God not acting like it and get worse when we Christians expect lost people to act more like Jesus than we do.

There are certain virtuous necessary actions that we can and should call all those around us to do. However, artificial prayer is not one of those.

Finally, Paul’s course of action resounds with grace. He does not shout gleefully that he can drown and go to heaven, therefore the rest of the ship can just sink for all he cares. He knows that God has repeatedly told him he will go to Rome—so there is no doubt he will survive. Yet his concern is not for himself alone, but for the whole of the ship. A bloomin’ lot of lost people, pagans, and a few Romans that likely were involved in threatening to whip him back a year or two ago.

What is our concern? Oh, well, if things go real bad, there will be a Rapture and I’ll skip the ugly parts? Oh, well, let the North Korean nuclear weapons hit the West Coast, the Iranians hit the East Coast, and we’ll live happy in the middle? While I do not wish to debate either of those options (I think one more likely than the other), is our attitude in either Christ-like?

Now, there is appropriate wisdom in preparation. There is appropriate comfort in hope of the life to come. However, we ought not celebrate the death of the lost.

In all, while the ships are going down around us, keep your courage up. In due time, God will use you to draw others to Himself.

And that’s the point, really, isn’t it?

Nerd Note: It’s interesting to see the term Euro-quilo translated as “Northeaster” in the English text. This word is a hybrid word of Greek and Latin, with the Greek for East Wind and the Latin for North Wind (and the Aramaic loan word for “wide'”) jammed together. There seems to be little evidence, except for one location in Africa, that this word was commonly used in the written language of the day.

Yet it was apparently known among sailors. I take this as evidence of Luke’s presence in the situation. Had he been writing from a distance, he would have used more commonly known words for strong winds and storms. Instead, he used what the sailors called it. Why? Because that’s what imprinted somewhere between throwing the cargo overboard and falling to pieces on the rocks. This is a Euro-quilo. And I don’t ever want to see one again.

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