Thank you to Rev. Ross Leckie and the people of Caledon East United Church for hosting the first of our two joint worship services, as we mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I give thanks to God for our partnership in the gospel.
The theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been prepared by the churches of Malta – a small island country in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and North Africa. Every year on February 10th, Maltese Christians celebrate the event we heard recorded in our reading today from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles: the Shipwreck of St. Paul. Now you may think it odd for a maritime people to celebrate a boating accident, but Maltese Christians give thanks for this event because it marked the arrival of the Christian gospel in their country.
Because, of course, as the reading makes clear, it wasn’t really an accident, was it? Though there was indeed a shipwreck, though it was a dangerous and no doubt highly stressful ordeal for all aboard, and though human error was certainly a cause of it all - everything took place under the hand of God’s providence. God’s will was done - through tempest, wind, waves and crashing - God’s purpose was accomplished; and as He promised through Paul, all were brought safely to land where the natives showed them unusual kindness.
Maltese Christians today are rightly proud of the fact that their ancestors greeted the Apostle and his gospel with this warm reception. Through this entire ordeal, God’s faithfulness and love both preserved the passengers and prevailed in the end in this display of hospitality.
Personally, I can’t say I’ve ever been in a nautical disaster such as this or even a situation of real distress on the water. But I have some familiarity with boating. I grew up in Kingston on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, right where the St. Lawrence River begins; you also have the Cataraqui River and the Rideau Canal to Ottawa; and so as you may know, boating and sailing are very popular summer activities in the area.
I wouldn’t describe myself as an avid boater, but growing up in Kingston along the lake and the river, I did spend a fair bit of time on the water on boats of various kinds. I also worked for several summers at the Kingston Yacht Club – which sounds a lot more glamorous then it really was. I worked in the boatyard and on the gas dock; and so my main jobs were to operate the fuel pump and also the vacuum for the septic tanks onboard the vessels. That was a uniquely unpleasant task!
If you stop and think about it, a boat is a distinctive thing and boating a unique experience; and this week, our Maltese brothers and sisters in Christ invite us to explore this theme together to deepen our self-understanding as Christians. You and I may not be maritime people like the Maltese, but as Christians we are all sailors and seafarers in a spiritual sense. The New Testament makes this quite clear in numerous places.
So what is unique about a boat?
A boat is at once a protective container and a vessel set out on a journey, driven by a specific quest. When you’re onboard a boat, you feel a secure attachment, not only to the vessel itself, but to the shore and the dock from which you’ve set out on this adventure towards the unknown. So a boat is a home, and yet a home-away from-home. It’s settled, but also nomadic.
As I’ve said, I’ve never been in real distress on the water, but on a number of occasions, I have been on small boats when the weather changed quite suddenly; and I can tell you that it is distinctly unsettling, all of a sudden, to have the wind blow and the waves swell all around you, water splashing over the gunwales. The boat starts to heave, sway, surge, roll, and pitch. In situations like that, your attachment to the boat grows stronger, to say the least. It seems to be the only thing between you and possibly drowning. And if there are other people on-board with you, your attachment to one another grows stronger, because you keenly sense that you’re all in it together and you all have to work cooperatively for everyone’s safety.
So you see, the boat is this fragile little realm of order and community, bound by a larger realm of potential chaos and danger. For the boat to fulfill its quest and arrive safely at its destination, it’s necessary for those on board to recognize their extreme inter-dependence, to resolve conflicts quickly and cooperate effectively.
The Boat as an Image of the Church
For these and other reasons, ‘the boat’ has always been seen as an image the Church. As a biblical image, it goes all the way back to the story of Noah’s Ark. The Church is a vessel sailing through the tumultuous waters of the world; our refuge and container, but one on a voyage – often a dangerous one; The Church is our spiritual home, and yet a home-away from our true home; we are all its passengers and crewmembers, Christ Himself being our captain.
It’s well known that this image is reflected intentionally in traditional Western Church architecture. Next Sunday when we’re across the street at St. James, look up and see how the ceiling looks like an upside-down view of a ship’s hull - notice the beams and ribs and planks. It’s deliberate. In fact, the traditional name for the main part of the church building is the ‘nave’ - a word that derives from ‘navis,’ the Latin word for ship. (The word Navy has the same etymology).
So friends this morning, and throughout this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I’d like us to reflect together on this very image in light of our reading from Acts 27-28. At such a time as this in the life of the Church, what would it mean for us to see ourselves as passengers and crewmembers on St. Paul’s old ship – a boat that’s being pounded violently by a storm that’s about to run aground on some island?
Some of you may have heard of a recent statistical report which predicts that the ship that is Anglican Church of Canada will sink by the year 2040. (You can read about this in the Anglican Journal).
Now I can’t comment on similar data and prognostications for the United Church of Canada, but my general understanding is that in terms of overall, national decline we are indeed in the same boat. But we’re also quite literally all aboard in the same boat here this morning! And as far as I can tell we are still afloat! So that in itself is good news!
Friends, this week’s reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is a great encouragement to us in these discouraging times. Because it tells our story. It shows us what will happen to us. But above all it reveals to us the God of steadfast love, who delivers us through tempest, wind and waves. This shows us that God’s Word is still living and active among us, this story from Acts jumps off the page and becomes flesh here among us. That’s a great encouragement to me and hopefully to you as well. Ultimately we have nothing to fear. So I’m excited to explore this story together.
As St. Paul said to his passengers, so I say to you: I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship – that is to say, some of the things, some of the methods that got us here, some of our baggage, will have to be thrown overboard in these tumultuous waters. Our church institutions as we’ve known them are about to run aground – but preserving the institution is not the mission of the Church. As Paul says, God’s promise is that our life may be saved so as to flourish abundantly. Our mission is not to preserve the ship itself. We are not to manage our decline, but to rediscover our Christian hope and mission, commending ourselves into the hands of our faithful God.
Early in our reading from Acts, we see the crew throw the ship’s tackle overboard; and later they have to lighten the ship by throwing the cargo of wheat into the sea. Hard, but necessary things to do.
As my bishop has written in response to that ominous Anglican report I mentioned, ‘there are gifts hidden in [our] decline, if we have eyes to see them. As resources become scarcer, we are being pushed into local and national ecumenical collaboration and dialogue in a fresh way.’ We here in Caledon East are a good example of this, if I may say so! Resources are becoming scarcer. So no, we won’t be able to carry the same cargo we always have, we’ll have to cast it away so as to be lighter going forward. And we’ll have to work cooperatively to do so – and not just the two of us, but with the other local churches as well. We’re all little boats in the same fleet.
Though I am most thankful for the partnership between our two churches, this is not merely the week of prayer for Anglican-United Church unity, but the Week of Prayer for Unity with all Christians. One of the great blessings of this time of institutional decline is that the old denominational divisions are breaking down; and frankly it’s about time. The Church of the future will not be Anglican or United or Baptist or Catholic or Coptic, but eventually we will all be one, just as Jesus prayed.
So yes, the old ships are running aground and some things will have to be thrown overboard. But then it would seem there are some other things we’ll have to cling to in order to make it safely to shore. The last verse of our reading: Paul ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and to make for the land, and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.
What are those planks and other pieces of the ship for us, or for you? Those things we need to keep in order to avoid drowning. How do we distinguish between these and that which must be jettisoned? I don’t have definitive answers to these questions – this is for us to discern together, trusting in the guiding hand of God’s providence.(As someone pointed out to me after today's service, we are to keep that which floats and leave the rest). And friends I hope that this year, our churches can begin to have these conversations together, seeing as we are in the same boat.
And as we prepare for those conversations, our reading from Acts offers us guidance on how to remain faithful. How are the ship’s passengers saved, even as the ship is destroyed? How is life preserved?
- First, they observe the apostle’s teaching; and just so, we must seek our guidance first and foremost from the Scriptures. We heard Paul gently chastise the crew saying, ‘Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail [on your own terms, according to human wisdom] and thereby avoided this damage and loss.’ We disobey the apostolic teaching at our peril. But even so, God is faithful to us despite our disobedience.
- Secondly, the passengers faithfully remain on the ship. In the Church, (and especially in Protestant churches), there’s this perennial temptation to mutiny or jump overboard (or threaten to do so) when times get tough, or you don’t like what’s going on. I suppose that’s because the Church is a volunteer organization (or so it seems) and so none of us actually have to be here anymore. Christendom is over. There’s no longer any cultural pressure or societal expectation to go to church. So because we don’t have to be here, we can easily mislead ourselves into thinking that we can be here on our own terms. But that attitude is especially unhelpful in such a time as this. For the Church is far more than merely a volunteer organization. We are all bound together in one baptism by the one Spirit, confessing one faith in one Lord Jesus Christ and one God and Father of all. In our story from Acts, when some sailors were at the brink of jumping, Paul says to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men remain in the ship you cannot be saved.’ We’re all in this together; we’re bound together as passengers on one boat; and therefore we each have a responsibility to recognize our interdependence, to cooperate, to resolve conflicts quickly and stay focused on our common Christian mission, rather than individual priorities and agendas.
- Thirdly, notice how the passengers are sustained through the blessing and breaking of the bread. When Paul blesses and distributes the food for the passengers, the Passover and Eucharistic overtones are unmistakable: as we heard, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took bread for themselves. Friends, just so, a renewal in the practice and devotion of Eucharistic liturgy will be vital for us. And more generally, because the Eucharistic life of the sanctuary flows out from here into our church hall and our own homes, we are called to practice hospitality like the Maltese, to eat and drink with one another, sharing fellowship over meals.
Conclusion: Shipwreck & Crucifixion
So friends, in conclusion, the vision of the Church we see here in this boating passage is a community formed of many different peoples, enduring suffering and hardship, surrounded by threats and tempests, formed together in a communion that serves to break down former oppositions, preserving and overcoming through the divine guidance and aid upon which they depend.
And at the centre of it all is St. Paul, who though a prisoner, becomes the de facto captain: a priest mediating God’s presence to the people, a prophet speaking God’s promises, an officer in the Royal Navy of Christ the King, a beacon of light, peace and hope amidst the darkness.
But as I’m sure Paul himself would say, he was only standing in for the real Captain. The story of the Book of Acts is essentially the story of the apostles being conformed to Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the captain of our salvation (Heb. 12:2; Heb. 2:10). The Book of Acts was written by Luke, the same Luke who wrote the third Gospel. And so Luke’s Gospel and Acts are an intentional two-part whole that echo and mirror each other. So as some scholars have pointed out, Luke's account of the shipwreck in Acts 27 is parallel with his account of the Crucifixion in his Gospel:
‘At the equivalent point where, in the Gospel, we come to the crucifixion itself, we come in Acts to the shipwreck, the moment when the forces of wind and wave do their worst and it looks as though Paul will be drowned at sea, or smashed on the rocks, or killed by the soldiers. The darkness and hopelessness of the storm at sea mirror the dark hopelessness of Gethsemane and Calvary itself.’ (N.T. Wright)
Friends, in Christ, suffering and death are never the end, but the passage to resurrection and new life. And with resurrection comes the ascension of our hearts to God in thanksgiving; and with that comes a fresh descent of the Holy Spirit (which is how the book of Acts begins). And with the Spirit as the wind in our sails, like Paul we are given a peace that passes all understanding, a faith that is unshakeable, a living hope that is unwavering, and a perfect love through which God abides in us and we in Him. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.
Alastair Roberts, 'Boat Stories,' Theopolis Institute, 11 December 2018.