Sermon given at Matin on Sunday 22nd June 2014
22 June 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
As a child I grew up on Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and spent much of my teenage years messing about on the water in sailing boats. The Channel Islands are unique and delightful. They have large tidal ranges, strong currents and rock-strewn coastlines, and are well documented in both yachting guidebooks and admiralty charts. The tidal fall is one of the highest in the world and the tidal streams are exhilarating to ride. But you need to make sure your calculations are correct as you don’t want to spend hours battling currents or going backwards!
Indeed many have come to grief on the vast array of hidden rocks beneath the water, the propensity for sudden storms and the extremely powerful currents, especially between Alderney and the French coast. There are hundreds of wrecks to prove it. In contrast, the islands of Herm and Sark are very beautiful; Herm having a sheltered half-tide harbour along with sandy beaches, beautiful cliff walks, and crystal clear waters. Sark, the smallest of the four main islands, also has sheltered anchorages on both sides of the island, offering good shelter in the lee, and steep, dramatic cliffs.
In this morning’s reading from Acts we hear about some captivating sailing and we see how Luke was apparently with Paul during the entire sea journey. Here we have an eyewitness report. Luke describes eastern Mediterranean ports-of-call, wind directions, and places of safety and danger for ships. As far as historians are able to verify, all of Luke’s nautical details are as they should be. Luke’s account of Paul’s voyage to Rome stands out as one of the most vivid pieces of descriptive writing in the whole Bible. Its details regarding first-century seamanship are so precise and its portrayal of conditions on the eastern Mediterranean so accurate that even the most sceptical have conceded that it probably rests on a journal of some such voyage as Luke describes. (Longenecker, 556).
In support of the accuracy of Luke’s account, commentators often refer to the classic study of Paul’s final sea voyage by the Victorian James Smith (1782-1867). Smith was an experienced yachtsman and a classical scholar who, surprisingly enough, spent considerable time sailing around the Channel Islands. From ancient sources, Smith had carefully studied the geography, weather conditions, and navigational practice of Paul’s time. Smith was also intimately acquainted with the eastern Mediterranean Sea. With thirty years’ experience in yachting behind him, he spent the winter of 1844-45 on Malta. From there he investigated the sailing conditions in the areas mentioned in Luke’s account. In 1848 Smith published his book The Voyage and Shipwreck of St Paul. The book remains the classic study of Paul’s last journey by sea. Smith concluded that the voyage was a true account of real events, written by an eyewitness. Smith himself said of Luke’s description of the voyage: ‘No man not a sailor could have written a narrative of a sea voyage so consistent in all its parts, unless from observation.’
Unlike sailing today—with satellite navigation, autopilots, WiFi signal enhancers, and electric windlasses—sailing in those days was extremely dangerous. In this morning’s reading, Luke explained why the eastern Mediterranean was so stormy: ‘Since much time had been lost, and sailing was now dangerous, because even the Fast (that is the Day of Atonement) had already gone by’ (Acts 27: 9). Navigation in this part of the Mediterranean was widely known to be dangerous after September 14th and impossible after November 11th. We know this from early books by Vegetius (On Military Affairs 4: 39) and from Hesiod (Works and Days 619)—both authorities on this subject. When the ship arrived in Fair Havens it was already the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which fell on the tenth day of the lunar month Tishri (in the Hebrew calendar). Since months in the Jewish calendar were based on the moon, with each month beginning at the new moon, the position of the months varied vis a vis the seasons from year to year. Depending on the year, Atonement fell roughly between the latter part of September and the first part of October. In AD 59 Atonement fell on 5th October. Since the Day was over, it was likely to be mid-October when Paul’s ship arrived at Fair Havens.
We may wonder why Luke filled chapter 27 with such detail upon detail of the perilous trip to Rome. Why did he take the time and space to give his readers a blow-by-blow description, when he often skipped over years of Paul’s life with hardly any detail? I suspect, because a ship lost at sea and shipwreck makes fascinating reading, particularly for those who lived around the waters of the Mediterranean. Stories of dangerous sea voyages with storms and shipwrecks were a staple of ancient literature. Luke Timothy Johnson in his book on Acts (1992) writes, ‘So predictable were the voyage, storm’ and shipwreck that satirists poked fun at the conventions…or parodied them. The setting of storm and shipwreck could also, however, be used for the teaching of moral lessons.’ (450-451).
In weighing up all the evidence, I think we can be confident in saying that Luke’s story is not fiction but really did take place. I am personally convinced that he told it in order to show how and why Paul got to Rome. Despite every adversity and hardship from prison to shipwreck, God guided him so he could preach the gospel in the capital of the empire. But Paul didn’t get to Rome because he wanted to. On his own, he would most probably have either died from an assassin’s sword in Jerusalem, or languished in prison, or died at sea. But God guided Paul through the trials and dangers he faced, not by stopping them, but by giving him strength to overcome them. As we know things didn’t go well for Paul in Jerusalem and he was almost killed. There was no miraculous prison intervention by God in Jerusalem or Caesarea (as there had been in Philippi). No converts appear to have been made in either city by Paul’s preaching. Neither did God silence the storm or save the ship.
Like Paul, we too are, at times, caught in depths beyond our control: our journey through life is not often plain sailing—beautiful still waters and magical islands, as opposed to stormy, treacherous seas. Yet in the end it is our spiritual relationship with God that makes the journey really worthy. Not only are we blessed with God’s guidance today, it is something that we are blessed with throughout our lives. It is characterised by the amazing change that happens when we journey from the former self to being faithful disciples of Christ. In short, Christ promises that (if we are faithful to him) our spiritual journey will be upheld by his eternal love. It is this that makes the Christian journey so memorable, challenging and life changing.