Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: January 18–25, 2020
Scripture: Acts Chapters 27 & 28
Sermon: Shipwrecked! But Saved!
“They showed us unusual kindness.” Acts 28:2
The materials for the 2020 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity have been prepared by the Christian churches in Malta and Gozo. On 10th February each year, Christians in Malta celebrate the Feast of the Shipwreck of St. Paul, giving thanks for the arrival of our Christian faith on these islands. Our Acts scripture reading is read at their feast, and it is the text chosen by them for this year’s Week of Prayer 2020.
The story begins with Paul being taken to Rome as a prisoner (Acts 27). Paul is in chains, but even in what turns out to be a perilous journey, the mission of God continues through him. God is with Paul, and despite the obstacles, God will provide. The narrative in the story is a classic drama of humanity confronted by the terrifying power of the elements. The passengers on the boat are at the mercy of the forces of the seas beneath them and the powerful tempest that rages about them. These forces take them into unknown territory, where they are lost and without hope.
These Acts chapters contain many interesting details which make the story come alive. There are a total of 276 people on board the ship. The Roman centurion in charge belongs to the Imperial Regiment and his name is Julius. Julius and his soldiers have power and authority over the prisoners, but they are entirely dependent on the skill and experience of the sailors. Although all are afraid and vulnerable in the storm, the prisoners in chains are the most vulnerable of all. Their lives are expendable; they are at risk not only of drowning but also of possible execution. The passengers on board are divided into very distinct groups, and as the story unfolds with everyone under pressure and in fear for their lives, we see distrust and suspicion widening the divisions between the different groups. When the ship runs aground on the sandbar breaking up, the soldiers plan to kill the prisoners to stop them from escaping. But Julius the centurion wants to spare Paul’s life, we’re told, and he prevents the soldiers from carrying out their plan. God’s mission is to be fulfilled through Paul, and God will provide for the safety of Paul and all the passengers on board.
And Paul knew this. For one night prior to the ship running aground and breaking up, Paul had a visit from an angel. The angel of God told Paul not to be afraid, that he would stand trial in Rome, and that God had graciously given him the lives of all who sailed with him. And Paul stands out as a centre of peace in the turmoil. He knows that his life is not governed by forces indifferent to his fate. Paul knows that his life is held in the hands of the God to whom he belongs and whom he worships. Paul is an ambassador for Jesus Christ, and because of his faith, he is confident that he will stand before the Emperor in Rome, and in the strength of his faith, he stands before his fellow travellers and witnesses to God’s providence that they will be saved. “For none of you will lose a hair from your heads” he tells them (Acts 27: 34). All on board are encouraged, united in hope and trusting in Paul’s words.
And we see this diverse and conflicted group of people run aground on some unfamiliar island. Having been thrown together in the same boat, they arrive together at the same destination where they are all treated equally in the hospitality they receive from the islanders. As they gather round the fire, surrounded by a people – strangers – who neither know them nor understand them, differences of power and status fall away. The 276 passengers are no longer at the mercy of forces indifferent to their fate, but they are all embraced in God’s loving providence made present through a people who show them “unusual kindness,” (28:2). Cold and wet, they all warm and dry themselves by the fire. Hungry, they are all given food. All are given shelter and kept safe. They are treated as one. They are united in their humanity.
Today many people are facing the same terrors on the same seas. The very same places named in our reading also feature in the stories of modern-day migrants. In other parts of the world, many are making equally dangerous journeys by land and sea to escape natural disasters, or warfare, or poverty. Their lives, too, are at the mercy of immense and coldly indifferent forces – not only natural, political, and economic, but also human. Human indifference can take various forms: the indifference of those who take exorbitant amounts of money from desperate people and sell them places on vessels unseaworthy; the indifference of us not to send out rescue boats; and the indifference of turning migrant ships away. This names only a few instances. As Christians together facing these crises of migration, this story challenges us: do we show “unusual kindness” and become witnesses of God’s loving providence to all people?
Hospitality is a much needed virtue in our search for Christian unity. It is a practice that calls us to a greater generosity to those in need. The people who showed unusual kindness to Paul and his companions did not yet know Jesus Christ, and yet it is through their unusual kindness that Christianity is established on their island, and a divided people are drawn closer together. Paul preached the gospel of Jesus, converts were made, and all are unified in Christ.
Our own Christian unity is discovered not only through showing hospitality to one another, but also through loving encounters with those who are strange to us, those who do not share our language, culture or faith. We must, too, show “unusual kindness.” And in our search for Christian unity, we must remember to trust in God’s divine providence. What matters to God is the salvation of all people. This salvation of God has been sent to all peoples, as Paul will proclaim in Rome when he stands trial. The very last verse in Acts, in chapter 28, tells us this about Paul in Rome: “Boldy and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ,” Acts. 28:28.
May we do the same. As God was with Paul, may God’s mission today continue through us. May we trust, despite any obstacles, that God will provide. May we be true disciples for Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, pray that all Christians everywhere, wherever we are on this planet, that we are all united in our faith and that we are strong witnesses to our faith. Amen.