When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely. (New International Version)
Saul was an up and rising star among the Jewish Pharisees. He was committed to his religion to the point of approving the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Saul saw followers of Jesus as an aberration to Judaism, and did whatever he could to stamp out the sect.
During one of his travels to do just that, he was confronted by a vision of Christ himself, who said to Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4-5) For days Saul was blind, mimicking his spiritual blindness. Both his physical and spiritual eyesight were restored when he came to faith in Christ and began following the words and ways of Jesus. His name changed from Saul to Paul the Apostle.
Paul’s conversion was a complete transformation of life. Yet, this in no way meant that the rest of his life was all rainbows and butterflies. Just the opposite. Saul the Persecutor ended up becoming Paul the Persecuted One.
With the same drive and desire that he once had to do away with Christians altogether, so now the Apostle Paul put all that energy into proclaiming the good news of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ his Savior and Lord. And, as one might expect, this put Paul in the crosshairs of his former partners, the Jewish Pharisaical leadership. They now despised Paul.
The Jewish religious authorities hated Paul so much that they made sure to stir up trouble for him everywhere he went, even when it was way out in the Gentile sticks of Galatia and the Gentile strongholds of Greece. And that is essentially why Paul landed in prison. He was portrayed as a rebel and a troublemaker, an enemy of the social order (even though Paul himself was actually a citizen of Rome).
As a Roman citizen, Paul invoked his right to appeal to Caesar. And so, he was put on a Roman prison ship, bound from Palestine to Italy. And that is where we pick up today’s New Testament lesson.
Paul had been through an awful lot of adversity, hardship, and persecution. His faith had become so robust that a terrible storm and a shipwreck could not at all wreck his commitment to Christ. In fact, it only strengthened it.
It’s not always easy to see, but Paul’s words to the Roman Christians are true, even for us today:
This is an understanding of God, a deep theological perspective, which is informed by years of walking with Jesus in the crucible of suffering and difficulty. It discerns the Lord as caring and loving, even when it appears on the surface that God is mean and capricious.
Many Christians today tend to believe that the redemption which Christ secured is a mere life insurance policy for heaven. And, if it has anything to do with the here-and-now, it means we ought to have all our desires met for earthly peace and abundance. If that were true, both Jesus and Paul were miserable failures as godly people.
God, however, cares about our salvation, our wholeness and integrity as people on this earth. Yes, we have eternal life, yet that life has already begun, and we are to live into it now.
Christianity is a paradoxical faith. The way to gain your life is to lose it. The path to glory is through suffering.
This, my friends, means that we do not gain a good and blessed life by attempting to make everything in life go our way, without any difficulty. Instead, the good life comes by acknowledging the grit and grist of life. It is in the full acceptance of suffering, persecution, illness, death, and our own psychological infirmities that leads us into becoming who God wants us to be – and thus more open to what joy really is.
On the practical level, this means that our failures, our missed expectations, and our dashed hopes are very important pieces to our faith and it’s development. All of this is what awakens us to compassion – both for others and ourselves.
So then, Paul’s perspective on all the difficulties in his life is that they are significant spiritual incubators of faith for him. Paul accepted his sufferings and hardships – and more than that – he valued them for the ways they developed his faith in God and ability to minister to others.
As one old Rabbi once put it:
“There are many rooms in God’s castle. There is, however, one key that opens every room, and that key is a broken heart.”Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760)
Sovereign God, let our love be genuine; help us to hate what is evil, and to hold on to what is good; and empower us to love one another with mutual affection. Strengthen our spirits so that we might serve our Lord Jesus. With you as our faith, we choose to rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; and persevere in prayer, by means of your blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.