Saturday, September 28, 2013


Acts 28:1-10

Paul visited [Publius's father] and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. —Acts 28:8


28:1 "After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta.

2The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. 3Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, "This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live." 5He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.

7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. 9After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.

There is a saying that goes: "Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” This passage is a remarkable example of Paul's preaching the gospel without words. There are no recorded speeches by Paul—a rare occurrence! Luke does not mention the God of Israel, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. All we know is that Paul and his companions are shipwrecked on an island with non-Greek-speaking people. Luke refers to them as "natives," meaning "barbarians" or "aliens." The way they receive Paul and his companions is far from barbaric; Luke characterizes it as "unusual kindness."


Paul's dedication as a servant of God is obvious after his heroic, faithful leadership through the storm. Luke underscores the scope of Paul's divine commission in this passage. As the bedraggled bunch wades ashore, it is apparent to their rescuers that the group includes prisoners and captors. The prevailing wisdom of the time taught that bad things happened to bad people. The expectation was that bad deeds were greeted by swift, sure, divine retribution and punishment. Both Christian and non-Christian alike shared this wisdom. When a viper bites Paul, his captors fully expect him to die. It would serve him right!

Imagine their surprise when this does not happen. Much as an athlete might shake off a minor injury, Paul shakes off the snake and shakes up his rescuers—and probably his captors as well. Their conventions of common wisdom aren't holding up—perhaps Paul is a god, after all! The Maltese discern that Paul is indeed blessed. Not even the Greek goddess Justice was able to serve a death sentence via a viper.

Paul is God's faithful servant through all circumstances. In these unusual stories, Luke seems to be inviting us to notice how all of creation—the sea, the storms, and the snake—succumb to serve God's purposes. Stories featuring creation serving God's purposes, or humans being "used" by God—whether willing to be used or not—are characteristics of the book of Acts. This passage brings into the mix the question about God's working in, through, and around nonbelievers. This can be a thorny question for some of us.

"Take the Name of Jesus with You," a hymn written in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, extols the virtues and benefits of going everywhere with the name of Jesus on our lips. During the missionary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christians envisioned themselves taking God to the heathen of the world. The theology of mission has been reformed, fortunately. Most of us realize that God is already present at work in the world. A broad reading of Scripture affirms this theology: John 13:16 (God so loved the world that God sent the Son) and Matt. 22:37-40 (the charge to love God, love neighbor, love self) are two such examples of this affirmation. Even Paul encountered non-Christians who seemed to embody the same kind of moral and ethical principles that Christians and Jews before them were charged to follow. If we put ourselves in the text with Luke and Paul, it's not hard to imagine God at work in Malta through what is known as general revelation, or God's self-disclosure in the created world.

"Don't be afraid of tomorrow," begins the old saying, "God is already there." But if God is already there, and God's plans are for our welfare and not for harm, why do hurricanes, earthquakes, epidemics, and acts of violence rend the fabric of our existence? Why are we often left to weave together the tattered remnants into something usable once again?

It is the age-old question of God's justice and goodness in light of the suffering and evil that exists throughout creation. It is a huge question with no easy answers. In our passage, God protects Paul in order that he may continue to serve out his mission. Ditto Jonah, and David, and the disciples, doubters (Thomas), and deniers (Peter) among them. But what about Stephen, whom we saw stoned to death at the conclusion of Acts 7, and other legions of martyrs across the centuries? What about Martin Luther King Jr.?

The truth is that God is with us under the black clouds and in the recovery. That's what Paul experienced in Malta— God was already there. Paul experienced grace and compassion through the unusual kindness of others. While Paul was charged to bring the good news of salvation to the ends of the world, he discovered that amid violent storms and venomous snakes, and powerful, fearful politicians and religious leaders, God was already there. Maybe, just maybe, that's the life-saving message that Luke wants us to take away with us today.


Look up the lyrics to a couple of the earlier missionary hymns, such as "Take the Name of Jesus with You" (1870) and "Onward Christian Soldiers" (1864). These are often left out of contemporary hymnals. Compare their lyrics with other hymns that remain in many hymnals, such as "We Give Thee But Thine Own" (1858) or "Eternal God, Whose Power Upholds" (1929). Note the differences and similarities. Why do you think the latter two hymns are still included?

How would you answer these questions?

• Why did Luke include these ten verses in Acts 28?

• What do the miracles do for the story?

  Do miracles occur today?

How do you explain that a God who requires people of faith to take risks and perhaps suffer—even die—is really a just and loving God? How do you answer this question: "Why do you believe in a God who 'lets' suffering, abuse, war, earthquakes, and divorces happen?


Dear God, you call us to be disciples of the Lord. May we in service to you act out the living Word. As stewards of the earth, may we give thanks to you. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Acts 27:1-2, 33-44

So it was that all were brought safely to land. —Acts 27:44



27: 1 When it was decided that we were to sail for Italy,  they transferred Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort, named Julius. 2Embarking on a ship of Adramyttium that was about to set sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian, from Thessalonica—

33 Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, "Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. 34Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads."

35After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. 36Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. 37(We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.) 38After they had satisfied their hunger, they lightened the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea.

39 In the morning they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned to run the ship ashore, if they could. 40So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea. At the same time they loosened the topes that tied the steering-oars; then hoisting the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach. 41But striking a reef, they ran the ship aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves. 42The soldiers' plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; 43but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44and 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.

Most of us crave security and the familiar. We like to sleep in our own beds and eat the same breakfast. We take the same route to work or church even when we have other options. Our adventures are planned via Google maps or GPS. Not much is left to chance.

We even like our journeys of faith to feel familiar. The idea of being a pilgrim following the call to discipleship across risky seas is less attractive these days. We seem more concerned with safeguarding tradition than following the Holy Spirit in ways that can inform and refresh tradition. Once upon a time, however, the idea of being a pilgrim or "wayfarer" on a quest for faith was the prevailing image. Yet here are signs that we are reclaiming this identity. Many communities of faith seek to integrate Word and deed in more outwardly focused relationships—think Haiti, post-Katrina/Gulf Coast, post-tornados of 2011 disaster-recovery teams. What the church of Jesus Christ would be like if we set off beyond a "safe haven" today? How might we share the gift of God's love, Christ's peace, and the Holy Spirit's comfort with others? What if we reclaimed the energy that compelled the original Christ followers to do just that?

Before going any further, read all of Acts 27. It's a great story with quite a cast of characters. Paul and his two friends, presumably fellow Christians; Julius and his crew; probably auxiliary Roman troops; and a divine messenger play prominent roles. Add a complicated travel itinerary, ancient seagoing vessel (no GPS for them!), and unpredictable weather. Mix in a prisoner/prophet who takes center stage as God's agent and the next scene in this Luke-Acts odyssey is ready to roll.

The Acts of the Apostles chronicles several sea voyages (9:30; 11:25-26; 13:4,12). This final one tops them all. Paul, a prisoner at the mercy of experienced sailors and soldiers, ends up saving the day. He assures everyone—crew and reader alike—that God's salvation and providential care are present even in the midst of dire circumstances.

As in the previous travel sections (Paul's arrival in Jerusalem and his travels in Caesarea and Jerusalem), the author inserts himself into the story. This first-person plural invites everyone to join the adventure as "we put to sea" (27:3). It pulls us into the story and engages our imaginations. It is difficult to be detached when we are part of the story.

Sea travel was a risky venture for small, mostly open ships. Paul was not alone. Besides a full complement of jailers, friends who cared for his needs accompanied him. Faced with the forces of God's creation (see vs. 15-19), the soldiers and sailors could not take matters into their own hands and avert disaster. Paul, girded by the strength of his faith in God's promises, was emboldened by a divine messenger (v. 23). He inspired the crew to see the voyage through safely, albeit roughly, to land. Just as in Joseph's story (Gen. 50), what may have been intended for harm actually was used for God's purposes. Like the unmilled grain dumped overboard, Paul's safe landing enabled him to continue to sow seeds of the Christian way of life. In this way, new communities of faith took root among the Jews and Gentiles in Rome and in the centuries to follow.

Paul demonstrated a set of survival skills that twenty-first-century Christians could copy. He took risks for the sake of the gospel, so intent on the good news that he gave little thought for his welfare. The risks of jail and imprisonment paled in the face of this ferocious storm. His tool kit included an anchor that kept him tethered securely to God, the source of his hope.

His tool kit included prayer, a spiritual survival skill that anyone can call on. We are often quick to make prayer a one-way conversation—from our hearts and lips to God's ears. Discernment—the practice of listening for the presence and will of God—means that we have to pay attention and listen.  Paul probably practiced this discernment on the voyage. He was attuned to the counsel of the angel of the Lord, and that got the crew's attention. Paul, rarely at a loss for words, used well-chosen, well-timed words to inspire and direct his companions.

His words were backed up with action and attention to practical matters. He thought about timing, navigation, human resources, and fuel for the journey. He saw to it that the men remembered to eat, and he offered a meal that reminds us of the Lord's Supper. Perhaps the two Christian companions made the connection between the holy suppers and the promise of everlasting survival with this meal's offering of physical survival. As God's witness, Paul fed both bodies and spirits that day.

The final twist in the voyage comes at the end. Paul and the other prisoners walk away from the wreckage and back into captivity. The soldiers expected an order to murder their prisoners to prevent their escape after the shipwreck. Imagine their surprise when Julius spared them. His compassion for Paul is not fully explained in the text. We might imagine that Julius was grateful for Paul's courageous guidance and wanted to honor him in return. He might have been wondering about Jesus and wanted to learn more about him. We don't know. But we can see that while God may not intend for hardships to occur, God is with us in the midst of them and afterward. God works through others in the power of the Holy Spirit in surprising ways.

God calls us into some surprising places as we make our way as "pilgrims in this barren land." We may have a clear sense of where we are going and who is going with us, but sometimes we are called to step out into uncharted waters with unlikely traveling companions. We may be called into positions of leadership when we least expect it. What are some of the places God has called you to in the past or is calling you to in the future? What might you do to hone your survival skills and prepare for the mission God has in mind for you?


What hymns, spirituals, and contemporary songs are on your journey-of-faith playlist?

How do the rituals and practices of faith fuel you for your faith journey? How do they help you know what to do, and when?

Do you believe the promise of Jer. 29:77-74—that God has plans for our welfare, not for harm, and fora hopeful future? Does this extend to all people, like the soldiers and sailors with Paul, or only to those who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior?


Guide us, great Jehovah, as we undertake pilgrimages through life. Whether in the midst of calm or crisis, we will call on you as we navigate our way. When we need to speak up and assure others, give us wisdom, confidence, and the strength to do so. When we need to heed the wisdom of another, grant us humility to follow gracefully. In all that we do, may our words and actions offer living witness to you, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2012 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.