In last week’s post we met Hermanus, warden and centurion in charge of Paul during his imprisonment in Caesarea and on the journey to Rome. He has been telling his wife, Portia, of the events leading to his return to Rome. (Acts 27-28) Today he concludes with the story of the journey to Rome.
Portia, I have to tell you I wasn’t sure that we would ever make it back to Rome. The seas were against us, it seemed. Paul was in my charge, but we were all under the command of Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Cohort. We set sail from Caesarea, planning to sail along the coast of Asia, but the winds kept us to the east of Cyprus. Finally we came to Myra. It is a town on the coast of Asia in the district of Lycia. It faces the western sea 100 miles from the island of Rhodes.
I have to admit I was glad to get on dry land for a time in Myra. The waves had been hard on my digestion. Julius found another ship for us. It was from Alexandria bound for Italy. We headed north and after too many days we arrived at Cnidus, only 100 miles up the coast from Myra. Then we sailed toward Crete fighting the wind all the way. Eventually, when I was sure all was lost, we rounded the tip of the island at Salmone and worked our way down the coast of Crete to Fair Havens. It seemed like a good place to stay. Even Paul urged that we go no further.
Later, I knew he was a prophet as well as a man of God. At the time I just wanted to stay on dry land. Paul told us, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”
You ask why we didn’t stay at Fair Havens. The ship’s captain and owner were convinced we would do better to head for Phoenix which had a safe winter harbor. It was only 25 or 30 miles they insisted. When a moderate wind from the south came up, we set out only to be struck by something the sailors called a northeaster with winds roaring across Crete. We were driven by the wind to a small island called Cauda, but we could not linger there because of the wind which drove us ahead of it into the open sea.
It was awful. The second day the sailors threw cargo into the sea and the next day they threw over the extra sails and ropes and other tackle. The storm was so violent that we could not see the sun during the day or the moon at night. I was sure we would all be drowned. My thoughts turned to you here in Rome.
Paul was the only one who seemed calm in the midst of the storm. After many days, he called us all together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” We all stared at him, a couple of the sailors grumbled and took a step toward the man. He ignored their threat and continued, “For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.” So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island.”
I wanted to ask him how he could believe such things in the midst of the terrifying storm, but something about his calm demeanor kept me silent. It was only fourteen days after we set sail, although it seemed like a decade, when the sailors thought we were close to land. They took soundings for depth and discovered it was becoming more and more shallow. The men let out the anchors. We all waited for day. Some of the sailors thought they would escape in a small boat. Paul told me and Julius “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Immediately I cut the ropes and the boat fell into the sea. I watched it sink beneath the waves with a mixture of awe and fear.
Paul was not done encouraging us though. Before dawn he stood up with a loaf of bread. “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” We stared at him in amazement as he prayed and tore off a piece of the bread. For some reason his simple act of eating encouraged us all and we all took some food. Then we threw the last of the cargo of wheat into the sea to make the ship light enough to make it over the rocks.
Do not cling to me, Portia. You can see that I survived. It was fearsome, though. Even lightened, the ship struck a reef and broke into pieces. The soldiers were going to kill all the prisoners, but Julius and I prevented them, mostly because we did not want to harm Paul. “Swim for shore or grab a plank and paddle to shore,” Julius ordered. That is what we did.
A welcoming party of the natives built a fire on the shore so we could dry ourselves. We learned that we landed on Malta. The residents were amazed when a viper crawled out of the wood and bit Paul. We all waited for him to die, but nothing happened. I heard them murmuring that he must be a god come to visit.
We were treated grandly and welcomed by Publius, the island’s ruler. We stayed with him for three days. When Paul heard that Publius’ father was ill, he quietly went in and prayed over the old man. He was healed! Word spread across the island and everyone who was ill came to be cured. We remained on Malta for three months until it was safe to sail. The people of the island supplied all the provisions we needed.
The ship we boarded was also from Alexandria. After a stop at Syracuse on Sicily, we landed at Rhegium on the tip of Italy. A south wind took us to Puteoli. I was amazed when a group of men met us and asked to see Paul. “We are Believers in the Way,” they said. “Please allow Paul to visit and encourage us.”
I was interested to see what would happen when Paul met these strangers who professed to believe in the same Jesus Christ he preached. We stayed for a week before traveling overland the last 100 miles to Rome. New believers met us as we neared the city. Each new group seemed to inspire Paul with more and more courage. “The word of the Lord is alive and well, here!” I heard him tell his companion and physician Lucius.
How long will Paul be here in Rome? I don’t really know. He must wait on the Emperor’s pleasure, I suppose. You know he called together the Jewish leaders here already and tried to explain his faith to them. Some of them were interested, but you heard the loud and angry discussion. Perhaps Paul was right when he told them, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”
What do I believe about this Paul and his God? I think that I have a lot to learn from him. His God has a power I have not seen anywhere else. I am blessed for having known him and I hope he will live with us for a long time.
Paul’s impact on Hermanus and others he met on his journey to Rome was led by the Holy Spirit. He encouraged the soldiers who kept him under guard and the sailors whose courage had failed in the face of the violent storm. Paul healed even the strangers who came to him on Malta. In turn he was encouraged by the belief of those Christians who met him on the road to Rome. We can do nothing alone, but in community with other Christians we are built up and build up one another’s faith.
The Book of Acts ends with Paul in prison where he “lived for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:30-31)
Paul continued to preach and teach even in bondage. In his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, written before his imprisonment in Rome, Paul enumerates many of his trials, none of which make him forget his faith in God. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28) He is able to say “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Later he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
We have the promise of the same grace and faith no matter what our circumstances. Paul and the others in the book of Acts can provide inspiration by their actions in the face of all sorts of dangers.
Next week, Advent I, I'll start a new blog series about "Accepting God's Call" by looking at players in the Nativity drama.