“It’s every man for himself”

San Andreas (2015)

Disaster movies.

You know the genre.

A group of people, each with his or her own backstory, is threatened by some kind of impending doom. The threat is often from nature itself, whether a storm at sea (The Perfect Storm; The Poseidon Adventure), a massive earthquake (Earthquake; San Andreas), or even a catastrophic date with an asteroid or comet (Asteroid; Deep Impact).

The script may trace the lives of several characters. How did they get here? What are they running from? What burdens do they carry? The coming crisis, when it hits, will reveal either their heroism or their cowardice, their selflessness or their selfishness. And often, this revelation occurs against the backdrop of general panic. What will they do when everyone else seems only to care about themselves?

Luke’s tale of shipwreck in Acts 27 doesn’t give it the full Hollywood treatment. The description of the disaster itself is detailed, but we don’t get to read the backstories of the characters involved. That’s simply not the story he wants to tell.

Still, one thing is obvious: the sailors aboard that ship weren’t the heroes of anybody’s story.

Paul and his shipmates were aboard an Alexandrian cargo vessel, heading to Rome with a shipment of wheat. With the ship being battered by a freak storm, the crew could do nothing but let the vessel be driven along by the wind and waves. They neither ate nor saw the sky for two weeks, until finally, after a sickening journey of nearly 500 miles, they came near land. The water was getting shallower, quickly, while the high winds shoved them from behind. The crew feared that the boat would be driven into the rocks.

Cue the panicked selfishness.

It was still night. Under cover of darkness, the sailors lowered the lifeboat into the sea, hoping to escape and save their own necks. But somehow, they were caught. They tried to lie their way out of trouble, saying they were just going down to lay anchors from the bow (four anchors had already been dropped earlier from the stern).

But Paul wasn’t buying it. He turned to the centurion and his soldiers and said “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (Acts 27:31, NRSV). This was not necessarily a prophetic pronouncement on Paul’s part, just a seaworthy bit of common sense: Julius, we won’t be able to save the people on this ship without the crew’s help.

The centurion, by this point, knew better than doubt Paul. Had he listened to Paul’s advice earlier and stayed the winter in Fair Havens, they wouldn’t have been in the predicament they were now. He ordered the soldiers to cut the ropes holding the dinghy and set it adrift.

Now, nobody could escape. They were all in it together, sink or swim.

Literally.

In those long and grueling storm-tossed days, the sailors had probably given up hope of being rescued. And now that the possibility of making land had appeared out of nowhere, the reaction wasn’t, “Hooray! We just might make it yet!” It wasn’t, “Let’s work together to survive this thing.” It was every man for himself: The lifeboat’s our best bet, and there isn’t enough room for everybody. Hey, you snooze, you lose.

So here’s a picture of radical grace for you. As Paul had told the crew earlier, an angel of the Lord had appeared to tell him, “God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you” (Acts 27:24).

They would all be rescued. They would all reach safety.

Even the ones who were willing to sacrifice others to save themselves.

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