The witness of gratitude

Sometimes, we take our rituals for granted. Think about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Because people are only baptized once, the occasion can stand out as a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of faith. But do you remember any specifics about the last time you took the Lord’s Supper? The time before that?

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus instructed his disciples. We are to take the bread and cup, and bring to mind the body and blood of our Lord, the grace by which we have been saved. Hopefully, we do — we remember, we worship, we give thanks.

Then again, we might also be thinking about our shopping list or other things we’re planning to do after the service is over.

It happens. It’s not the end of the world.

But it is a missed opportunity for gratitude.

Paul was making the long sea voyage to Rome, in the custody of a Roman centurion named Julius. All in all, there were 276 passengers aboard that Alexandrian vessel (Acts 27:37), including Paul and other prisoners, Paul’s companions Luke and Aristarchus, Julius and his soldiers, and the ship’s crew.

For two weeks, the ship had been at the mercy of a storm. Some of the food, no doubt, had been lost or spoiled. Seasick and in despair, no one had eaten a crumb. But land was finally within reach, and if they were going to survive the next part of their ordeal, everyone would need their strength. Thus Paul took the initiative to encourage his shipmates:

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. 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.” After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.

Acts 27:33-36, NRSV

He took bread; he gave thanks; he broke it; he began to eat. The language seems unmistakable: these are the words associated with the Lord’s Supper. But scholars debate whether this is in fact what Luke is describing. This was not, after all, an assembly of believers, nor is there any mention of wine.

But even if this was not formally a communion ritual, I find it scarcely imaginable that ritual meanings were not in Paul’s mind and imagination as he broke the bread (nor Luke’s mind as he wrote). The entire wretched journey, Paul knew, had been under the providence of God from the beginning.

So he didn’t just eat silently to keep up his strength. He gave thanks to his God for the bread, in the presence and hearing of the godless crew. Only then did he break the bread and begin to eat, no doubt making sure there was enough for all. And note that it’s only after Paul had set this example that the rest of the passengers found their own courage once again, and took bread themselves.

I can’t help but wonder how the ship’s crew responded to Paul’s encouragement. Earlier, they had been caught selfishly trying to escape with the lifeboat, and forced to remained aboard. I would guess that their faces burned with shame; still, everyone else was relying upon them to bring the ship (more or less) safely ashore.

And here was this strange man named Paul, a prisoner with an unnatural air of calm. He had no authority, but seemed to have the centurion’s ear, and spoke with the confidence of a leader. As daybreak neared and the sky lightened, this man took bread and gave thanks for it, even though they had not yet reached safety.

I imagine that something about Paul’s graciousness and care gave them heart; they believed him when he said that everyone would come out of the situation alive and unharmed. His ability to give thanks even as the waves were still pounding the boat was a witness to them of the God of whom he spoke, the God he worshiped.

Perhaps our own gratitude, expressed in and through our rituals, even in the midst of a storm, could also speak a word of encouragement to those who desperately need one.