One of the most intriguing and poignant of all New Testament narratives is Paul’s sea voyage to Rome. He is a prisoner in chains who will stand trial before Caesar, and he doesn’t know the outcome. God has told him that he will arrive in Rome and bear testimony to Jesus in Caesar’s court, but after that he could be condemned to die. What is more—and what no one on board the ship could foresee—there would be terrible storm, an unplanned side-trip far off course, and the ship would be lost.
This is an unlikely story in which to discover a comforting meal. But when we least expect it, a meal becomes a medium of grace, setting the stage for an even larger work of God’s grace and mercy.
It’s important to get a clear sense of the circumstances. The book of Acts records several voyages made by Paul, so that when he began this trip with over 3,000 miles of prior sea travel, he was quite possibly the most experienced passenger on board. The ship departed from Caesarea (below the modern day port of Haifa) in late summer. They changed ships in Myra on the coast of what is now Turkey, and prepared to set out on the second leg of the voyage. Contrary winds slowed them for “many days” and they made slow headway to Crete, finally mooring at Fair Havens. It was now after Yom Kippur in late autumn, the second leg of the voyage had taken considerably longer than it should have, putting them at the end of the window of safety for navigating the Mediterranean. Knowing their danger from his experience at sea, Paul warned the Roman Centurion, the owner, and the ship’s captain to stay where they were until winter had passed or face loss of the ship, lives, and cargo. Against his advice they sailed on. Almost immediately upon leaving port a typhoon-class storm shoots their ship westward across the open sea like a leaf in a storm gutter, straight to what turned out to be the island of Malta. All along their path chaos and tumult in the storm ensued, and seasoned sailors began trembling in fear.
The storm that caught them blew continually for fourteen days, during which the sailors were drenched with rain, battered by waves, and tossed by heavy seas. Clinging to rigging and rail for dear life, they could not even steer the ship, much less prepare and eat food. Their fear of shipwreck on the shoals and drowning apparently paralyzed them, for when Paul finally speaks he points out they have not eaten for two weeks.
Paul and his traveling companions, Luke and Aristarchus, are almost certainly the only followers of Jesus among the 276 passengers of various religious (or irreligious) persuasions. Historians believe that most of the fellow passengers were prisoners condemned to die for their crimes in the arena in Rome. If true, it almost appears from Acts that God delights to place Paul into settings where there is a disproportionate ratio of believers and non-believers. Here Paul, a master evangelist, has a captive audience for whom death seems imminent. Even so, Luke makes no reference to Paul sharing his story, or segueing into the gospel. The man who was never reluctant to speak, who was careful to catch the perfect common grace connection with his hearers, who always spoke the truth boldly, here does not preach. He does not say “if you die in the sea tonight, you will all go to hell unless you pray to receive Jesus…”
I find this extraordinary. Instead, Paul does two things: first, in a few words he exhibits faith in the one true God, and then in an uncomplicated gesture he offers them hospitality.
His simple statement exhibits faith: “the God whose I am, and whom I serve sent a messenger to me… we will not die, but the ship will be lost.” The fact that he trusts God’s word is squarely before them. In a way he even trusts God for them since they do not trust him themselves. Then he does another simple thing. Rather than urging them all to continue fasting to persuade God to keep his word, Paul persuades them to eat because God keeps his word and because they will need strength to swim ashore to an island. So he lifts up a loaf of bread and gives thanks to God before them as a simple act of worship, and begins to eat with the men.
It’s clear that the meal was Paul’s idea. His action opened up a small space in the midst of the storm where the travelers could glimpse what it looks like for a man to trust in God. Since we must assume that the storm continued throughout, Paul’s act of hospitality must have been arresting, indeed.
So Paul the prisoner became Paul the host, offering hospitality to frightened fellow travelers. The effect was that his actions became a medium that offered grace. I am further intrigued by the notion that this was the action of Paul the mature evangelist. We see great wisdom and restraint in his words—what he did not say set the things he did say in sharp relief. There is no record of a conversion resulting from this simple form of witness. Nevertheless it is appealing to imagine that perhaps more happened than is related in the narrative, perhaps with some who were facing death in the arena.
Is this courageous hospitality the sort of thing we should cultivate as followers of Jesus? Is it possible to demonstrate our trust in God with courage, but with an economy of words that shows deep reliance upon Christ, not on our own powers of persuasion? The image of relating to others as fellow travelers, in the same boat, is engaging. The unpretentious (but actually daring) act of offering a meal in the thick of chaos can set the stage for the work of the Spirit.
Another storm, another meal
Karen and I received a call near midnight from our friends Michael and Ellen (not their real names). We had become close over a period of months, and we were honored they had opened their lives to us, sharing some of their wounds. They were people with whom we had enjoyed cooking, and had been in each other’s homes a number of times. That night they were in the middle of a major fight, and Michael was calling for prayer and advice. He was subdued and distraught, but in the background I could hear Ellen shouting and swearing. Ellen was in a rage, and Michael was at a loss. Michael and I talked for a while when I asked to speak to Ellen. When she got on the phone she spewed her anger on me, too. With bitter sarcasm, she asked me if I was going to be a [colorful term] male like all church leaders, and discipline her. I don’t remember what I said but my instinct was to ask her if they would come over for dinner the next night. To my surprise she said they would.
As Karen and I thought about what the evening should look like, we remembered how often we have had major conflicts and how scary that was early in our marriage. We had gone into marriage thinking that being Christians would virtually all that. We decided it was important to help Ellen and Michael by shooting down those unrealistic expectations, letting them know that heated conflict is not unusual nor does it mean that a marriage is in trouble. The next evening we welcomed them warmly—we didn’t withhold affection or subtly withdraw as if we had never been where they were now.
Karen poured wine when they arrived, serving a simple meal of Moussaka to which she added a mixed green salad with vinaigrette dressing, and crusty bread on the side. She poured more Cabernet into our glasses adding warmth to the meal. We moved from the table to our living room sofa, and devoured an apple tart Karen had baked. It capped-off the meal as something that embodied love, having been prepared with care and attention to the components, and was savored as special. There was a fire in the fireplace, so we all sat on the couch together and faced the fire. Karen put a throw across her legs and spread it across Ellen’s too. Michael and I were the bookends on the sofa. At this point I became aware that something sacred and safe was happening between us. I don’t remember all that was said, but I know it was much less significant than what was going on between us as we shared a simple and delicious meal, our sofa, our fireplace, and our friendship. Tension and anger had dissipated. As they were leaving at the end of our time, Ellen said with a little smile, “I came expecting that you were going to kick me out of the church.” It was a delightful finish to our time.
The meal and the way the conversation flowed as a result was more intuition than strategy. It melted barriers. The outcome would have been entirely different had it been a counseling session in my office. The best way—the ordinary way—for relationships to be built and to be healed is in a context of offering simple hospitality… even when it is in the midst of a relational storm.
Menu and recipes
Moussaka (serves 6)
For the Meat & Tomatoes:
2 onions, thinly sliced or chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
1½ lbs ground lamb
Salt & pepper
2 teaspoons cinnamon
5 large tomatoes, peeled & chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon chili-pepper flakes
3 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
White Sauce Topping
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 1/2 cups hot milk
Salt & pepper
Pinch of grated nutmeg
1/2 cup grated cheddar
3 eggplants (about 1 1/2 pounds total), not peeled, cut crosswise in 1/2-inch slices
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Sauté the onions in the oil in a large skillet or saucepan until golden. Add the ground meat and stir, crushing it with a fork and turning it over, until it changes color. Add salt, pepper, cinnamon, tomatoes, sugar, and chili flakes if you like. Stir well, and cook until the liquid has almost disappeared, then mix in the parsley.
Prepare the white sauce: Melt the butter in a pan. Add the flour and stir over low heat for a few minutes, until well blended. Add the hot milk a little at a time, stirring vigorously each time, until it boils, taking care not to allow lumps to form. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally until the sauce thickens. Add salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Beat the eggs lightly, beat in a little of the white sauce, then pour back in to the pan, beating vigorously. Do not allow the sauce to boil again. Add the cheese and mix well until melted.
Brush the eggplant slices generously with the oil and broil or grill the slices, turning them over once, until lightly browned. Line the bottom of a large baking dish (about 14 x 10 inches) with half the slices. Spread the meat on the top and cover with the remaining eggplant slices. Pour the white sauce over the top.
Bake uncovered for about 45 minutes, until golden. Serve hot straight from the baking dish with good quality crusty bread and a green salad.
Wine suggestion: With the lamb and that aromatic touch of cinnamon, a lush Cabernet-Merlot blend or a softer Cabernet Sauvignon would be a perfect match for this meal.
Green Salad (serves 4)
A mixture of lettuce of your choice or one of the mixtures available in most good grocery stores in the bin or the vented containers with a lid. Avoid lettuce sold in plastic bags, it is often not fresh and picks up the smell of the plastic.
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon grainy mustard
Salt & freshly ground pepper
5-6 tablespoons good quality olive oil
Wash and dry the salad leaves. Gently tear the lettuce into bite size pieces. In a salad bowl, mix the vinegar, honey, salt & pepper together with a whisk. Next, slowly whisk in the olive oil. Taste and correct the seasoning. Place the lettuce gently on top of the dressing and toss just before serving.
Apple Tart with a Pecan Crumble Topping (serves 6)
1 pastry crust, pre-baked
1½ lb cooking apples, peeled, cored & chopped
grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 cup of sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ stick unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup soft brown sugar
1/3 cup unbleached flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ stick unsalted butter
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat the oven to 375°. Line a 9 -10 inch tart pan with the pastry. Chill for 30 minutes, then bake blind for 20 minutes until golden. Brush the base and sides with beaten egg.
Toss the apples in lemon juice, then sprinkle lemon rind, sugar, and cinnamon over the apples, and mix. Melt the butter in a large pan, add the apples and cook stirring, until apples soften, almost all of the juices have evaporated, so the filling is fairly dry.
Place the crumble ingredients in a bowl and rub together with your fingertips until it is pea-size.
Increase oven to 400°. Spoon filling into pastry base and cover with topping. Bake for about 15 minutes until the topping is cooked. Best served warm.