Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. This morning we turn to the most famous fountain of Rome.
Sandwiched between a backdrop of small streets in the heart of Rome is the most beautiful and largest fountain in the city. Sitting atop an ancient aqueduct that dates back to 19 BC, the baroque style Trevi Fountain which took 30 years to build is fed by the clear water of Acqua Vergine. The fountain is located at the intersection of three streets, translating to ‘tre vie’, which is how the Trevi Fountain got its name. In the center of the fountain underneath the arch stands the statue of the nautical god Neptune, being drawn to the sea on his shell-shaped chariot pulled by two winged horses and tritons. One of the horses is calm and obedient, the other is wild and rambunctious. They symbolize the changing tides of the sea. The two statues in the niches next on either side of Neptune represent Abundance to the left and Health to the right.
Of course, it isn’t just about the beauty of the Trevi Fountain that makes it magical. It is the legend as well made famous by the 1954 movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.” If you throw one coin into the fountain: you will return to Rome. If you throw two coins: you will fall in love with an attractive Italian. If you throw three coins: you will marry the person that you met. Of course, in order to achieve the desired effect, you should throw the coin with your right hand over your left shoulder. It is a lucrative wishing well. The city of Rome retrieves nearly $3000 every day from the Trevi Fountain. Last year over $1.5 million was thrown into the fountain. Not a bad haul for the god Neptune who has not been worshiped in Rome for 1500 years.
I am quite sure that both St. Peter and St. Paul would be confused by Peter’s successor Pope Clement XIII’s 1762 inauguration of the fountain dedicated to Neptune regardless of its beauty, size or legends. The Renaissance in Italy, however, was a time where moral values were derived from Christianity, but not all the edifying lessons were to be found in the Scripture. The stories of Greek and Roman mythology were considerable sources for portraying human virtues and vices. How contrary this would have seemed to St. Paul. In the Gentile pagan world he travelled, especially in Athens and Rome, idols dominated the city scape and the apostle spoke out against them. Paul proclaimed instead the power of one God, the unknown God of Israel, who had been made flesh in Jesus Christ. Everything Paul did was a proclamation of this gospel regardless of the circumstance. Perhaps no story demonstrates this more boldly than St. Paul’s harrowing shipwreck at sea is more than a dramatic rescue operation. It was St. Paul’s public confession of faith in the supremacy and sovereignty of his God alone.
It is impossible to tell the story of St. Paul’s Footsteps in Rome, without saying how and why he came to be there. Nearly 25 years had passed since the persecutor Saul had been transformed in the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. He had made three missionary journeys across Asia Minor into Greece, but never to Rome. Most biblical scholars agree that Paul would have traveled over 10,000 miles -by foot. That would be equal to walking between New York and Los Angeles nearly 4 times. It was not easy work, in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “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.” That was all common in the day and the life of a devoted apostle.
When Paul was in his late 50’s, he returned again to Jerusalem from his missionary journeys. There was anger and concern about his work among the Gentiles. Some of the leaders in Jerusalem falsely accused Paul of bringing a Gentile into the temple and thereby defiling it. An angry mob beat him. A riot broke out in the street which drew the attention of the Roman commander and Paul was taken into custody in Caesarea by the sea for his own protection. The leaders in Jerusalem wanted him brought to trials and charged with agitating the crowds, but before he could reach Jerusalem Paul’s own nephew overheard 40 men discussing a plot to assassinate the apostle on his way from Caesarea. After two years in prison in Caesarea with no trial in sight Paul demanded that as a Roman citizen he had the right to plead his case before the emperor in Rome. He was assigned to the care and protection of a centurion named Julius and they would travel by ship. That is where our lesson from the Book of Acts begins today.
It was late in the sailing season. In the summer, the journey could have taken 2-3 weeks, but it would be dangerous and fool-hearty that late in the fall. Based on his own experience, Paul warned the centurion, but they sailed on anyway. It’s a reminder that you do not need to be the one causing the shipwreck to be caught in one.
Perhaps that is what this story is really all about. We can all experience severe storms, northeasters, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. These natural weather events create widespread destruction. People lose their lives, properties are destroyed and daily activities are disrupted. Even though these weather events may be predicted, no one knows the degree in which they will destroy. Then there are the personal trials and storm storms which are equally unpredictable and disruptive. And you wonder what are you supposed to do? One thing I can tell you. The Apostle Paul wouldn’t be running off to Rome and throwing three coins in a fountain dedicated to Neptune.
My friends, perhaps your life feels as if you are heading towards a shipwreck. Or perhaps the impending disaster will be that of someone you love. It is painful and awkward to stand idly. Whether it’s your shipwreck coming or someone you love, you may be wondering how you are going to survive the crash. Let me assure you that St Paul’s counsel to the passengers on that grain ship is just as remarkable and helpful today as it was 2000 years ago.
Of course, nobody likes someone who tells you, “I told you so,” which Paul does in no uncertain words, “Men, you should have listened to me” but then immediately he goes on to say, “I urge you now to keep up your courage.” You see, it no longer about Paul and someone’s lack of judgement, it is really all about his confidence and trust in what God can do. God has a purpose for you and he wants you get back on track. The angel said to Paul, “Do not be afraid, you must stand before the emperor.” I don’t know what plan God has for your life- or what purpose he has intended for you. But I do know that he has plan to keep you going. So, do not be afraid. God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you. For God is going with you.
But be aware, that end of the journey may not be pretty. As one comedian said, “It’s not the fall that gets you. It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.” Paul told the 276 passengers honestly and openly that the ship would run aground on some island, everything would be lost, “But God will protect you and save you- exactly as I have told you.” Sometimes, we do not need the sugar coating, we need the honest truth and facts.
That may not sound reassuring. And you might choose to keep all your options open and throw your last three coins at the foot of Neptune at the Trevi Fountain. Indeed, there were soldiers on that grain ship who weren’t so sure about Paul’s words either. As they drew nearer to the land they began to see the fleeting possibility of escape. They were lowering a life boat over the side, then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ”Unless the men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Paul trusted in the angel’s message. No one would lose his life if he stayed on the ship. The soldiers cut the ropes and let the lifeboat slip away.
You and I are commanded to stay on board as well. There is perhaps no more powerful command. It is a bold commitment and trust to remain with Christ and to weather the storm with him. In the hour of crisis, you can’t be running around searching for another answer or solution. As a follower of Jesus, Paul knew that there was no safety outside of Christ. Indeed, outside of Christ we are all open prey for the enemy.
It is precisely in those awkward moments of doubt and trust that we need encouragement. Paul understood the weakness of the flesh and temptation to flee, and so as daybreak dawned on the passengers who were most anxious and afraid, he urged all of them to take some food to eat. They needed nourishment for the struggle that was yet ahead. They needed something tangible to hold onto. The bread he offered was an important reminder and gift. We all need the strengthening power and prayer of communion and community to keep us close to Christ and to meet the challenges of the new day.
Finally, Paul had the sailors lower the sea anchors into the deep waters. It may seem strange to us living so far from the sea, but the sailors understood. The passengers too knew that they were going to crash, but they also trusted that the anchors dragging along the sea bottom, would slow the ship and allow themselves time to prepare to leave the ship after the crash. It was a wise bit of counsel. When the ship broke into pieces, the strong were able to swim ashore and the weak were able to use the wreckage to float to safety shore. It is a word of advice for all of us facing a shipwreck. You just can’t take the crash at full speed. You need to slow the momentum before you hit. In spite of the shipwreck and the storm, St. Paul and all 276 souls made it through the aftermath of the northeaster. Not a life was lost. All because they remained on the ship.
My friends, any storm can wreak havoc in your live. To avoid a shattered broken life, following the shipwrecks, you must remember to remain on board in Christ. It is Christ that takes us through the storm and it is Christ who delivers us safely to land again. That is the good news Paul wanted to share with all 276 passengers, even soldiers who preparing to kill him. Yes, in times of trouble, you have to stay on board with Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.