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Word from Wormingford

27 May 2016

Ronald Blythe enjoys accompanying St Paul on his travels

I HAVE been reading that great travel book which we call the Acts of the Apostles. The infant Church was holed up in secret rooms, and uncertain what to do or where to go. It was guilty about this; for had not its founder been unequivocal regarding such things? “Go out into all the world and preach the gospel.” But how? What an impossible task.

All that they knew was a little land about the size of Wales. All the world was the Roman Empire — an immense place spread about the Mediterranean Sea. The physical and political dangers were legendary. Yet the Lord’s directive was unambiguous: “Go out into the world and teach what I have taught you.”

Paul, his last apostle, however, was a born traveller, and one with a perfect passport, being both a Jew and a Roman. It had given him an international outlook, and a formidable presence. He had been brought up on a great trading route, and he knew the world. He could go anywhere. He knew men who sailed on ocean-covering ships, not fishing boats on Galilee.

But he made a big mistake when he opted to be tried in Rome instead of at a country assize. Had he accepted the latter option, King Agrippa would have released him, and the entire history of the Church would have been different.

But he had another reason for making this fatal journey. One night, in his sleep, a voice had whispered: “Keep up your courage. You have affirmed me in Jerusalem, and must do the same in Rome.” This was why he was going. He was not the only Rome-bound prisoner, but one of a group. And they were all under the guard of a centurion belonging to the Augustine cohort. He was an officer of the Emperor’s own regiment.

Paul so impressed this man that, when the ship docked at Sidon, where he had friends, he was allowed to stay with them. It was an industrial port, full of metalworkers; so no wonder his ship was overladen with heavy goods.

When the ship reached Myra, all the prisoners except Paul were transferred to another vessel, which crept along the coast, this time near Crete. It was all, to use one of Paul’s favourite phrases, perilous. This part of the Aegean had always been a ships’ graveyard. “I can see, gentlemen, that this voyage will be disastrous.”

There were 276 people on board — souls, as the sailors called them — but neither the captain nor the centurion listened to their extraordinary prisoner, and it is at this point that Paul begins to sound like Conrad. He begins to comfort and reassure: “Now I urge you not to lose heart. Not a single life will be lost, only the ship.” This was cold comfort to the owner, who was aboard.

Paul then ordered a meal to be got ready. He said grace. He lightened the ship by throwing everything else into the sea. He brought a kind of faint hope. Early the next morning, the sun showed them land, and they ran aground. They had reached Malta. St Paul and Christianity had set foot in Europe.

The Maltese, Paul said, treated them with uncommon kindness. It was pouring with rain. The islanders lit a bonfire to dry the travellers, the apostle himself gathering sticks. Three months later, a beautiful south wind blew them to Italy, where some friends of Paul met them. It was always Paul’s dream, he said: first Jerusalem, then Rome.

Now and then, I tell this exciting travel tale by way of a sermon. Alas, after a long residency, Paul’s belief in someone greater than Caesar determined his fate, which was execution.

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