Death by Sermon (Acts 20:1-12)

One of my favorite pastor jokes is that of the definition of preaching: the ability to talk in someone else’s sleep. And I’ve been doing it now for nigh unto 40 years! At my previous church there was a fellow who simply could not stay awake – for me, or anyone else for that matter. His wife made a career of poking him in the side, but they never changed from sitting in the third row. And though he never probably heard a full sermon, the guy loved me to death and was always such a great personal blessing.

In today’s passage as we pick up our chronology of Paul’s life, the first paragraph of travel details includes a “we” from the writer Luke, indicating that he is part of the road team again. Note the list of other names, many of these surely being younger men whom Paul was discipling. By this time, Paul is a well-known person in church communities of the Roman world, and spending time with him was probably a great privilege.

Acts 20:1 – When the uproar (in Ephesus) had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. 2 He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3 where he stayed three months. Because some Jews had plotted against him just as he was about to sail for Syria, he decided to go back through Macedonia. 4 He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia. 5 These men went on ahead and waited for us at Troas. 6 But we sailed from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days.

It was certainly a pretty big deal for these people in Troas to have the Apostle Paul himself staying with them for seven days. Surely there were multiple gatherings and lots of conversation – we can easily picture this happening. And on the final night (a Sunday) while Paul was preaching, a fellow named Eutychus falls asleep, dropping out of the 3rd-floor window and meeting his demise upon impact in the street below.

Acts 20:7 – On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. 9 Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. 10 Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” 11 Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. 12 The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.

OK… let’s sleuth this out a bit, as there are some hints about what is happening …

Clue 1 – I know you’ve never named a child or pet by the name of Eutychus, but it was a very common name at that time – especially for slaves. So it is presumable that this young fellow had worked all day and now at midnight it was really very late for such a tired guy.

Clue 2 – The upper room (always the largest in ancient houses) is said to have had many lamps. We can take from this that the large crowd and the burning lamps had depleted the oxygen supply a bit – even for the guy sitting in the window.

Clue 3 – There was a lot of talking going on. This may shock the system of some you reading this, but, most of the world does not do church in mere 60 to 75-minute increments. Just this past Sunday I visited one of the African-American churches in town, and the service went on for a total of 2.5 hours. People returning from missions trips often remark about how long the services were at the local church of the people being served. Ask anyone who has been to Kazakhstan on one of our partnership journeys.

You will note from the passage that the words “talking” or “talked” or “speaking” are used – along with the “breaking of bread.”  There are a variety of Greek words used in this passage that get translated very generically into English. To see it in the original, you would be able to discern that Paul’s conversations involved formal preaching, a sort of give-and-take teaching, and the simple conversation between friends.

Warning Note – So Paul goes down to the street and brings the young man back to life, which, yes, encourages the crowd. Yep, that would be pretty cool! But here is the warning:  If you die while I’m speaking, don’t count on me being able to bring you back … I’d suggest you just stay awake!

Here is another inside scoop on this passage … I really love it!  In fact, this was the passage I chose for my senior sermon at Dallas Theological Seminary. In those days everyone presented one in homiletics class, and the top presenters got selected by the faculty to preach them in chapel for the entire student body. No, I was not chosen … guess I put them to sleep in the classroom, including the prof.

What I love about this passage is the picture of the great body life that goes on when the church is gathered. So many of my favorite memories of church people I’ve grown to love in my churches in Dallas, New Jersey and Hagerstown revolve around all the time together on Sundays just hanging out and talking. This is valuable time! It is one of the great blessings of church family and community. And to gain this blessing, you’ve got to be there regularly; and when you come, you should not just run off and escape as soon as the service is over. That is not what church is about. Hang out with us! We’re really cool people! Think of it like Thanksgiving dinner – you would not just run in after the prayer, sit down and eat, and then rush off as soon as the apple pie was gone, would you?

God has set up the church – the body of Christ – so that we need each other and have each other as resources for successfully running the race of the Christian life. It is a great blessing. Don’t undervalue it.