Falling Asleep in Church Can Kill You

Bible Text: Acts 20:7-12, Proverbs 6:6-11 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Wait…That’s in the Bible? | Today we are finishing up our January sermon series, “Wait…That’s in the Bible?”, where we have been looking at some of the maybe stranger and less-known stories that we find in Scripture. The Bible is filled with some of the most inspiring, empowering, and amazing stories ever recorded. But it does also contain some stories that might give us a moment to pause and say, “Wait, what?”

The first week we looked at a story about a prophet who was mocked and the fallout for those who would dare do such a thing to one of God’s prophets. We also talked about the challenge in reconciling this story with our understanding of a loving and forgiving God. Then last week, we looked at the story of a talking donkey and the abuse it suffered at the hands of its oblivious master. We also talked about how God is still speaking and how God speaks to each of us in the ways that we are most likely to hear.

Now I have to own up to something here. When I was younger, I would sometimes fall asleep during the sermons in church. When I was really little, I didn’t think much of it, and it’s not that unusual for small children to do that. But as I got a little older, I really did try to stay awake and pay attention. Sometimes I was successful…and sometimes not. Whenever I sat between my sisters, they would try their best to keep me awake with gentle pokes or taps.

But then, when I got to the age to begin the journey towards confirmation, things had to change. I had to really make a strong effort to stay awake because part of what the pastor had us do as part of the confirmation process was to outline several of the sermons throughout the year. So not only did I have to stay awake and pay attention, but I also have to pay close enough attention to develop what I thought the outline of the sermon was.

Now I have to admit that I was extremely blessed in this for two reasons. First, my father would sit next to me and do it with me. He didn’t do for me but did it himself, and then we would go over it afterward to see if there were things I had missed or misunderstood. But secondly, I was blessed because both of the pastors that we had were very organized in their sermon preparation, and that made it much easier to form those outlines.

So, trust me, if anyone understands the struggle of staying awake during sermons, it’s me. And I do try really hard to make these messages interesting enough that they on their own don’t put you to sleep. I know that lack of a good night’s sleep, not feeling well, etc. can all lead to wanting to rest one’s eyes. But hopefully, it will never be the words I speak that cause you to drift off into dreamland. No guarantees, but I do make a strong effort, I promise.

So, this morning we are going to look again at our story from the twentieth chapter of the book of Acts that covers Paul’s farewell visit to Troas and the events that happen throughout. So, enter the story hearing that Paul is holding a discussion with some of the people and it continued on until midnight. He was leaving the next day, so he wanted to get as much time with them as possible.

We are told that there were many lamps in the room upstairs where they are meeting at night went on. We are then introduced to a young man who was present named Eutychus. We find him sitting in the window watching and listening. But then, as you might expect, Eutychus began to sink off into a deep sleep while, and I quote, “Paul talked still longer.”

But then tragedy strikes. Overcome by sleep, Eutychus falls out of the window, the upstairs window, down to the ground three floors below, and dies. Now, if we stopped the story right there, I can immediately think of two important lessons that this passage would offer. First, a message for pastors. If you preach too long, someone could die. Second, a message for those listening to someone preaching. If you fall asleep during a sermon, you could die.

Thankfully, there is much more to the story, so let’s keep going. So, after this horrible accident, Paul goes down and bends over the boy, takes him in his arms, and says, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then Paul goes back upstairs, and after having something to eat, he keeps talking with the other people until dawn. Then he leaves. And the last thing we are told is that the boy is taken away alive and that they “were not a little comforted.”

Yeah!! Happy ending!! Sort of, right? Well, let’s unpack this, shall we? The first thing we can make a note of is that this story belongs to the category of resurrection miracles. While maybe not as well known as the story of Lazarus or some of the other people that Jesus brought back to life, it is still in that same category. This restoration of Eutychus’ life served as a vivid reminder to the Christians of Troas that the Jesus whom Paul had been preaching about was indeed the resurrection and the life.

Now, according to John Polhill’s work in the New American Commentary, there are two conclusions we can draw from this incident. The first focuses on Paul, and the second on young Eutychus. According to Polhill, “The first serves to connect the incident to the larger narrative of Paul’s journey. Assured of the youth’s recovery, Paul returned to the upper room, partook of the Lord’s Supper with the other Christians, and evidently shared a larger meal with them. He then continued his discourse with them until daybreak. Afterward, he departed, since he would soon need to hasten to Assos to catch his ship.”
He follows this up with the claim that, “the second conclusion focuses on Eutychus. He was taken home fully recovered. Everyone was immeasurably comforted. It was more than comfort. They were encouraged and strengthened in their faith by what they had witnessed that night.” I admit that the wording in the passage made it seem like the opposite of this, depending on how you hear it.

Now, I think Polhill’s offerings here are fair and make sense. I especially see value in his second point about this miracle, strengthening the faith of the people present. But…what does this do for us right now, right here, today? There are several stories of resurrection, not just Jesus’, in the Bible, so is this one somehow special? Does it really add that much more to the resurrection miracle?

Now I found a few scholars who actually make the claim that Eutychus was being punished in his fall to his death. They essentially claim that he was mocking God by falling asleep during this worship service and Paul’s preaching and thereby mocking God. And we know what happens when someone mocks God right? But no bears come out to maul the boy. But these scholars argue that the fall to his death is his righteous punishment for mocking God.

I personally believe that would be a bit extreme. Especially when we look at it in comparison to the situation with the youths who were mocking Elisha. Their mocking was intentional and mean and was not likely the first time they had done it. But we are not told anything about this young boy like he was usually disrespectful or in the habit of falling asleep in dangerous places.

And I don’t think many of us, if any of us, wouldn’t be able to picture someone who has fallen asleep in an upright manner of sorts, slouching or falling over. In this case, it happened to be backward, or in whatever way would have allowed this young boy to fall out the window and lose his life.

So, we could see this passage as just another history of worship in the early church that involved a meal, a message, and some discussion. It could serve as another example of the formation of the early churches and faith communities. And at some level it does. But again, what message does it give us today?

Well, when I look at it, on the whole, I think, at least for me, in my context and in my understanding of faith and God, I think this passage is more about mercy and grace. Regarding the punishment angle, I cannot guarantee that it wasn’t part of the equation, just like in the story of Elisha and the mocking youth. Sometimes we may not have a complete answer, and that’s okay.

And when we consider the example set about worship in the early church, this too holds value, and I personally appreciate seeing this kind of historical information being presented for us readers today. It is through this, and many other examples of worship, that we have established certain worship formats, liturgy, and flows over the years.

But I guess I just feel strongest about the viewpoint of resurrection. By resurrecting this young boy, Paul, and God by working through Paul, has shown the mercy and grace of God. Through this saving act, Paul has shared the power of God with the people then and continues to show it to us. And there is something specific that he shows about it.

Paul saves the life, or rather brings it back, of a young man. We are told nothing about him, so we have no idea if he was just some random person, the child of the owner of the home, we have no idea what the societal status was of this person. And that is exactly my point. When Jesus brought Lazarus back, that was a friend, someone he loved. When he brought back the daughter of Jairus, that was the child of one of the rulers of a Galilee synagogue.

But in this instance, we have no idea if this Eutychus was “special” or related to someone powerful or important. And that matters that we don’t know. Because if we don’t know, we really cannot assume one way or the other. And what that means is that ANYONE, regardless of status, is worthy of resurrection and therefore salvation.

You don’t have to have personally met Jesus and hung out with him and your family. You don’t need to be the child of some important person in the community. You just need to be you. Because in the eyes of God, we are all friends of Jesus. And as children of God, we are all children of someone VERY important indeed.

Salvation is not just for the perfect (or those who believe they are). Salvation is not just for the politically connected. Salvation is not just for the rich. Salvation is for everyone. God offers salvation to everyone, freely through prevenient grace, and through our further journeying through justifying and sanctifying grace. We still have to be active in accepting grace and working to grow in grace, but it is freely there for all people. Even the ones who fall asleep during the sermon.

I hope these last three weeks have been a good experience for you, one that has introduced you to some new stories and maybe even stretched your faith and understanding of God. I hope you have learned something, but I also hope you have shared something with others. I hope that you have felt some inspiration to dig deeper into the passages of the Bible to discovers stories you may not know or may have forgotten about. And I hope that you continue to grow in faith and grace. Amen.