Defending Eutychus

A recent book enjoys the witty title, Saving Eutychus. The book itself is intended to encourage and assist preachers to preach engaging sermons in the hopes of preventing their congregations tumbling out of windows to their death, or something along those lines.

Please understand that I am all for preachers setting out to capture and hold the attention of their hearers, although I am slightly concerned that a number of recent books on this topic tend to focus on the homiletically mechanistic and rather bypass the spiritually dynamic aspects. Neither am I suggesting that its authors are ignorant of the slight unfairnesses inherent in the title to Paul and perhaps to Eutychus himself (maybe the cleverness of the title was just too enticing to pass by?).

However, I wonder if I might offer an interpretation of the passage that might rehabilitate both preacher and hearer?

The episode in question is recorded by Luke in the midst of a blizzard of evangelistic and edifying activity carried out by Paul and a fairly large crew of companions. They arrive in Troas were Paul has an opportunity to instruct the saints. Reading some popular interpretations, one might imagine that Paul begins to preach at a fairly typical hour - perhaps six or seven o'clock, let's say - finds himself a little carried away and gets his second wind at about 11pm. Still going strong at midnight, it's all a bit much for Eutychus, who - overcome with a mixture of boredom and weariness - finally loses the battle against sleep and rolls out of his window seat to his doom, almost literally preached to death. But not to worry! The apostle simply heals the chap, and - undeterred - cracks on unrelentingly with his sermon until daybreak. Insensitive Paul! Inattentive Eutychus! The obvious lessons? Preachers should not go on too long and should make sure they maintain the attention of their hearers, and/or hearers should care enough about the truth not to fall asleep while it is being preached.

But is that what is actually happening? I would suggest not.
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, "Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him." Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted. (Acts 20.7-12)
You will notice, first of all, when they meet: it is on the first day of the week. This is that day on which the risen Christ made a repeated point of meeting with his disciples to speak truth to them for their blessing. Although the language of breaking bread does not require us to understand that this is a worship service in which the Lord's supper will be celebrated, it is not an unreasonable supposition.

However, on this occasion, these saints have the privilege of Paul himself being briefly present with them, and he takes the opportunity to explain the truth. Now, it is clear that Paul preaches for some time, but it is also worth noting that we are not informed when he began preaching. That is important, because it might help us appreciate what is going on.

Could it be, then, that what we have here is a congregation of believers from various backgrounds gathering as opportunity provides? Several sources inform us that Eutychus was a fairly common name for slaves. If this were the case here, then we might suggest that Eutychus - together with several others of the same or different circumstances - has made his way to worship once his day's work is done, late at night or very early in the morning being the only times when such meetings could occur for the whole church. It may even be feasible to suggest that Eutychus has already met with the saints at dawn. Pliny the Younger, governor and arch-whinger of Bithynia-Pontus not many decades after these events, described Christians as being
in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to (do) any wicked deeds, never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of good food - but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (Book Ten, Letter 96)
Without demanding this interpretation, I hope that a slightly more favourable portrait of Eutychus and Paul begins to emerge. On the one hand, this is not Paul preaching a long and dull sermon without regard for the capacity of the hearers. On the other, this is not dopey Eutychus who simply cannot sustain his interest, or who is too young and weak to keep up the pace.

More likely is that we have here a group of committed and earnest believers who are seizing their opportunity to hear the Word of God from that fruitful servant of the Lord, Paul, before he moves on. They meet when they have their chance, perhaps at the end of the working day (which might have been later for the slaves, not to mention others in an environment where health and safety legislation tended toward the minimal). They come weary but eager, lighting the lamps in the room to enable them to make the most of the brief hours available. Yes, they are tired (preacher and hearers alike). Yes, it is warm. But this is a rich opportunity, and they are eager to make the most of it.

Far from criticising Paul for preaching too long or commiserating with Eutychus for being subjected to such an ordeal, we ought to be commending these men for their appetite for fellowship with God and his people. Yes, young Eutychus does eventually succumb to the atmosphere, and fall from the window. But notice that - once restored - it is not as if everyone decides to call it a night. They keep going until dawn breaks, and there is no indication that Paul locked the doors and put Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus and Trophimus on the exits to prevent people leaving.

Leaving aside the practical issues of engaging preachers and engaged listeners, I wonder how eager we are to meet with God and his people on the appointed day to hear the truth explained, proclaimed and applied? How determined are we to make the most of our opportunities for worship? Are we ready to swap shifts or make up hours in order to meet with the saints? If necessary, either because of persecution or some other necessity, would you be willing to meet before dawn and after dusk in order to worship the Lord your God in company with his people?

Eutychus sets us a good example. To be sure, rolling over in our beds is a lot safer than rolling over in an open window, but - taking into account all the issues - I think Eutychus was with the right people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Perhaps such questions are already a live issue for believers in Islamic countries, for example, or in those nations where there is no notion of Christendom (please note that I am not commending the notion, just recognising its existence). These are challenges which converted children in godless homes must take into account, or those with unconverted spouses, for example.

So, let your sermons be engaging, and let your eyes be open, by all means, but - most of all - let your hearts be eager to be where God is making himself known through the preached word.