Paul preaches all night

Paul preaches all night
Acts 20 : 7 - 12

How long should a sermon be? One dictionary defines a ‘sermon’ as a discourse for the purpose of instruction or exhortation, especially one based on a text of Scripture and delivered by a member of the clergy as part of a service. It offers two alternative definitions, ‘any serious speech, discourse or exhortation, especially on a moral issue’ and ‘a long tedious speech’. Does Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ fall into that definition? It is one of the most sublime gatherings of thought in the history of all humanity. Does Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ sermon fall into that category? What about Billy Graham’s evangelistic messages? Roman Catholics don’t use the word ‘sermon’, they use the world ‘ homily’. It means roughly the same thing but in practice it is shorter and less demanding in consideration. In Baptist and evangelical churches, it is ‘The Word’, that is, ‘The Word of God’ that is delivered and preachers and congregations accept and believe that what is presented and heard is what God actually wants the people to hear specifically that morning or evening from the Bible. The Church of Scotland has had a long tradition of educated preaching. Billy Graham said of Tom Allan the minister who revived St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow, ‘I can’t preach like Tom Allan’.

How long should a sermon be? Former Moderator of the General Assembly Duncan Shaw (not the Bathgate one) suggested that it should be as long as ‘two pan drops sucked slowly nae crunched’. In this Church a wide variety of mint sweets is taken during the sermon, some have wrappers which are loudly taken off attracting attention and disapproval from some. The sermon length here it is about 20 minutes. Jim Philip in Edinburgh preached for at least 40 minutes, as did his brother George in Glasgow. John Wesley could preach for hours if moved by the Holy Spirit. Highland congregations of the last century might stay in church for a 2 hour sermon. What do St Paul and Ken Dodd have in common? Their audiences did not go home in the dark.

This episode in the New Testament is interesting for a number of reasons. Why is it included? It is Luke relating a humorous incident in Paul’s ministry. It is Luke playing a little game of gentle poking of fun at Paul. He didn’t need to put this into his Book of Acts. It is light and whimsical and it shows that he and the Church did have a sense of humour amidst their spiritual fervour and struggles for Christ.

So the local congregation at Troas came together on a Sunday evening for a fellowship meal, worship service and Holy Communion. Troas was the chief city of that part of Turkey called Asia by the Romans. It was an important sea port across the sea from Greece. It was where the city of Troy had been where the wooden horse gained entry for the Greeks besieging it in the wars that took place around 1200BC.

Verse 7 tells us that Luke was present; he was an eye witness - “we came together to break bread”. This was a packed house Church. Christians who had worked all day came in their only free time. Slaves who had worked all day and were given time off for worship arrived also. They met in the upstairs room of some probably wealthy new or recent convert Christian. Straight away we realise that Christianity was class free. Wealthy people would not normally entertain poorer working people and slaves to their homes in this manner. English society is still very class conscious although money talks at every level of society and wealthy businessmen and women are given titles to make them acceptable at the highest levels. Some have suggested that Sir Alex should be made a Lord. Lord Ferguson of Govan. It doesn’t suit him, I think. Can you see him in ermine in the House of Lords? He’d be calling ‘Fergie time’ before too long. Of course, he might take to it.

Paul started talking, and talking, and talking, and talking. Luke says that this was because Paul was due to leave the next day and he had a lot to tell them, teach them, warn them, encourage them. Verse 8 tells us that there were many oil lamps burning throughout this large room. Warmth and perhaps the inhalation of fumes affected some present. Paul went on and on. A young man called Eutychus had seated himself on a window ledge. They didn’t have double glazing in those days. The window space was closed with wooden shutters at night, as in farms in France to this day. Why was he sitting on the window ledge? Was it because there were no other seats? Possibly. Was it because he was only half interested in Christianity and wanted to spend some time watching what was happening out in the street as well as half listening to Paul? Possibly. Was he sitting there for some fresh air to keep himself awake? Possibly. At any rate, he was slowly sinking into a sound sleep, the text says. We might not want to judge him too harshly. He may have been a young slave who had worked a 12 hour shift before coming to Church. He may have been a working young man likewise who had had a bad day at the office. We are not told. Luke must have watched this happening, perhaps from across the room, powerless to help. Eutychus fell asleep and then fell out of the first storey window space onto the ground below. Verse 9 tells us that “he was picked up dead”. Paul stopped preaching and he rushed downstairs to see how the young man was. You can imagine the hysteria - those excitable middle east people. Some, no doubt, were glad of a distraction from Paul’s preaching. Recently in Largs, the Moderator of the General Assembly was conducting worship for a centenary or like service in St John’s Church there. Half way through the service, a policeman entered the Church, strode up to the pulpit and told the Moderator that he had to stop the service at that point and announce the registration numbers of two cars which had blocked a side road nearby. A resident had complained to the Police, they had done a registration check, telephoned the owners’ houses, found out where the car owners were and interrupted the Service so that the owners’ cars would not be towed away thus costing them a lot of money. Albert was not best pleased and saw it as a serious infringement of the freedom and right to worship. I remember conducting worship in Newtongrange Church one Sunday morning, many years ago. Half-way through the service, the church officer walked ceremoniously down the centre aisle, up the pulpit steps and informed me solemnly that someone had left their car lights on.

In the Old Testament there is a fascinating story about the prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarepath. The great man of God took lodgings with this woman and helped her to eke out her food supply. She had a son who became ill and died. She blamed God and the prophet Elijah for what had just happened. Elijah carried the boy upstairs, put him on his bed and stretched himself out over the boy’s body. He prayed, “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him”. His prayer was answered and he took the boy back downstairs and said, “Look, your son is alive”. That is not what Luke says happened here in Troas. Luke does not claim this as a miracle wrought by Paul. The New Testament is honest and trustworthy. Luke records plenty of miracles elsewhere and it would have been easy with just a few words added to make this into a parallel of the Elijah story. Luke did not do so. Paul gave the young man a hug and said, “Don’t panic - he’s alive”. “Don’t worry - he’s breathing”. Paul does not claim to have given the young man his back again from the dead. It is an authentic story. Life as it is. The Christians then resumed their meeting and had their meal together and their Holy Communion. Again we should not underestimate the significance of the shared meal: shared food, pot luck suppers as Canadians call them, Soup & Sandwich Lunch as we have today for Christian Aid. Classless. Slaves, unemployed, poorer workers, local business people and some professionals together in the Name of Jesus Christ. Having worshipped, shared in the sublime presence of the Living Lord in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and having been refreshed and energised by the meal, Paul took to preaching again. We should not think of it however as just a one way monologue. Paul enjoyed a discussion and an argument. He enjoyed asking and answering questions. So you can imagine him firing forth for some time and then stopping and saying “Any questions?” before embarking on another lengthy explanation or exhortation of the Christian life. He continued throughout the night until dawn, until people had to get back to work. You can remember that when you look at your watches at 2 minutes past twelve. The Christians saw Eutychus to his home - a nice touch - authentic again - they just didn’t leave him and wanted to be sure he was none the worse of his accident.

Why did Luke include this? A little light relief. In our guilt and in our intensities, we need sometimes to lighten up. God has a sense of humour also. Luke juxtaposes Paul’s lengthy sermons with a lad falling out the window. In all the hate filled violence of Islam in today’s world. You’d not find such an indication. Christianity is not weak or frivolous but there are times for a bit of space and relaxation and that is why, I think, Luke offers us this little insight into the early Church. In the huge and unconditional commitment that allowed all night services to take place, there was genuine friendship, humanity, love and care of one another, occasional light relief and great sense of the presence of the Risen Jesus Christ.

Robert Anderson 2017

To contact Robert, please use this email address: