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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Christians Awake


 

"The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted." Acts 20:12


Two weeks ago, we concentrated on the first section of Acts 20, which the NIV titles, ‘Through Macedonia and Greece’. That’s where the Apostle Paul continued his mission for Jesus. We looked at other Bible bits, which fill in the details of the Acts account at this point, and saw that Paul was actually collecting financial support from churches he visited, which he was intending to deliver to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. We noticed how Paul deliberately - with intent - ‘encouraged’ the followers of Christ and that, in doing so, he was following the example of Jesus himself.


The book of Acts gives us some wonderful visual imagery. It pictures people’s lives. We aren’t just given a difficult doctrinal directive of what the life of faith should look like. We are given a display, in the lives of ordinary people, of faith acted out. We are given examples to follow which are so helpful.


Recently, I showed someone my example of how to mend a puncture to a bicycle tyre. It’s one of the only things I do well – but it’s better than nothing. If you had a puncture and didn’t know how to fix it, and decided to ask me, would you rather I gave you a list of wordy instruction, or would you prefer me to show you? Acts doesn’t just tell us stuff - it shows us stuff.


Verse 7 is a case in point. If I asked you why most Christians gather on a Sunday, would you answer, ‘because the Bible tells us to’? Because, strictly speaking, it doesn’t tell us to. If anything, it shows us to.


What do I mean? Well, the word ‘Sunday’ isn’t found in our NIV Bible translation. Instead, that day is referred to as ‘the first day of the week’. That is because the Bible is set in an initial Israelite context, so the language of dates and times has distinctly Jewish roots. The most important day in the Jewish week, was, and still is, the day of rest – Shabbat, or the Sabbath, which is on Saturday. Saturday is the last day of the Jewish week. Therefore, in these Acts times, when we read about ‘the first day of the week’, we are talking about the day after Saturday, which in my diary is Sunday.


But the New Testament does not contain an explicit instruction telling Christians to make Sunday their main day of gathering, but it does show us believers doing just that, like here in Troas, in Acts 20 7. Is that enough reason for us to adopt this pattern? Perhaps we should ask why they chose to meet on Sunday. Why did they? Many presume that they chose this day because this day was the day – the day that Jesus rose from the dead.


Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week – Sunday. We are explicitly told this by all four gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John also (John 20 19 & 26) tells us that Jesus appeared, on that first resurrection Sunday evening, to his gathered followers. He chose to presence himself then, as they met together, and again on the following Sunday. But this was before Jesus returned to heaven and before that awesome out-pouring-of-the-Spirit event on the Day of Pentecost, in Acts 2, when the New Testament Church really burst into new life and activity so, maybe, the verses in John’s gospel aren’t quite so relevant to church practice now, as these verses in Acts 20.


So, are there any other examples of this practice in the New Testament? Only one more. When Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth about the financial support that he was then collecting for the Jerusalem church, he told them this, in 1 Corinthians 16 1-4, ‘Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made’. We can be pretty certain that the practice in Corinth, and probably Galatia too, was for believers to gather on this day.


Here at Riverside, like most Christian churches, we have adopted this pattern of Sunday meeting. Now, someone could argue, ‘but there is no explicit instruction. Therefore, I consider every day alike. I don’t believe that Sunday is more sacred than, say, Monday’ (as Romans 14 5-6). Well, I don’t have a problem with that. Just don’t turn up at Riverside on Monday morning – because no-one else will be here!


So, why did they gather that Sunday. The first reason is clear - ‘we came together to break bread’. This church, with those visiting believers, were together going to remember Christ by taking the Lord’s Supper. From this, we know they were following the example which Christ set – for all believers – in taking the bread and wine in remembrance of him. Jesus was central to their meeting.


It seems pretty evident that this meeting was on Sunday evening, because Paul ‘kept on talking until midnight’. It is quite probable that this would have been a normal working day for many of those people, and so they meet in the evening after the day is done. So, are we being set an example here that church services should be really, really long. No, I think not. This length of time together that evening was abnormally long. It wasn’t standard practice in Troas. Because Acts gives us the reason why Paul spoke at such length on this occasion. It was his last occasion - ‘he intended to leave the next day’ – and he wanted to make the most of this final opportunity with these Christians.


Actually, the ‘until midnight’ bit, in verse 7 isn’t the half of it! In the commotion that follows, it is easy to miss what follows the Eutychus episode. Verse 11 tells us that this gathering didn’t finish until dawn. Yes, it’s an all-nighter! Not something we usually associate with church – more often with alcohol - more beer and spirits than spiritual things. More than once in my working life I’ve enquired about someone’s bleary-eyed look on a Monday morning, to be met with the response, ‘All-nighter – in Wakey!’ (slang for Wakefield). Never, in my entire life, has anyone said, ‘All-nighter – Church!’ But there’s still time!


Interestingly, the sleep-foundation website has this to say on the subject – ‘All-nighters are harmful for thinking, memory, and overall health’. That was certainly true for Eutychus! His name means ‘fortunate’. Was Eutychus fortunate? He was certainly human. This is a very human story and Luke, the author of Acts, frames it very humanly. The background information which he gives is so relevant. This young man was probably already tired when he arrived that evening, after a day of physical labour, to a building that had got increasingly hot and stuffy. Luke is deliberate in mentioning that this was an ‘upstairs room’ (verse 8). Heat rises, and it keeps rising until Eutychus is wrapped in it like a blanket, ‘seated’, as Luke tells us, ‘in a’ ‘third storey’ ‘window’ seat, in verse 9. We are meant to feel the cosy warmth like Eutychus did. Then Luke informs us of the abnormal session length? Why? Because it’s relevant. This wasn’t a 24-minute message – Eutychus was on a 24-hour grind. And look at Luke’s language – ‘Paul talked on and on’!


It was in a room full of people, all breathing in the available oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. But Luke adds another relevant and compassionate detail, to spare Eutychus’s blushes. The available oxygen was also being used up by the ‘many lamps’ of verse 8. These would probably have been lamps fuelled by olive oil. These weren’t LED’s – unless LED stands for Leads to Extreme Drowsiness!


Because all these things together led to sleep. In verse 9 we read of this taking place – he ‘was sinking into a deep sleep’. Apparently, the Greek verb that is translated ‘was sinking’ gives a sense that this was being fought against. Eutychus was fighting to stay awake, but he lost the battle. The evening takes a dramatic turn as the young man, sound asleep, falls from his precarious perch to the ground, ‘and was picked up dead’.


You may have heard Eutychus receive some criticism in the past. You won’t hear that from me. It’s as if people ignore all Luke’s detail and are surprised that someone could fall asleep given who was speaking that night. But the way Luke sets the scene here seems designed to make us find it more surprising that everyone else stayed awake. And I think there are lessons here for those who preach, or those who bring other talks to church groups and young people’s groups.


Of course, we should endeavour to engage people, and be prepared to find new ways of achieving that. But physical and mental fatigue are part and parcel of the human condition - for us, and for those listening to us. Talking ‘on and on’ needs to be the exception rather than the rule. And it’s just a fact of what we are that the voice of life’s distractions can be difficult to close the door on at times. What’s happened in past days can be hard to leave behind. What lies ahead, in coming days, has a habit of turning up early when all we want to do is focus on the here and now. Yes, even sleep can overtake people, as Acts 20 shows. Let’s not worry too much if these things happen. It may highlight our limitations, but it won’t stop God.


He wasn’t stopped here in Acts 20. Paul is Spirit-enabled to perform a restoring miracle through the power of Jesus and, to the great comfort of that church family, ‘He’s alive’ was Paul’s cry. And what happened next is so good it made me LOL.


A few weeks ago, here at Riverside, I led our time of breaking bread. I got a bit flustered and forgot to mention the order in which we were proceeding, leaving others to guess. There was a reason - my routine had been knocked. Actually, all that had happened was that I had lost a few minutes having to print some extra hymn sheets. But that was enough to knock me off (mental) balance. So, how I loved reading verse 10 and into verse 11. The apostle Paul is interrupted by more than a dodgy printer dying. A young man had died and been miraculously brought back to life – not your everyday! Was Paul knocked off balance by these events. It seemed not. His response – let’s get on with breaking bread. ‘‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s alive!’ Then he went upstairs again and broke bread…’ - awesome!


And, perhaps, it provides an illustration which we can take advantage of. Eutychus is restored to life. What is the first thing that he is invited to do? Break bread with fellow believers. If we have new life in Christ this should be our regular practice. New life qualifies us to break bread. If this is ours by faith in Christ Jesus, let’s do so regularly, and also seek to always place Jesus at the centre of everything we do.


This section in Acts finishes with, ‘After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.’ Hopefully we, some two thousand years later, can heed what we are told in Romans 12 15, and rejoice (now) with those who rejoiced that day.


And let’s draw to a finish with Jesus at the centre. He was the reason for this Sunday gathering in Troas. He is the reason for our gathering at Riverside today. What is church? In the New Testament it’s never a building – it’s always the assembled people of Jesus. Here in this Acts record they often look rather ordinary. There is a reason for that - they were ordinary. The Bible’s honesty even has one of them falling asleep in church while the apostle Paul was speaking. They were as human as we are.


We don’t need to become superhuman to serve the Lord Jesus. We can serve by doing ordinary things. One of us has designed our Christmas Events leaflet and another has arranged for them to be printed. Others will post copies this afternoon through people’s doors. Just ordinary stuff. Is something so ordinary really going to win people for Jesus? In 1 Corinthians 6 1, Paul uses a phrase – he calls believers, ‘God’s fellow workers’. It ties in with something found at the very end of Mark’s gospel account, after Jesus had returned to heaven. It describes what happens in Acts, when the church invited those around them to hear about Jesus. What happened? ‘The Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it’. If we do the ordinary – God will do the extra-ordinary!


There is only one super human in the Bible and that is Jesus. As we’ve sung today – ‘He is our mighty champion!’ The others were just fragile, failing humans who Jesus came into this world to save. That is the Christmas message - Jesus became human. He clothed himself with what we are because the Bible’s mission statement for him said that he had to. He became us. Hebrews 4 tells us that he ‘has been tempted in every way, just as we are’ and consequently is able ‘to feel sympathy for our weaknesses’. But, unlike us, he never came short of the mark – ‘he did not sin’. Sometimes we can be surprised by the depth of failure of the people of Jesus. We won’t be if we’re honest about ourselves. But we can always be surprised by Jesus.


Jesus, in Gethsemane’s Garden was experiencing the weight of our human experience. He was accompanied by three friends. What Peter, James and John did there, ties in with what Eutychus did in Acts 20. They fell asleep. They proved to be all too human. Jesus provides the contrast. Only he managed to faithfully ‘watch and pray’ that evening. Like them his ‘flesh was weak’. But his spirit was super willing to carry out the will of his Father God, to put right what his friends got wrong.


The gospel writers understood the very human reasons why these disciples failed then. Matthew tells us that they were ‘sleeping, because their eyes were heavy’, and Luke tells us that they were ‘exhausted from sorrow.’ The recent events had overtaken them. Their human limit had been exceeded. If we are honest about our humanness, then we should not find it remarkable that those disciples fell asleep. What should be remarkable – and constantly worthy of remark – is that Jesus persevered.


His disciples were dead to the world, but Jesus was awake to the dreadful reality of my world’s ruin. For us, he endured the unendurable. Hebrews 12 tells us why – ‘for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’


The joy of rescued people – the joy of flawed, failed, distracted, distant, drowsy human beings awakened to a new restored relationship with God - made Jesus do what he did. We were a bit like Eutychus. Life had put us to sleep and we were falling to our death. Only the power of Jesus could give us life again.


Of course, that verse in Hebrews misses out a very important event. Jesus did endure the cross, scorning the shame and stain of our sin, and Jesus did sit down at the right hand of the throne of God. But he did something else too – something so important that all four gospel writers tell us about it. It’s something that happened on ‘the first day of the week’ – the first day of a new creation. Something which was first realised by humankind when some ladies went ‘very early in the morning’ to a graveyard to look for the body of their friend.


They were expecting to find deathly decay, but they found angels. They were told, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered his words.’


As we enter the Christmas season, and remember the coming of Jesus, let’s be awake to why he came. He came to be made like us. He came for us. He came to experience the harshness of the human experience, which lies within all of us, because the joy of God’s salvation lay within him, and in what only he could do. Then Christmas will be a season of joy. Then Psalm 95 1 will be our experience - ‘Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.’

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