Like me, my grandfather was both a professor and a bit of a jokester. He taught economics, and while he enjoyed an excellent reputation as a lecturer, not everyone found the subject… umm… equally exciting. From time to time, students would fall asleep in his class.
He told me that on one occasion he had noticed that a student had dozed off, and decided to do something about it. He softened his voice a bit, but kept talking. As the class watched in anticipation, he slowly walked over to where the student was snoring away, until he was standing right in front of the hapless fellow, still lecturing. Then Grandpa raised his voice to a shout — with the predictable consequences.
Good thing the kid wasn’t holding a cup of coffee at the time. And I bet that was the last time he slept in class.
Even the most captivating of speakers will sometimes have people fall asleep on them. Among college students, sleep deprivation seems to be the norm; the attitude is often, No problem, I got this. (My automatic response to that, as both a Dad and someone who works in mental health is, Not.) Many of my own graduate students work long hours to pay the rent and support a family while trying to maintain decent grades. And hopefully, they even learn something in the bargain.
It’s clear that Jesus, Peter, Paul and others were quite capable of holding people’s attention and interest. But even a man as filled with the fire of the Spirit as Paul had someone fall asleep while he spoke — with disastrous consequences.
As we’ve seen, after Paul left Ephesus, he went to the port city of Troas to preach, and apparently planted a church there. He didn’t stay long, but continued north and west through Macedonia, and down into Achaia before making his way back through Macedonia to Troas with Luke in tow.
Luke tells the story with such detail that it’s likely he was in the room when it happened:
On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. (Acts 20:7-9, NRSV)
As many have suggested, this may be the earliest reference we have to Christians meeting on Sunday to “break bread,” whether that means the Lord’s Supper, a meal, or both. But this is a side note to Luke’s story. The point is that Paul knew he was leaving the following day, and had much to discuss with this new group of believers.
So he talked. And talked. Night fell. And instead of calling it a day, he talked some more.
They were meeting in an upstairs room, probably in what we might call today a third-floor walk-up. Several oil lamps had been lit against the dark, and the air was heavy with their smoke. A young man named Eutychus — a name that means “lucky” — was there. He was probably a slave who had heard the gospel and believed.
But as a slave, he had probably worked a full day before coming to hear Paul. It was hard for him to pay attention, to stay awake in the smoky room. He moved to the window — nothing more than a hole in the wall — where the air was fresher, and sat down.
Then Lucky fell asleep, first literally, then figuratively. Unable to keep his eyes open, he dozed off, tumbled through the window, and fell to his death. If he had had one, Luke the physician would have signed the death certificate.
Lucky, it seems, wasn’t.
Or maybe he was, as we’ll see in the next post.