People have a tendency to prepare themselves for disappointment and struggle by becoming negative. This is a time-honored tradition in Western culture as we are hesitant to get excited about things not because they aren’t exciting, but because we believe that they will, eventually, let us down. So we insulate ourselves from what we think of as inevitable disappointment by creating, and then embracing, a manufactured disappointment before anything really disappointing may have even taken place.
Ever heard anyone gripe about getting a raise or promotion because they will have to pay more taxes? Or how about the irony of a person’s exasperated declaration that a film, book or event will probably be a let down because the expectations are too high; ever heard that?
In Acts 20 a story about a sleepy young man named Eutychus might hold some valuable advice for us all. Paul the Apostle may or may not have been long winded, but in Acts 20 he was very long winded. He was leaving Troas the next day after staying for a week, and he seemed to have quite a bit that he still wanted to tell the believers in that city. So, instead of promising to write or return Paul talked to them and then just kept on talking deep into the night. In fact, he was still preaching strong at midnight when Eutychus couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. There are plenty of people who sleep in church. And the fact is, as I’ve heard before, if you can’t get a good nap in church where in the world can you get any rest at all? But, as a general rule, if you’re going to sleep in church it is a terrible idea to kick back in an open window on the 3rd story of the church. Apparently Eutychus was a tosser and turner in his sleep and he wound up flopping out of the window and crashing to the ground below. Acts tells us that by the time members of the congregation got down to him they’d declared him dead on the scene.
Most of the time it’s easier to record the time of death than to work for the sake of life. Death is sad, and it can be depressing, but at least it’s something we seem to be able to count on. When people are dead we know where we can find them. When movements and ideas are dead, we don’t have to worry about being surprised or shocked or thrown off-balance. Death, while an awful tragedy, is a reliable thing. And whether we admit it or not, we can grow quite dependant on the stability of death’s character to help us make it through our lives with some semblance of order and structure.
But Paul…old Paul had a different take on things. One wonders how he could close his mouth long enough to walk away from the pulpit and outside to those who’d begun making funeral plans for Eutychus. But he did. And Paul’s assessment of the scene was not just slightly different from the first responders, it was totally different. Luke records Paul’s response:
But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”
If this scene is any indication, it seems to me that Paul was the kind of guy who was willing to walk that razor’s edge between hopeful and looney. Adults, for the most part, have a good idea as to what constitutes a dead body. No pulse, no breathing, no movement, no heartbeat, etc… We aren’t talking about a group of meerkats huddled around the body poking it with their bony fingers; these are relatively normal adult humans who know the difference between a living person and a dusty corpse. But Paul’s take is completely different. And Paul’s diagnosis was exactly right.
At some point we must stop insulating ourselves from disappointment or pain or hardship by declaring everything dead. Our future is not dead. Our communities are not dead. The next generation of children and young people emerging in our culture is not dead. The church and the hope that it is supposed to bring to the world is not dead. Our ability to contribute to our work, family and the earth is not dead. I could go on.
We look negatively at these things, often, because it takes energy to cling to the life that remains in things. It isn’t easy to remain hopeful at times. We desire the paths of least resistance because they seem safer, even if that safety is purchased by the casualties that we’ve piled up around us to keep us from experiencing anything new or different or unexpected. But this, friends, is not the way of Jesus, Paul or Christianity.
We who follow Jesus are marked by the hope that many things which have been pronounced dead still have life in them. And even if they are actually dead we follow, serve and worship a Man who seems to know His way out of a grave. Paul embraced the boy who was allegedly dead and decided, “nope, not yet…let him rest and he’ll be fine.” Stories of Eutychus’ death, it seems, had been highly exaggerated.
It seems to me that in a culture consumed with death and pragmatism the way of Jesus, the way that we have been compelled to walk, should be highly concerned with stopping the myriad of funerals and last rites and shouting to the world, “Wait! Stop the funeral! What if everything isn’t dead yet?” Where our world seems to be ready to dig graves perhaps we should be the people who are looking to build new things. Where our culture is cutting its losses and running in fear of loss, maybe we should be the people who are investing and giving and sharing. Where even our churches are trying to insulate themselves from things that seem to wrong or destructive, maybe we should be the people who are opening our doors and our hearts as a bold and courageous statement that we will not turn away in the moment of our world’s greatest need but we will run to it just as the father of the Prodigal did.
And if you’re interested in what’s in it for you, then look at the epilogue in Eutychus’ brief story:
The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.
Stubbornly holding on to the hope that death cannot triumph over life doesn’t just benefit the things, people or movements that we thought to be dead, but it benefits us. We do not find real comfort in relying on the inevitability of death, we only find that kind of peace when we stand steadfast in the face of death and trust that life is not gone.