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Acts 20:1–16 ESV
After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 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.” And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted. But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.
           The last couple of sermons in this series have covered Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, and next week we’ll hear about the Ephesian elders coming to meet Paul once more. As you can see on the map, though, there’s going to be quite a bit of traveling around in our passage today. Everything is taking place around the Aegean Sea, which comes north off the Mediterranean and is surrounded by modern-day Greece and Turkey. The numbers mark locations—I know it’s probably a bit hard to see, and then also tell what verses we come across them in. Some of these places, especially to the north and west, we’ve heard Paul previously ministering in
This is going to be the journey in these verses. He starts in Ephesus, down in southern Asia, and it was a port city. From there, Paul will go up through Macedonia, number 2, before heading down to Greece, number 3. Then he began to retrace his steps—back to number 4, Macedonia, where we’ll hear specifically the city of Philippi. Then he starts working south from Troas to Assos to Mitylene to Kios to Samos and, where we’ll stop reading today, in Miletus, just south of Ephesus. We’re doing almost a thousand-mile horseshoe to the west and then again back east.  
Brothers and sisters in Christ, in honor of Paul, I won’t make you stay overnight, but I’ll try to preach how long he’s estimated to have talked in Troas, which should bring us to about 7:30 tonight; I hope that’s okay with everyone. I’m kidding, unless God does give me words to speak for that long, but I’d be way past my manuscript.
Back in seminary, one of our graduation requirements was a cross-cultural immersion trip, which usually took place over Christmas break. Because ministry puts you in contact with people who may look, talk, and think differently from you, not share the same culture or be from the same place as you, and because God’s kingdom is much bigger than any one city, community, or country, we were to pick one of three locations to immerse ourselves in for 7-10 days.         
I went to Chiapas, Mexico. Chiapas is way down on this map. It’s the southernmost state in Mexico, bordering on Guatemala. We went there because the RCA has been involved in mission work there for almost 100 years. It’s not a super-touristy place with white sand beaches and all that; it’s mainly populated by indigenous, or native, people. If you travel around, there are cities and small villages, mountains and lots of farms. There are still jungles and roughly paved roads that wind around and were not the most pleasant when you had a several hour drive. The most touristy things we saw were Mayan ruins, the stone remains of cities or pyramid-like structures of worship or palaces. If I remember right, Catholic Spaniards initially attempted to convert the people, but after they left, the people mixed their own religion, animism, in with Catholicism. Today, Christians and missionaries are not always treated kindly, but there are churches
So, on Sunday during our trip, our guide who was one of my classmates, brought us to a church that could several hundred people. It happened to be the host of what we might call their synod that week. It was packed! In we walked, this group of a dozen or so people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and most of us white. We tried to sit in back but were ushered up to sit in the front. During the service, we were asked spontaneously to sing in front of everyone, and then several pastors joined in preaching for at least a couple hours. They, of course, all spoke Spanish, which I remembered very little of from high school. I know there are churches in other parts of the world that regularly go much longer, where 20-35 minute sermons and hour to 90 minute services would be brief, but the length of time combined with the foreignness of that service were hard for me. That is probably the longest and longest-feeling service I’ve ever been a part of.
We’ll get to Paul’s lengthy preaching in Troas and Eutychus’ fall in a little bit, but let’s back up to the beginning. Our first point today is a question—a question that I’m not trying to help us think through the one-line or single practice definition of. My hope is to fill in a part or a piece of how we understand this. The question is: what does it mean for Christians to encourage one another? In verses 1 and 2, we read how before leaving Ephesus, “Paul sent for the disciples,” who he then encouraged, and then throughout Macedonia, “He traveled…speaking many words of encouragement to the people…” What do you think of when you hear the word encourager or encouraging? My guess is we probably think of a cheerleader, a supporter, someone who says, “You can do it! I believe in you,” or who gives you the pat on the back after victory, “Way to go!” or in defeat points ahead, “Maybe next time.”
In the Greek, though, the word is “parakaleo.” It’s used 22 times in the book of Acts and over 100 times in the New Testament—it’s a common word. Here’s the variety of how the NIV editors have translated it in Acts, though. Encouraging is the main translation, used 6 times. But there are multiple uses of each of these—urging, inviting, pleading, begging. It can also be found as being comforted, to request, to ask. Other English translations use some of those as well as exhort and apologize; elsewhere in the New Testament, they translate it implore.
As he did on his other missionary journeys, Paul toured around people and places where he in his ministry of the gospel had met persecution. While the persecution usually centered on him, as others came to and grew in their faith in these communities, they were likely to be persecuted as well. They were likely to be ridiculed and mocked, possibly even to be thrown in jail or beaten or stoned or otherwise physically harmed. When Paul when back to these churches and individuals who had believed, encouragement may have meant that he gave supportive, uplifting messages. Some of us, when we feel like many things are going wrong, we want to know someone is standing with us, sending good vibes or positive thoughts we sometimes hear.
I don’t think our present concept of encouraging and encouragement is why the English translators picked those words though. When we consider the bigger picture of what led them to give us these words rather than others, it would seem to go back to a more literal understanding of encouragement—to instill courage in others. When people are struggling be it with sickness or grief or anxiety, or they’re in a battle, it’s important not only for their morale to be encouraged, but also for them to be reminded of the truth. It’s important for them to know the cause which they have gotten behind and supported and put everything into—it’s important for them to know it’s still good and right, there is still hope in believing. Whatever the situation in these communities throughout Macedonia and Greece was, Paul’s encouragement must have included teaching the truths of salvation in Jesus and how to live in the joy of knowing him now and in the life to come. His encouragement was instructing and reminding of how to live a life that pursues him, to live that life in cultures that rejected that, to live a lifestyle that was completely different from what they used to do or used to be involved in.
That kind of encouragement is still needed today, especially right now. I’m not sure there’s been a time in my 31 years, and maybe in any of our lifetimes, when we’ve felt so much conflict and fear, worry and depression in our communities, in our states, our nation and the world. September 11, 2001 was a stressful time, a time of vulnerability, but there were steps for what should be done next. As I’ve talked about and plenty of others have, too, 2020 feels different.  
This may be one of the first times you’ve experienced someone who’s close to you and who always thinks the same things as you, you’ve come to different conclusions on issues of COVID or race and police or the continuing trends of people leaving the church and even Christian faith. That division, whether we address it publicly or not, may have us feeling lost or empty in some ways. One of the benefits of listening to the long communion forms that have been used in our denomination for decades is that they often capture the depth and width and breadth of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus in the past, for right now, and for the future. What’s held in these documents that we’ve listened to are unchanging things no matter when they’re read. I remember when I was growing up, the forms always felt boring—does pastor really need to read that. Yet there are wonderful reassurances and reminders, and even teaching points in those words.
But it’s not just forms that are written by others, it’s reading God’s word, dwelling in the Psalms, seeing God’s continuing mercy to Israel, envisioning his plan for his second coming. We need to be encouraged to not let the growing our faith, hope, and love become stale. Words of Christian encouragement, instilling courage for believers to keep the faith and keep their eyes on what is most important, on Jesus and his Kingdom are still needing to be listened to today.
Let’s turn to our second of just two points, falling asleep does not necessarily mean death, but we are to be alert when God wakes us up. When I was growing up, there was one person in my family who fell asleep pretty much every week in church—I won’t name names, but it wasn’t me, not usually at least. About 10 or 15 minutes into the message my mom would jab this person with an elbow or pinch their underarm, which woke them up for a couple minutes until they nodded off again. Most of us have fallen asleep during a church service one time or another. Whether we were out late the night before getting into trouble or working late or early, whether it’s the temperature in the sanctuary or the time of day, or I guess us pastors can get boring. Eventually you wake up, though—maybe by the pastor’s pound on the pulpit and you’re left to wonder if he noticed you or if that was part of the message, or somehow the word, “Amen,” just brings you out of your sleep.
We’re told in verse 6, Paul stayed in Troas for seven days. Verse 7 tells us on the first day of the week—Sunday—they got together and he planned to leave the next morning. So, he had been around and likely gotten some teaching and encouraging in for 6 days. But whether he decided on his own or felt led by God, he was going to lay out as much as he could this final night. One of the commentaries I looked at pointed out that Sunday was likely was an expected workday, so his speaking may not have started until the evening when people could get there. If that’s the case, then by midnight, he likely had been going for four to five hours. They took their break, and then he talked some more. By morning, he had probably preached for around ten hours.
But we look at his congregation, those listening. Paul wasn’t so incredibly charismatic that absolutely no one ever struggled to cling to his every word. No, it even happened to Paul that someone fell asleep on him. Maybe Eutychus gives you some reassurance, but imagine seeing what happened to him because he fell asleep. You’re in a spot in the room from which you see him fall or maybe hear a thud outside. It’s a terrible thought as a parent, a person, and for Paul as a preacher—was there something he should have done?! I imagine them bolting down the stairs and finding him lying there as expected. There are some who think the phrase, “picked up dead,” does not absolutely mean he was dead, requiring a resurrection miracle, but was just unconscious or required some healing being near death. Whatever happened, we know those miracles are possible, but this boy’s family or community was “greatly comforted” that he could be brought home alive. We don’t know if they stuck around the rest of the night or if Luke used medical training and cleared him. He was able to live, and that affected more than just the boy.
It’s not a perfect connection, but I think most of us can understand the link that can exist between physical drowsiness or living in boredom with a lack of spiritual excitement or interest. A person can fall asleep spiritually—becoming disinterested with going to church—being with God’s people, hearing the preached word, participating in communion; they might not read their Bibles or have any connection to God’s word; there’s no daily yearning for Christ, not pursuing obedience, holiness, or godliness. A Christian can do that for a time, and it does not necessarily mean they’re going to hell; they’re completely out of the faith and God’s grace.
We all know people in our families, friends, former members of this church or others who have gone that path. We yearn for their return. Maybe we know people, or we are the person who left for a time but came back more passionate and excited about God than ever before. Yet just because it happened for one person, doesn’t mean we should all pursue that route. The old adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” should not be a model for our faith, that we ignore God or leave him alone for a bit just to see if things get better between him and ourselves. That is not wisdom. That is not love. Brothers and sisters, seek to walk consistently with God and in his love.
But if we are sensing a certain staleness, tiredness, weariness, drowsiness in our faith—however we phrase it—or we hear that from someone we love, take comfort that it doesn’t necessarily mean that God does not care or want you and the same for others. Whether there’s sin that we need to deal with or a trial which God may be using to grow us or we’ve become ignorant of where he’s leading, we should continue to seek him and pray that we or others would know him again. If and when that time comes, it’s a time to be “greatly comforted” by and to celebrate God’s mercy and love.
It’s also a time to stay alert. that we wake up in our faith. We make it a priority. If God has shown his kindness to bring us back into the fold, back to understand his grace and his faithfulness to his people, his message is one that we should be forever listening to. Maybe there are still things that we enjoy more or are more interested in than attending a worship service or a Bible study or serving others—but we know God can grow us through the opportunities he places before us.
Brothers and sisters, know his call on our lives. Desire to experience the goodness of his intentions. Let us not neglect the means of grace, and let us stay awake in the care of our God. Amen.
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