Studies of the New Testament book of Acts often focus on the major players – the original core group of apostles, with Peter at their center, and the new convert Paul (Hebrew name Saul) who was suddenly transformed from the church’s worst enemy into one of its most famous and effective advocates. It’s understandable that we pay attention to these central figures, the same way history books usually focus on the most famous kings and generals and politicians of each century.
It’s worth remembering, though, and perhaps particularly so as we head toward Memorial Day weekend this next week, that there is always more to a moment in history than we ever see in our history books. There are countless brave individuals whose stories lie behind the stories we hear more about. For every decorated general, how many soldiers have played a critical part in their every victory? For every great political or social eader, how many aides and advisors, how many supporters are really responsible for their success?
So, too, with the history of the church. As we noted last week, Peter and Paul would never have become the famous Christian leaders they were without the many saints who offered them hospitality along their missionary journeys – after all, meals to eat and place to lay their heads at night were rather critical to their being able to continue preaching and teaching. Not to mention all those who heard them proclaim the gospel and actually believed what they said – the church would have died out immediately if brave women and men hadn’t signed up all along the way, to become Jesus’ disciples too – and remember they were often risking their lives to do so.
It was in that spirit that I introduced you last Sunday to some lesser known, but equally important figures in the book of Acts: Dorcas, who was known for her great kindness in reaching out to those in need in her community, and Priscilla and Aquila, a couple of first rate Christian educators. Since this is our final Sunday on the book of Acts – at least for this round – I simply couldn’t close out this series without introducing you to a couple of my other favorite, lesser known characters too. Especially since their stories are so much fun!
The first is Eutychus, patron saint of preachers everywhere, you might say, at least in terms of encouraging us to keep it concise up here. Paul was after all known for many things – he was a great orator, a prolific writer, but brevity wasn’t exactly his strong suit. So there he is at a late night meeting, doing his thing, and he puts poor Eutychus to sleep as he goes on and on. (Three cheers, for a case being made right here in Scripture against long-winded sermons, right?) And of course the story continues as Eutychus seems to have made the mistake of choosing the window seat. (I wonder if he was hoping for a draft to keep him awake? Maybe he knew if Paul was the preacher for the evening he’d be settling in for a rather long night of it?) At any rate, the fresh air clearly didn’t do the trick, and the poor guy falls into a deep enough sleep that he actually falls to the ground three stories down, dead.
It fascinates me that this doesn’t seem to throw off Paul off his game at all. He just heads downstairs, bends over the young man, takes him in his arms, and declares that he is not dead after all. Whether Eutychus had died, and his life had been restored, or whether he had only been mostly dead, and Paul saw some signs of life (the text leaves it a bit ambiguous I think) - either way, we find a clear reminder of the resurrection here. In the end, the boy is taken away alive and his fellow church members are “not a little comforted,” (don’t you love that phrase?) I imagine they were “not a little horrified” just a little earlier, when he fell out the window! And now, “not a little comforted.”
Another of my favorite characters in the book of Acts is Rhoda, the servant girl who waits on the apostles as they gather to pray for Peter, who’s in prison. To understand the importance of her role, we first need to remember that when Peter was thrown into prison here in Acts 12, he wasn’t simply tossed in a jail cell as a warning. The apostle James has just been killed, and it appears Peter is next in line. Herod wants to rid the world of these Jesus followers once and for all, and the best way to do that is to execute their leaders, right? Putting Peter to death would be hitting the jackpot, for no follower of Jesus at that point was better known.
So there sits Peter in prison, bound with chains, with four squads of soldiers guarding him. (Where did they think he was going to go, exactly, if he was already chained up, and awaiting execution?) At any rate Peter’s asleep in this ridiculously well guarded jail cell when an angel appears to wake him– taps him on the shoulder and says, “Get up!” His chains fall off and the angel says “Quick, put on your sandals, Pete, and don’t forget your cloak - we’ve got places to go!” So Peter gets up and follows the angel though the text says he doesn’t realize what is happening at this point. He thinks he’s dreaming. But out they go, Peter in this half-awake, half-asleep daze, as the angel leads him past the first guard, and past the second guard, and through the iron gate into the city. The gate opens, and they walk into the city and it’s only then that Peter seems to wake up: “Huh! I guess I’m loose!”
So off he goes to the house of Mary where the good church people of the church are praying like crazy for his release. He knocks at the outer gate, and out comes this maid named Rhoda to answer the door. We know she’s been hanging around these church folks, and had probably heard Peter preach many times, because she immediately recognizes his voice. Since Peter was supposed to be in prison at the time, she’s thrilled to hear that voice – so thrilled that she entirely forgets to let him in! But instead runs back immediately to tell the others – “Peter’s loose! He’s standing at the gate!”
Again, Peter was supposed to be in prison. Anyone with any sense knew there was no way Herod was going to allow him to be released, so Rhoda isn’t exactly met with an enthusiastic response. I picture a bunch of annoyed looks around the prayer circle, eyebrows arched as if to say “Look, Rhoda, can’t you see we’re in the middle of praying here, for our brother Peter? This is serious stuff. We can’t have you bursting in and interrupting us!”
Still Rhoda insists it’s really him; she stands by her story … while, incidentally, Peter still stands knocking at the gate! Eventually one of the others gets up and goes to the door to check – and “Huh! It’s really Peter – he is loose! Who’d have thought?”
By the way, does Rhoda’s story remind you of another you heard not long ago? Herod’s finally got the upstart leader right where he wants him – no way he can do any more damage now. Already in a position where he can’t go anywhere, why not add a bunch of guards just to make sure. And none of it does a bit of good. For what are chains and iron gates, what are armed guards or even huge stones rolled in front of tombs, for that matter, in the face of the God of resurrection?
It was women there, too, who first learned the good news – “He’s loose!” And ran back to tell the others only to be met with “You’re nuts.” But sure enough, when the others went back to check: “Huh. I guess you were right.”
I love these two stories for showing Eutychus and Rhoda in all their humanness. Eutychus, his eyes too droopy to be able to listen even a moment longer even to one of the most powerful preachers the church has ever known. Rhoda, so excited to discover her hero is out of prison that she (oops!) leaves him standing outside the gate to run back and tell the others the good news.
But what I love even more about these two characters is the fact that each one – precisely in their moment of weakness – ends up bearing witness to an amazing resurrection moment. In fact, judging from the humor in these two stories, God seems rather to enjoy the quirks and flaws he gets to work with, in the beautifully diverse cast of characters that makes up the Church.
We celebrated Easter several weeks ago, but the Easter season never ends. On any day, in any moment, God can work new wonders among us. So what if it sometimes happens in spite of us. So what if sometimes the best response we can muster is: “Huh. I guess Jesus really is loose.” We’ll clue in eventually.
And when we do, it’ll be up to us – not a Peter or a Paul - to share that good news.
Word to the wise, though? You might want to pick your window seat carefully, as you watch and listen for Easter’s next installment. And don’t forget to open the gate, when the Holy Spirit sends a miracle your way.
 Adapted from a sermon by William Willimon entitled “Easter Continued,” Festival of Homiletics May 18, 2011 in Minneapolis, MN.