Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As we noted last week, Peter and Paul would never have succeeded in their missionary journeys without the many saints who offered them hospitality along their way. Not to mention everyone who heard them proclaim the gospel and actually believed what they said. The early Church would have died out immediately if brave women and men hadn’t signed up all along the way to become Jesus followers 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: Lydia, who helped Paul and Silas found the church at Philippi, 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 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, 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 leader, a prolific letter writer, but brevity was definitely not his strong suit. So there he is at a late night meeting, doing his thing, and he puts poor Eutychus to sleep. Eutychus, who made the mistake of choosing a 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.
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 know 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 none of the disciples at that point was better known.
So there sits Peter in prison, bound with chains, with all these soldiers guarding him. (Where did they think he was going to go, exactly, if he was already chained up?) At any rate Peter’s asleep in this ridiculously well-guarded jail cell when an angel appears, taps him on the shoulder and says, “Get up!” His chains fall off and the angel says “Quick, put on your shoes, Pete, and don’t forget your coat - 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. Still, out they go, Peter in this half-awake, half-asleep daze, as the angel leads him past the first guard, past the second guard, all the way to 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 have been praying like crazy for his release. He knocks at the gate, and out comes this servant girl named Rhoda to answer the door. She must have been hanging around church folks, must have heard Peter speak a number of times, because she immediately recognizes his voice. Since Peter was supposed to be in prison, she’s thrilled to hear that voice – so thrilled that she forgets to let him in! Instead she runs back 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 let him out, 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 for our brother Peter? 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 actually went to check: “Huh. I guess you were right.”
I love these two stories in the book of Acts for showing Eutychus and Rhoda in all their humanness. Eutychus, his eyes too droopy to be able to listen even a minute longer to one of the most famous 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, the God of resurrection can work new wonders among us. Even when we’ve drifted off and aren’t paying attention, even in fearful or dangerous times, God can suddenly bring new life and new possibilities out of situations we’d written off as hopeless. 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.
Meanwhile, church, heaven knows now isn’t the time to drift off into complacency! God bless our sleepy friend Eutychus, but surely, we can do him one better with all that’s happening around us this summer, staying awake and, while we’re at it, woke. And if we ever find our little community praying all on our own behind closed doors, pleading with God to act but forgetting to look outside… Remember that voices we don’t always take seriously, voices like Rhoda’s, can help us see where he’s already at work.
For clearly Jesus is on the loose. Just look around and you’ll see him trying to break in and wake us up all over the place.
 Adapted from a sermon by William Willimon entitled “Easter Continued,” Festival of Homiletics May 18, 2011 in Minneapolis, MN.