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. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.’ Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.
Whenever we gather for worship – be it in the morning grandeur of a historic cathedral, or the night-time simplicity of a borrowed room – we do so in the shared hope and anticipation that everyone present will be caught up in wholehearted devotion, free from distraction and entirely focused upon praising the living God.
Even so, the possibility of distraction is rarely far from us. And I have a suspicion that for those who regularly lead worship, there are three particular scenarios which might well be lurking at the back of the mind.
It’s comforting to discover in today’s Bible reading that at least two of these have a very long pedigree in the Church: namely the experience of having someone fall asleep during a long sermon, and the risk of the service being interrupted by a medical emergency. (Since Luke, the author, seems to have been known to this congregation in Troas, the third scenario – the hypothetical presence in the church of a Mystery Worshipper who’s there to take surreptitious notes and report back – doesn’t really apply!)
First things first: if someone is taken ill, then of course the priority must be to ensure that he or she receives the appropriate help with as much speed and diligence as we can muster. This may indeed mean putting everything else ‘on hold’, even perhaps moving the rest of the congregation to another part of the building to allow some space and privacy whilst treatment ensues.
Yet such an experience – though happily uncommon – can shine an uneasy spotlight onto underlying attitudes to our worship. At worst, it can bring us to wonder whether what we do at church is merely an insulating ritual, into which ‘real life’ has now suddenly and uncomfortably intruded, and over which it has taken precedence. Much as we feel compassion for the one taken ill, is there sometimes a guilty thought that we’d rather this had happened some other time, in some other place, where we weren’t going to feel so awkward?
The actions of Paul and his friends in Troas, though, stand as a testimony that the Church’s worship is and must always be fully connected with ‘real life’ – indeed, nowhere more real! And even if in our day not every medical emergency will end as happily as that which befell Eutychus of old, still it’s within our power to ensure that such incidents bring out the very best in our congregations, in our worship and our service – so that what happens is not an interruption, not an intrusion, but rather a living-out of the truth which our words and our worship proclaim.
Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep, and give your faithful ones charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones, Lord Christ. Rest your weary ones. Bless your dying ones. Soothe your suffering ones. Pity your afflicted ones. Shield your joyous ones. And for all your love’s sake. Amen.
Adapted from a prayer of St Augustine
The Rev’d Dominic Grant is minister at Trinity URC Wimbledon.