I suppose there’s a tendency to treat Luke’s account of Eutychus falling asleep during Paul’s preaching like one of those human interest/humorous stories tacked on to the end a newscast. Or, like the humor Shakespeare and other writers employ, we might want to frame it as offering us a change of pace to Luke’s otherwise driving narrative and providing his audience with a lighter moment. But I think we’d be projecting something into the text that isn’t there.
If we’re looking for a lighter moment in Luke, I think the episode in 19:11-16 fits far better than what occurs in 20:7-11. What happens at Troas has an altogether different tenor. Paul and the people traveling with him meet together with the disciples of that community. As was the practice with the early church when they came together on the first day of the week, they celebrate the life they have in Jesus by taking communion (v. 7).
Something very different is that all of this is taking place in the evening (v. 7-8). Sunday was not an off day for people in the first century. Jewish people would be off on the Sabbath (Saturday), but there was no weekend like there is in our culture. Their meeting takes place in the evening because they worked all day. In light of this, it’s understandable how some could get drowsy while listening to an extended message in a room warmed by lamps/torches after a long day of work. This is exactly what happens to Eutychus.
He’s sitting “in a window” (v. 9), so that falling asleep means he falls out of the window to the ground three stories below. The fall kills him (v. 9), and just like that, death has shown up at church. Their celebration of life is shattered. I think that’s the narrative thread Luke wants us to take hold of. There’s nothing light hearted or breezy about it.
He also wants us to see that death doesn’t get the last word. Paul restores life to Eutychus and rather than shut things down as we would do in such circumstances—they go right back to what they were doing. Death is treated not so much as an intruder, but an interruption. Luke tells us not a word of Paul’s lengthy message but the words he records for posterity from Paul are “Don’t be alarmed” and “He’s alive” (v. 10).
In the trajectory of Acts, this is what Luke has been showing us: life in Christ in bigger than death, so that we don’t have to be afraid. Jesus is resurrected and ascends to the right hand of God. Stephen is comforted at death by his vision of Christ (7:55ff). Not everyone is rescued from physical death like Eutychus, but through Jesus everyone is released from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Luke concludes this episode by telling us that “The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted” (v. 11). The challenge for the 21st century church is not to misread the text so we hear it as “they were greatly comfortable.” Luke is telling us amidst the hardships, challenges, and in this case, the restoring of life to one of their own, they were comforted so as to carry on in the kingdom. This is what we’ve seen throughout Acts. If we see something else, we are in a deeper sleep than Eutychus. More to the point, if we operating out of fear or alarm, we need to wake up.