The Priority of Preaching (Sat. May 27)

The word of the day is “preach.”  Remember the last sermon that you heard?  What was it about?  What was the main point?  Many of us would have a hard time answering unless, perhaps, the day of the church year reminds us of the subject of that day’s preaching.  But do you remember something that happened in worship?  Do you recall the visit of a bishop or other church leader, an especially stirring anthem, or even an accident or humorous incident that happened?  It is more likely that you could call to mind the event rather than the sermon’s message.

Today, in our reading of Acts 20:7-12, Paul preaches in an upper room until midnight.  A young man sitting on a window ledge falls asleep and tumbles to the ground from the building’s third floor.  Paul went down, hugged the boy, and said, “Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is still in him” (vs. 10) and then went back up to the gathering, ate, and continued preaching until daybreak (vs. 11).

What Was Memorable and What Was Most Important

The raising of the young man was spectacular and memorable, yet Luke’s emphasis was on the proclamation of the Gospel.  That the boy revived was almost an afterthought.  This incident reminds us that we ought to concentrate on the preaching of the Word and not what is going on around us in church.  We should be especially attentive when the Gospel is preached, for it proclaims to us “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Today’s reading comes at the end of Paul’s Third Missionary Journey.  He has spent two months in Ephesus, and now he intends “in the Spirit” to get to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21).  He has stopped for three months in Corinth (Acts 20:3).  And now he has changed his plans.  He had arranged to sail to Syria, but he learned of a plot to kill him.  Rather than taking a ship, he decided to travel through Macedonia.  He paused at Philippi for the “Days of the Unleavened Bread” of the Passover.  Then at Troas, he joined the delegation of representatives who were taking the offering for the poor to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 20: 4-6).

Paul’s Sermon Went On and On

Paul stayed a week in Troas.  On the last day of his stay, the first day of the week, the believers gathered to “break bread,” that is, celebrate the Eucharist on the “Lord’s Day.”  As the New International Version put it, Paul preached “on and on” (NIV 20:9).  It got to be midnight, and the room was stuffy from the burning lamps.  A young man named Eutychus fell asleep and fell out of the window where he was sitting.  Eutychus means “good luck,” and he was fortunate that Paul was there to interrupt his sermon and go down to him.  Paul picked him up and embraced him.  Then he assured everyone that “his life is still in him” (OSB vs. 10).

Then Paul went back upstairs as if nothing had happened.  Luke does not tell us the boy’s condition until he reports that Paul had “broken bread.”  That is, he celebrated the Eucharist and had a meal.  Then the apostle went back to preaching—until it was daybreak and he had to leave (Acts 20:14).  Only after reporting how Paul spent the evening does Luke divulge that they brought the young man inside and were “not a little comforted” (OSB Acts 20:12).  That is to say that they were encouraged and consoled (Strong’s #3870, 190).

The Emphasis on Preaching

The order of Luke’s narration of the event, his choice of words, and his understatement of the miracle demonstrates the historian wanted to emphasize Paul’s preaching.  The incident had to make an impression on those in the upper room.  But Luke downplays the event to stress the importance of Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel.

St. John Chrysostom comments, “See how everything was subordinate to the preaching.  It was also, it says, the Lord’s Day.  Not even during night-time was he silent, nay he discoursed… [all the more] … and beyond the time of supper itself” (NfPf1, 263).  Chrysostom observes that the place was crowded, it was the “dead of night,” and the young man had to sit in a window.  Yet not even the devil could stop Paul from addressing the faithful. “Such was their eagerness to hear him,” Luke adds (NfPf1.263).

Chrysostom comes to the point.  “Let us take shame on ourselves,” he says.  He goes on that you might object that it was, after all, Paul who was preaching.  But Chrysostom says, “Yes, and Paul discourses now, or rather not Paul, either then or now, but Christ, and yet no one cares to hear” (NFPf1, 263).

Chrysostom observes that our place is not crowded.  We need not sit in the windows.  We have more than adequate food and sleep.  But in contrast to the attitudes of many, Chrysostom praises Paul’s congregation: “So fervent was their zeal that they even assembled in a third loft: for they had not a church.  And how did they pass the night?  They spent it listening to the Word of God!” (NfPf1.264).

For Reflection

Chrysostom’s complaints about his hearers prompt us to ask about our attitudes toward the proclamation of the Gospel. How much time do we spend on social media, watching movies, attending concerts, and hanging out with our friends?  If we can spend four hours attending or watching a football game, why is it so difficult to spend an hour or two attending worship?  If we can spend two hours listening to a music concert, why do we complain that the sermons we hear are too long?  And if social media steal an average of two hours, or even up to six or nine hours for tweens and teenagers, why does a sermon lose our attention if it goes past fifteen or twenty minutes?

How Much More Should We Listen with Rapt Attention

St. John Chrysostom suggests that if we listen to musicians, athletes, and speakers with rapt attention, we ought to give even more earnest attention to those who speak about the welfare of our souls.  The message of our preachers is not filled with the trivial things of this earth but with the things of heaven.  The sound of their voices is more powerful than any rock band, sweeter than any symphony, more important than any presidential speech, more lasting than any podcast.

Preachers offer us the Gospel of our salvation, the forgiveness of sins, the way of discipleship, the comfort of God’s care, the ways of God, and the hope of the resurrection to eternal life. Preachers proclaim the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ while worship praises the Lord whose grace the sermon declares.

A football game may excite us, a concert may delight us, a motivational speech may inspire us. Still, if we open our ears, the proclamation of the Word of God stirs our inner being, fills us with the joy of the Spirit, and moves us to repent and reform our lives.

So let us never begrudge the time spent listening to preaching.    Let us not grumble about the attentiveness it takes to hear the message of the Word wrapped in the words of the sermon.


About Fr. Basil

Now retired, the Very Rev. Archpriest Basil Ross Aden has served as a parish priest, parish pastor, diocesan mission director, writer, and college teacher of New Testament and Religious Studies. He has a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and has published daily devotional and stewardship materials as well as a college textbook on Religious Studies. He also has published papers and/or lectured on the Orthodox perspective on Luther and the Reformation. religious freedom, current issues of religion and society, and St. John Chrysostom. He is married to Sandra and has two sons and three grandchildren. He is still active as a priest as well as a writer of articles and materials on Orthodoxy and topics of faith and life today.

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