Eric Barreto: Laugh a Little: Scripture as Instruction Manual or Action Film?
Have you ever found yourself reading the Bible and thought to yourself:
Do you know what this story reminds me of? The Fast and the Furious.
For those of you who don’t know, The Fast and the Furious is a series of action movies about cars, street racing, and saving the world from every terrible villain. I know that doesn’t make sense, but trust me, these movies are fun.
And I know the comparison to the Bible seems strange at first, but hear me out. The Bible is totally an action movie.
At least sometimes.
You see, there are parts of the Acts of the Apostles that read more like a summer blockbuster than a sober, serious Oscar-worthy drama. Shipwrecks! Prison breaks! A snake leaping from a fire! These all litter the pages of Acts and lead us to ask a serious question about what kind of testimony the Bible bears. I wonder if we have not taken seriously enough the delight, the joy, the entertainment the Bible evokes in us. And that that delight, that joy is not just entertainment but a way these texts can form us, shape us, teach us something about the shape of belonging.
Even as we gasp at the adventures of Paul, even as we smile at these delightful stories, God is teaching us who we are.
The story of Eutychus is such a story of delight in Acts 20:7-12. It’s a strange little story, especially if we try to read the Book of Acts like an instruction manual for putting together the perfect church. And we do this all the time, don’t we? How many times have you heard this in church: “Wouldn’t the church be better if we could be the church like it was in those earlier days?”
It’s as if we tend to treat the Book of Acts like a Lego manual or Ikea instructions rather than what the text actually is: a collection of powerful, sometimes strange but always delightful stories.
And so we come back to the delightful and strange story of a young man named Eutychus. Remember the scene. A community of followers of Jesus has gathered to hear Paul preach. Two stories up, the community is gathered late into the night. We might imagine candles warming and lighting the space. And Eutychus is there sitting on a window sill, lulled to sleep in the warmth of the room and the droning of Paul’s voice. You’ll notice that Paul just keeps preaching and preaching late into the night. Apparently, the sermon is so long and, yes, so boring that poor Eutychus falls asleep, falls out of the window, and — splat — dies. And if you go back and read the story carefully, you will notice that Paul declares that Eutychus is fine, y’all, just fine. He then goes back and keeps … on … preaching.
Some of us never learn a lesson! And it is only after Paul goes back to preaching that we hear from Acts that Eutychus was indeed brought back from the dead. Everyone is relieved as am I.
This, my friends, is a funny, delightful story. But in too many churches, we assume that because the Bible deals with serious stuff that it cannot be funny, that it cannot delight us, that it cannot jolt us from our seats with its strange imaginations. This is a delightful story. This is a strange story.
This is an important story.
But how? If we treat the Book of Acts like an instruction manual for putting together the perfect church, what do we learn from the story of Eutychus? Perhaps we will gather that we should put bars on our windows so that no one can fall out of them. Perhaps we will conclude that church should only happen on the first floor of a building. Perhaps we will deduce that we preachers should cease preaching boring sermons, which is a pretty good idea but not really the point of this text, is it?
No, what if the Book of Acts is not a blueprint for putting together the perfect church but a spark for our imaginations, an inspiration to see the world just a little bit differently? In that case then, this is not a story about the architecture of a church building but the architecture of a community’s trust, the structure of a community’s witness, the organization of a community’s center.
What would it look like for us to look to the margins of our community and find Eutychus there, at the edge of death and bored by what we are doing in the middle of the church?
What if we invited Eutychus to be the center of our community? What if Eutychus were to teach us all what God is doing in their life? What if Eutychus is the witness we need to trust? What if it is Eutychus’ story that will pave a path for the church, show us what it means to be faithful today?
There is one other wrinkle to this story. Do you know what Eutychus means in Greek? Lucky!
This is a delightful story. And the delight this story can evoke lingers over us if we just embrace its vibrant, transformative imagination.
Notice where the story of Eutychus is asking us to look for the flourishing of the church. Not to the unrecorded words of Paul’s sermon but the renewed life of Eutychus which brings so much hope to the church. Notice the call of the gospel in this story to all of us. Our call is to heed the margins of our communities, listen to the steady voice of the Spirit in these spaces, and echo what God is already saying and doing there. Our call is to trust the witness of black neighbors sharing their stories of oppression and courage alike. Our call is to declare that Black Lives Matter and then live and love as if we believe it. Our call is to notice that those who are losing most in this pandemic are those we have tasked with essential jobs with un-essential pay. Our call is to see the journey of the migrant as a potential gift rather than a wave or plague to repulse. Our call is to amplify how our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors are so richly embodying the good news of Jesus despite so much rejection from a church supposedly in the business of grace. Our call is to point to the fragility of empire all around us. Our call is to imagine a world reshaped by God’s goodness.
I confess that these are days when I need some delight. I need some joy. I need a little bit of silly action movie in my life. And not because I need to be distracted. Not because I need to be anesthetized from the pain of a world afflicted by layered pandemics making clear that we have so often failed to live up to our deepest convictions about equality and faithfulness alike. I yearn for the kind of joy that helps me see the world as it ought to be.
You see, there is something about the good news of Jesus, the good news that transforms a broken world, the good news that makes us whole, the good news that tells us that the politically powerful are but frail imitators of the grace-filled power of God. There is something about that good news that can only be communicated via this joyful narrative delight. There is something about God’s love that can only be communicated by a feeling of delight and belonging and shock and confusion and joy all at the same time.
God can teach us how to nurture a faithfulness that looks like belonging. A faithfulness that asks Eutychus to lead. A faithfulness that disrupts who is at the center and who is on the margins. A faithfulness that brings the dead back to life. A faithfulness that scrambles our expectations. A faithfulness that heals. A faithfulness that nourishes us with an imagination for a world turned upside down. A faithfulness that delights. A faithfulness that laughs and grieves alike.
And that kind of faithfulness, that kind of trust just might become for us a rhythm and a shape and an inspiration. Such faithfulness teaches us to belong. Such faithfulness teaches us to be prophets. Such faithfulness teaches us the shape of a grace we cannot contain in words, for such grace always exceeds our expectations and our frail attempts to explain rather than feel. Such faithfulness turns to Eutychus. Such faithfulness just might bring Eutychus back to life.
And in that way, Eutychus just might bring us all back to life, too.
Eric D. Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. His passion is to pursue scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country.
Twitter | @ericbarreto
Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.
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