There are some cornerstone verses that are used to prop up the traditions we have come to expect in the traditional church, verses like 1 Cor 9:14 as a defense of paid clergy. These verses, taken out of context, are offered up as an unquestionable bulwark that makes cause even the mere suggestion that some of our traditions may not be as defensible as we think to be met with derision, dismissal and often anger.
One of the most frequently cited of these verses is Acts 20: 7-11. It is part of the cultural mythology of organized religion that these verses describe a proto-worship service, the earliest example of the church a) gathering on Sunday and b) listening to a sermon. As I hope to demonstrate in this reposting of Was Paul preaching a sermon when he met with the church at Troas?, this is not only not apparent from the text itself when studied as a whole but in reality what is being described is something quite different, radically so, from what we normally practice on Sunday morning.
Back to this topic again.
Like a certain canine owned by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, there are people who will reflexively respond to the assertion that there is no command or example regading monologue sermons in the New Testament with “Oh yeah, well what about Acts 20:7?!?!” It never fails. What is also apparent is that this response is based on a knee-jerk reaction. Teacher X that I respect taught that in the account of Paul speaking to the church in Troas in Acts 20, what was going on was a sermon. In fact more often than not it will be accompanied by a joke about not complaining about how long someone "preaches" because when Paul preached to the church in Troas, a young man fell asleep and fell from a window! Hilarity and chuckling ensue but no one asks “is that really what happened or is that just what we were led to believe happened?”. Well I am asking!
I think some of the problem comes from the King James translation. Most Christians are familiar with the language in the KJV (i.e. our Father who art in heaven) and in the King James language from 400 years ago, it certainly sounds to our ears like Paul is "preaching", which of course means a sermon. If you read the King James rendering, this is what you get (emphasis mine in all three examples):
And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together. And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed. And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.
The English Standard renders it slightly differently but in an important way.
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, "Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him." And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.
The same is true with the NASB. The New American Standard renders it:
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. And there was a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor and was picked up dead. But Paul went down and fell upon him, and after embracing him, he said, "Do not be troubled, for his life is in him." When he had gone back up and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while until daybreak, and then left. They took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted.
What is the difference? In the King James translation, the word “preach” is used twice and that word has a connotation of a monologue sermon because of our cultural understanding of what “preaching” involves. But both the NASB and the ESV strongly suggest that Paul was involved in a conversation with the assembled body by rendering it “talked with” and “conversed with”. So which is correct? I am not a Greek expert but I think we can draw some conclusions from what we have been presented with that support my contention that Paul was involved in a conversation, not a sermon.
First, there is the ESV/NASB translations which imply that Paul was involved at least partially in conversation with the church, that he was interacting with the people there and not merely “preaching unto them” a sermon. Certainly Paul would have been leading the conversation as an apostle but there is nothing to suggest that the gathered church sat mutely while he spoke. Given what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 14, he definitely would have expected all of the brothers to bring something to the meeting (a hymn, a prayer, a teaching, etc.) and not just sit quietly and listen politely.
Second, does it make any sense at all to assume that Paul was preaching a sermon for perhaps eight hours? At least twice the church was eating so he certainly wouldn’t have been preaching then. Just from a practical standpoint, there is no way he was the only one speaking. If you have ever spoken to a group you know that it is draining and hard on your voice. An hour is a long time to speak, two hours is pretty extreme. By contrast I can talk with friends for hours on end because I am not the only one talking.
Third, trying to draw a parallel between Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ entrusted with writing large swaths of the New Testament as an authoritative text and your local church pastor delivering a spiritual lecture is foolhardy. I think it is ironic that many people will embrace Paul as their role model when they think he is supporting their traditions, like sermon preaching, but not when he exhorts church leaders to earn a living by working rather than coveting money from the church, something that happens a few verses after Paul allegedly was preaching a sermon in Acts 20:7.
Fourth, the purpose of the church gathering is important to look at. The church was gathered together to “break bread”. This was not a worship service where the expectation was that they were going to get a sermon, they were there as the church for a meal specifically as a going away meal with Paul (and they met on Sunday not because Sunday is the "sabbath" but because Paul was leaving the next day but that is a post for a different day). Certainly there were important conversation about matters of theological importance and certainly there likely was prayer going on (based on Acts 2:42) but the gathering was for a meal. Paul spent a lot of time speaking with the church because he was leaving the next day and apparently he had lots to talk about. Keep in mind that he was there for a week and during that time was no doubt also engaged in teaching and laboring alongside the believers in Troas.
What seems apparent from Paul’s time with the church in Troas in Acts 20 is that he was talking with the church in Troas while they were gathered to share a meal. Paul likely was leading the conversation because of his unique position in the church as an apostle but the church was engaged in conversation with him, an assertion I base on the text (“talked with” and “conversed with”) and on the sheer implausibility of Paul preaching a monologue sermon all night. Those who claim that Acts 20:7 is an example of monologue sermons in the New Testament have a difficult task because a) it is the only place they can even try to turn to and b) the actual text itself doesn’t support their contention unless you read Acts 20:7 convinced that your tradition is correct before you even start to read. If you base your notion of the centrality of sermons in the life of the church on Acts 20:7 you are on pretty shaky ground indeed.