John Calvin on Sleeping in Church
Last Sunday I preached on the story in Acts 20 of sleepy Eutychus falling out the window, as Paul had decided that the stroke of midnight was no reason to wrap up his sermon. For churchgoers, the moral of the story is obvious: long sermons can kill you. For pastors, the significance is also plain: stay awake during the sermon, or else.
During my preparation, I was very interested to see how John Calvin handled this fatal nap. Would he by sympathetic? Would he be full of chastisement?
Turns out, a little of both.
Calvin assumes Eutychus sat by the window because it was the only spot he could find. Otherwise it would have been “filthy licentiousness in despising the heavenly doctrine to depart aside into a window.” Likewise, Calvin has no patience for the person who comes to the word “loathsomely.” Among those “justly condemned for their drowsiness” are those “full of meat and wine” and those who “are vigilant enough in other matters,” but approach the hearing of God’s word with careless indifference.
On the gentler side, Calvin is prepared to give Eutychus the benefit of the doubt. He disagrees with those who sharply condemn the young boy and think God punished his drowsiness with death. What do you expect from a lad listening to preaching into the wee hours of the morning?
For what marvel is it, if, seeing the night was so far spent, having striven so long with sleep, he yielded at length? And whereas, against his will, and otherwise than he hoped for, he was taken and overcome with deep sleep, we may guess by this that he did not settle himself to sleep. To seek out a fit place wherein to sleep had been a sign of sluggishness, but to be overcome with sleep, sitting in a window, what other thing is it but fault to yield to nature?
So what would Calvin say to today’s parishoner who finds the pew a bit too comfortable? He’d probably say, “Look, nature is what nature is. You can’t stay awake forever. But if you are stuffing yourself with food and coming to church as an afterthought to the weekend’s festivities, don’t expect miracles every time your head bobs around during the sermon.”
And don’t sit by the window.