Life-giving Acts (Apr. 19-25)
Sunday, April 25
Fourth Sunday of Easter
God of comfort and compassion, through Jesus, your Son, you lead us to the water of life and the table of your bounty. May we who have received the tender love of our Good Shepherd be strengthened by your grace to care for your flock. Amen.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 9:36-43 with Psalm 23 and
Revelation 7:9-17 and
Reflection and Focus Questions
by Kate Huey
1. What would a life lived in an “optimism of grace” look like, in an individual, and in a church?
2. Who is someone whose life has made a difference in your own?
3. Would those who hear about us, and those who watch what we do, hear and feel echoes from the story of Christ?
4. What is the difference between “ministry” and “good works”?
5. What surprising new direction do you think God is leading you in today?
Text for Meditation
He gave her his hand / and helped her up.
For ideas on how to meditate with the Bible, read our article on Praying With the Bible
This is no peaceful meditation on the goodness of God, this book of The Acts of the Apostles. For example, by the end of this ninth chapter, we have just come off the adventures of Saul, the persecutor of early Christians, who went from “ravaging the church” and “breathing threats and murder against the disciples” to getting, so to speak, knocked off his high horse–flattened, that is–and blinded by the light, before he rose up again and made his way, with the help of others, to Damascus, where his sight was restored and more importantly, his vision clarified. Of course, it wasn’t easy convincing the disciples who had lived in fear of Saul that he was now on their side, and the pace of the story is relentless as he runs from the Jewish authorities in Damascus (lowered in a basket through the city walls!–a first century version of the car chase scene) and escapes to Jerusalem. There he encounters more skepticism from the believers and arguments with the Hellenists–the Greek-speaking Jews–who want to kill him. But then the camera backs up, and gives us a wider view of “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” growing in peace and in faith (and in numbers as well). A curious pairing of words follows: “fear” and “comfort.” As it grew, the church was, mysteriously, “living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”
We leave the tumultuous Saul/Paul and find ourselves suddenly back with Peter, who had actually walked with Jesus and was a witness (after Mary Magdalene) to the Resurrection. Filled now with the Holy Spirit, Peter can’t help sharing the Good News of his life transformed and the power of that same Spirit of God to transform the lives of others. He visits “the saints” living in various places, and continues the work of his teacher, Jesus, who had healed the sick and raised the dead. Luke writes this story of the early church as exactly that: a continuation of the story of Jesus, risen, present and at work through the power of the Spirit in the life of the early church. In Lydda, a paralyzed man is healed by Peter, or rather by the Holy Spirit (Peter says, “Jesus Christ heals you”) and the whole region (“all the residents”-?yes, it says “all”) come to believe in the Lord. But there’s more to the story than that, for scholars make a persuasive case that the man Peter heals is a Gentile. His name may sound familiar, because many of us remember the great Roman hero Aeneas from reading Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, in school. According to Charles Cousar, Aeneas would have also been a familiar name to Luke’s audience, for the poem, “written between 30 and 19 B.C., was so widely read and loved by Peter’s day (as well as Luke’s) that the appearance here of the name Aeneas cannot be accidental, but is to be understood as the text’s way of preparing the reader for that critical moment in Peter’s life related in Acts 10,” when “the mission to the Gentiles” became an important part of the story Luke is telling. The stage is set, then, in this Easter season, for new life, and a new, surprisingly expanded vision of ministry in Jesus’ name.
Eager to hear
We imagine the earliest Christians listening, and like us, being amazed, and eager to hear what happens next in this exciting and inspiring account of the Adventures of the Apostles. Here we are, in the Easter season, with resurrection on our minds. However, like those earliest Christians, including Luke himself, we more likely hear in this story of the raising of the saintly widow Dorcas/Tabitha (many scholars note the lovely meaning of her name in both Aramaic and Greek: “Gazelle”) the echoes of other stories from both the Old and New Testaments: most dramatically, the raising of the daughter of Jairus. Luke had described that miracle in his Gospel (8:40-56) but must have also known about it from the Gospel of Mark, whose account so closely parallels this one that even the name of the dead person differs by only one letter: Talitha/Tabitha. That’s probably not an accident, because the story happens the same way, the command is the same, and the results are the same, as well. Again, Luke’s point is clear: Peter, and the other disciples, the early church, are continuing the work of Jesus. (It helps us better understand the term, “Body of Christ,” to describe the church.) However, Carl Holladay takes us back even further, recalling the ancient story about Elijah raising a widow’s son from the dead, which puts Peter in a direct line stretching back to the Old Testament prophets. We might ask ourselves, then, the following questions: Is the church continuing the work of Jesus today? Is the church acting like the ancient prophets, our ancestors in faith? Would people recognize us as prophets, filled with the power of the Spirit?
Back now to that room full of widows mourning the death of an early pillar of the church: even a short passage like this one has important and revealing details. Tabitha sounds very much like a living saint, very much like many of the living saints in our churches today, who spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources in ministry to those in need. (Philip Culbertson recalls the sewing ministry of the Dorcas Guilds in local churches years ago.) We hear no details, really, about the paralyzed man, except for what we may read between the lines about his being a Gentile, but we learn a great deal about this extraordinary woman. Luke refers to her as “a disciple,” and we might easily read past a word that by this time seems so common in the New Testament, without realizing that Tabitha, Gail R. O’Day writes, is “the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of ‘disciple’ (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.” An extraordinary woman, yes, and an unusual use of the feminine form, but O’Day also poses the provocative question of “why when men take care of widows, Luke calls it ‘ministry’ (6:4) but when Tabitha performs the same services Luke calls it ‘good works.'” Good question, and one that illuminates for us the power of words, especially when we consider the exclusion of women from ordained ministry for so many centuries.
A different kind of power
Tabitha, nevertheless, in her own quiet, servant ministry, is a powerful woman. Holladay comments that the death of people like her “really makes a difference, because their life made such a difference.” Tabitha has indeed had such an impact on the community around her that they can’t bear to let her go. Even though they wash her body, they still send for Peter when they hear that he’s nearby. What sort of faith was moving around in their midst? What do you think they were thinking? Stephen Jones offers a lovely reflection on the scene and on our own growing awareness of “the power of holistic healing–the intersection of prayer, hopeful attitude, and the resources of medicine. We are more aware than ever that no one should face disease alone. Prayer partners and spiritual advocates can support us, complementing medical treatment. Communities are powerful healing partners in helping us overcome illness and brokenness.” And so, for Jones, Peter is not as important in this text as that community of widows and saints who “yearned for a hopeful outcome for Dorcas?.lovingly cared for Dorcas’s body?.brought all the tunics and clothing she had made for the widows, tangible symbols of her compassion?.shed communal tears?.waited prayerfully outside.” These early Christians’ lives were affected and even transformed by the compassion and service of Tabitha, and they in turn offered prayers, presence, and tears, but they also took action for the sake of the one who could do nothing, at this point, for herself. Charles Cousar’s words go well with Jones’ reflection: “Often,” he writes, “it is the faith of those who bring the crisis moment to the attention of a person of God that seems to be the channel through which the grace of the Spirit flows.”
And so we come to that powerful and yet quiet moment when Peter empties the room of all those mourners, and approaches the bedside of this good and holy woman. Peter kneels, and he prays. You can almost hear the quiet, because Luke doesn’t put words in Peter’s mouth, long-winded prayers or persuasive pleading to God on behalf of Tabitha. No, Luke uses the simplest of words when Peter speaks directly to the dead woman: “Tabitha, get up.” (Charles Cousar notes that Peter actually speaks only two words in Greek, and the word for “arise” is the “identical verb used elsewhere to refer to Jesus’ resurrection.”) We wonder what went through Peter’s mind, what was in his heart, what memory and what hope gave him the audacious confidence that he could say two words, and then count on God, right then and there, to do something so astonishing. In this Easter season, perhaps we don’t really have to wonder long, and Peter’s confidence is testimony to the power of God in his life, the things he has seen and experienced, and the effect all of it has had in his life. It also speaks of the power of the resurrection in the life of the church, and in our lives today.
Living in a “Humpty Dumpty world”
This short passage provoked a number of questions, of course, especially about the miracle of bringing someone back to life. David Tiede reminds us that there is a difference between “revivification” and “resurrection,” because “no one worshiped Dorcas. As an apostle, Peter bears the authority of One who was not merely revived; the resurrection of Jesus confirms that God has made him Lord and Messiah.” So what does this story mean to us, if we don’t have an apostle traveling around, bringing dead people back to life? Joseph Harvard suggests that the story “challenges our assumption that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments–or, more to the point, that our predicaments are not fixable at all.” He says that we live in a “Humpty Dumpty” world in which we have been told that things can not be put back together again, but the book of Acts tells a different story, about people who “were empowered to ‘turn the world upside down’ (17:6).” This is an interesting image in counterpoint to Richard Swanson’s frequent image of God “turning the world right-side-up.” In either case, the world is not as it should be, and God is at work, often through us, putting it right again. And doing that might indeed turn it upside down from where it is now. All of that is, mysteriously, grounds for hope. Robert Wall uses a lovely phrase to describe what underlay the request of the widows for Peter’s help: they lived and moved out of “an optimism of grace.”
Perhaps the most helpful reflection comes from Stephen Jones, who wrestles both with the faith of those widows and with our own, science-based questions as modern, or post-modern, Christians today. “This congregation of resurrection had reason to believe in a God who transcends the categories of birth, life, and death,” he writes. “We do not hold the keys that unlock these mysteries. We do not know God’s will as it pertains to Dorcas or to our loved ones. The helpful distinction is between praying for a cure, which seems to dictate to God our desired outcome, and praying for healing, which can come in a hundred unexpected ways. God’s Spirit will intervene on behalf of our prayers, yet the healing that comes often surprises us and causes us to catch our collective breath.” As we have seen, he also emphasizes the work of communal healing, and the widows provide excellent role models for that ministry, if we can “overcome the intense privacy and individualism that are the cultural icons of our day.” In fact, he draws on the words of Frederick Buechner to caution us against closing ourselves off and trying to protect ourselves from life’s suffering: “The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.” Jones’ description of the early Christians makes us want to be church in the same way: “They were unafraid to wade into each other’s lives in transforming ways.” And he reminds us that while Dorcas rose from her bed that day, she did eventually die. “The emphasis of this text is not upon a return from death, but upon a community honing all of its spiritual strength and resources passionately upon life and wholeness.” Does you think about physical health and wholeness in relation to spiritual health and wholeness?
Looking toward “more distant horizons”
Even the ending of this episode has meaning between the lines, because it puts Peter in a place with between-the-lines meaning: “Jonah’s Joppa,” as Robert Wall puts it, a city that will figure again in Acts as “Peter, ‘son of Jonah’ (Matt. 16:17), departs from Joppa as did the OT Jonah before him, both on mission to Gentiles that resulted in their surprising salvation.” Wall makes an easy-to-miss connection between Matthew’s reference to Peter and what is happening here. And Charles Cousar, like many other scholars, notes the significance of the description of Peter’s host, the tanner: “Tanners were suspect, under Jewish law, because they engaged in unclean work. It is clear that the mission of Peter and that of the church as a whole is looking to more and more distant horizons.”
Of course, there’s a call in this text for us. Carl R. Holladay sounds a lot like Francis of Assisi (“Preach the gospel, and when necessary, use words”) when he lifts up the power of witness, especially when our witness is in our actions rather than our words. We can talk and talk and talk, but our “acts of mercy” will say what really needs to be said. The radiance of our faith will speak volumes, and lead others to want to know more about what has truly worked wonders in our lives. But that doesn’t have to mean that our words don’t have power, too. Martin Marty’s commentary on this text stresses the importance of testimony: “Church rolls were never swelled because people sat up after having been dead. They swelled and endure because people who have faced in faith what Karl Rahner called death, ‘the abyss of mystery,’ are content to leave the details and reportings in the realm of mystery. They want something else. Through and in it all they have seen and known and experienced Jesus Christ’s rising as something that breaks the mold and ushers in a new age in history, including in our personal histories.” And so, hearing the witness of others, we can each of us learn and be strengthened and sometimes, even rise up when life presses in and trouble has us down. Like Paul getting back up on his feet on that dusty road to Damascus and beginning a whole new life and ministry, like Dorcas/Tabitha rising again to her ministries of compassion and generosity, we are invited to begin again and to taste the sweetness of new life lived “in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
Voltaire, 18th century
It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.
Jacob Boehme, 17th century
What kind of spiritual triumph it was I can neither write nor speak; it can only be compared with that where life is born in the midst of death, and is like the resurrection of the dead.
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.
Marguerite de Valois, 16th century
Love works in miracles every day: such as weakening the strong, and strengthening the weak; making fools of the wise, and wise men of fools; favoring the passions, destroying reason, and in a word, turning everything topsy-turvy.
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