Sunday, April 17
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
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?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
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" and "breathing threats and murder" against them 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, giving 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 somehow lived, mysteriously, in both "the fear of the Lord" and "the comfort of the Holy Spirit" (9:31b).
From Paul to Peter
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 the busy urban center of Lydda, a paralyzed man is healed by Peter, or rather by the Holy Spirit, or, as Peter says, by Jesus Christ (9:34b), and the whole region ("all the residents" — yes, it says "all") come to believe in Jesus.
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 was a familiar, well-loved work in that day, and perhaps Luke is using this name to hint at what is to come in the dramatic events in chapter ten, and the mission to the Gentiles that will unfold in the book of Acts. The stage is set, then, for new life, and a new, surprisingly expanded vision of ministry in Jesus' name.
Raising a "gazelle"
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 elegant 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 those who hear about us, and those who watch what we do, hear and feel echoes from the story of Christ? Would they recognize us as prophets, filled with the power of the Spirit?
A living saint
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 were given few details, really, about the paralyzed man, Aeneas, 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 Tabitha 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 (and in some churches, even today).
Quiet but powerful
Tabitha, nevertheless, in her own quiet, servant ministry, is a powerful woman. Indeed, she has 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 reflects on the scene and on our own growing understanding that prayer, attitude, and medicine all work together for healing, along with the support of a community. For Jones, Peter is not as important in this text as that community of widows and saints who cared for her, mourned her passing, and kept vigil outside while something remarkable happened.
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." These early Christians' lives were affected, 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. Their faith went to work, and amazing things followed.
What was in Peter's heart?
And so we come to that dramatic 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."
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 know that 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 from Acts provokes a number of questions, especially about the miracle of bringing someone back to life. Dorcas and Jesus, of course, are very different "cases": while Dorcas is temporarily brought back to life, Jesus' resurrection is a sign of who he is, and we still live today in the light and power of that new life. But what does this particular 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 gives us reason to hope even when we think that there is no possibility of restoration: he says that we live in a "Humpty Dumpty" world in which we are convinced that things can not be put back together again, but the book of Acts tells a different story, about people "empowered to 'turn the world upside down' (17:6)." This interesting image is 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. Doing that might indeed turn it upside down from where it is now, and all of that is, mysteriously, grounds for hope. Robert Wall uses a powerful phrase to describe what underlay the request of the widows for Peter's help: they lived and moved out of "an optimism of grace."
The mystery in the story
Stephen Jones' reflection wrestles both with the faith of those widows and with our own, scientifically formed questions as modern, or post-modern, Christians today. He focuses on the mystery in this story, the things we do not understand but can trust to God, and he urges us to pray for healing in ways we cannot predict or imagine. As we have seen, he also emphasizes the work of communal healing, and the widows provide excellent role models for that ministry, despite the messages that bombard us from the culture around us, to be able to take care of ourselves, to be private in our pain.
Jones provides a wonderful description of the early Christians that 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. Wouldn't it be intriguing to imagine how she used the "extra" time she received? Does your church think about physical health and wholeness in relation to spiritual health and wholeness? Does your congregation put resources toward such a ministry?
Surprised by God
Even the ending of this episode has meaning between the lines, because it puts Peter in a place with between-the-lines meaning: we remember Joppa, Robert Wall observes, where Jonah was sent on a mission to people he didn't particularly want to help, and he was surprised by God, too. Charles Cousar, like many other scholars, notes the significance of the description of Peter's host, the tanner, who was considered unclean, another boundary-breaking hint of what is to come for the church.
Of course, there's a call in this text for us, too. Carl R. Holladay sounds 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 mean that our words don't have power, too. I believe the telling, the sharing, and the hearing of our stories of faith, the stories of ancestors long ago, not so long ago, and even the our own stories, have the power to transform lives, individually and communally. 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." It's one reason we don't travel alone on this journey of faith.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
Sr Joan Chittister, 21st century
"The death of Jesus left a fledgling faith community bereft until they themselves rose out of his grave to begin life over again, wiser for what they knew, stronger for what he was, determined now to finish what had already been begun. All things end so that something else can begin."
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 20th century
"Miracles... seem to me to rest not so much upon... healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always."
Elizabeth Berg, 21st century
"I thought, the only good thing about sorrow is that it brings us down to ground zero inside ourselves, it reacquaints us with our best and truest self, and it releases compassion like some mighty hormone and if there is one thing that is good for us it's to have compassion, because it brings us together."
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