Our reading describes an interaction of Peter with a much loved, local woman, who had died.
It tells of how, after praying, Peter was able to bring her back to life. But more than just describing a remarkable event, I believe with others that we should see this text as urging us to understand how the Gospel is our commission. As we allow ourselves to be impacted by it, so this text challenges us to use all our resources – our time, talent, and treasure – in lives of dedicated service, and to do so not just because we believe we have to, but because we get it that it’s what we are made to do and so best how we come alive!
Tabitha, or Dorcas. Her name means ‘gazelle’ (I’m not sure of the significance of that other than to suggest that she moved quickly and lightly, gets things done). Well, this ‘gazelle’ had died. Widely loved. She’s described as being full of agathohn ergohn – (good works) and elemosunohn – (charitable actions). My lexicon tells me that ‘elemosunohn’ is used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe ‘acts of pity, mercy, compassion, kindness. It’s also used to describe someone gracious to anyone, everyone, one who showed favour and mercy to all. Elemosunohn people were described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount[i] as being merciful/ full of mercy – channels of God’s mercy. And so, people were understandably just devastated when all that stopped with Tabitha’s death.
I find myself wondering what exactly her ‘becoming ill and dying’ represents – had she died perhaps because she was burnt out by her good works, or did the good works stop because she died? Also, Why specifically are we being told about her? Who or what does she represent?
Can Tabitha and her good works can be seen as a good description of us as a church-community?
We at times are so vital, so active in every part of our wider communities with all sorts of exciting agathon ergon – ‘good works’ and elemosunohn – charitable outreach initiatives, just like Tabitha marked by our ‘acts of pity, mercy, compassion, kindness, gracious to anyone, everyone, showing favour and mercy to all. But then, also just like Tabitha, even while still wanting to be faithful and relevant, but because of all sorts of changes in our lives: perhaps it’s as we get older, still wanting to be faithful in a rapidly changing world with all sorts of very different needs and priorities from what we’ve known in the past, so we may find ourselves slowing down, or worse: OMG! We keep hearing of the closure of once vibrant congregations, while others are just barely holding on with ever fewer people and resources, you know, as their vision fades…
Clearly, this is a world where the institutional mainline churches as we’ve known them are in so many places struggling with the reality of increasing Tabitha-illness and even death…
Well, we’re told what Tabitha’s community did, and also what the disciples did, they didn’t just write her off. They loved her. By remembering who she always was to them, they treated her now tired, lifeless body with enormous respect. We’re told that they washed her, laid her out in an upper room…
And when they heard that Peter was close by, they sent for him. Why? Why bother? Wasn’t she dead? Well, since when was, or is, death ever a problem for Jesus Christ? It seems that an always dying Jesus and a constantly rising Christ is a central hallmark of our faith. Clearly, somehow, they still expected the possibility of great things in and from her.
Peter came, prayed, and Tabitha lived. This scripture reveals how the rising power of the ‘risen-Jesus-Christ’ doesn’t ever stop: …it’s what was shared in the ministry of Jesus, demonstrated on Easter Sunday, and then given to Peter who was enabled to revive the servant-spirit of Tabitha!
Will Willimon describes the risen Christ in Tabitha as the life-giving power emanating from the good works of a woman. She who, in her generosity and good works, had probably moved lots of people in need from death to life, giving them hope when they thought they were at a dead end.
It was that beautiful and most essential servant spirit in her which was brought back to life, and she lived again!
Then we are told that because of this miracle, people came to believe in the Lord.
What exactly is it that you think they came to believe about ‘the Lord’?
How about the fact that ‘the Lord’ is never done with us?
…always longs to see that Tabitha spirit raised up and at work in our lives and witness!
Quoting Will Willimon:
Throughout the Bible prosperous persons are entrusted with great responsibility. In the Bible it is not the responsibility of the widows and orphans to fend for themselves. …The poor are the responsibility of the rich simply because the poor are poor and powerless, and the rich are rich and powerful. We, who live on a continent which controls 80 percent of the world’s resources…need to hear that call to responsibility.
I wonder what some of the gifts, opportunities, and blessings are that God has given me that, through me, God might cause me to bless others?
Will Willimon again:
The Christian does not love their neighbor because the neighbor is a nice person or because the neighbor deserves love or because the neighbor returns love; the Christian loves in response to the love with which God has loved them. The Christian loves first because of what she or he believes about God, not because of something she or he believes about humanity. Love, in the biblical sense, is an activity, a decision, a response, something you decide to do because of what you know about God.
Notice how in vs 41, as often elsewhere in the NT[ii] Christ followers are called ‘saints’ (hagios). We tend to read that as an especially pious person, someone especially spiritual and close to God – and maybe that is who they are, but that’s not what ‘saint’ actually means. It simply means ‘different’ or ‘set apart’.
As the stumbling and often failing church of Jesus Christ, we are all saints. We are set apart, but not for any special place of privilege and status before God, we are set apart for acts of service. Special Tabitha-service.
There are all sorts of ‘good deeds’ and ‘charitable acts’ that God would have be expressed on earth THROUGH US in order to reveal God’s very own sacred presence and character. I’m not saying that they aren’t already happening all around us, all the time, anyway, for those with eyes to see it, hearts to feel it, but what I am saying is that, as the church of Jesus Christ, we are the only agency SPECIFICALLY created by God for the purpose of raising that sacred awareness.
The very good news here is that, like Tabitha, it’s as we may find ourselves feeling as if we are burning out, running out of capacity to do it, that we can know that God is not done!
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[i] Matthew 5:7
[ii] For example Acts 9:13, 32, often in the writings of Paul.