The Disciple named Tabitha: A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2019

When I was a boy, one Wednesday a month, my mother would drop me off at my grandfather’s house to spend the day while she took my grandmother and my sisters to the church to what was called “Sewing.” The women of the church gathered together to work on quilts, comforters, and other sewing projects that would be donated to relief sales or sent to people in need—after natural disasters, for example. I’m not sure when or if the custom ended, if it died out like so many other customs did with our changing culture.

But such activities weren’t limited to once a month. My grandmother and aunts crocheted bandages—I remember their hands were always busy if we went to visit on a Friday night. As women, there were few opportunities to express their faith and in addition to preparing meals for potlucks or visiting speakers, sewing quilts or comforters, or crocheting bandages, were one concrete way of sharing Christ’s love with the world. Some women, two of my dad’s sisters, for example, became nurses and worked in Mennonite hospitals in the US or overseas. Others became missionaries, some with their husbands but a few went on their own. For most, though, their lives were focused on the traditional roles that had been established and there were limited opportunities to do more. Whether as nurses or as housewives, they followed Jesus in ways permitted by their community and culture.

We are now four weeks away from Easter. It’s Mother’s Day, Graduation weekend at UW Madison, and spring finally seems to have arrived in Madison with the crabapple tree in our courtyard at long last showing the full beauty of its blossoms. We’re looking ahead to summer and Easter may seem like a distant memory but in the church’s calendar there are seven Sundays of Eastertide. We burn the paschal candle which was lit for the first time at the Great Vigil of Easter and burns throughout Eastertide and throughout the year at every baptism and funeral. We are wearing white as we’ve worn since Easter and will continue until the Feast of Pentecost on June 9, when the season of Easter comes to an end.

One of the significant differences in our Eastertide liturgies from the rest of the year is that we do not have lessons from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible in this season. Instead, we read from the Book of Acts and from the Book of Revelation. I’m not sure why that’s the case, it may lead mistakenly to the assumption that the resurrection of Christ constitutes a radical break or disruption with the biblical tradition that precedes it. Certainly, the resurrection ushers in a new age, elements of which we see in the stories from the book of Acts and the vision for the final completion of that new age is described in Revelation. But there are also important continuities with the past, some of which we see in our readings, including the Gospel.

I think it’s great that the Tuesday night bible study group is working through Acts—because we read it only in Eastertide on Sundays, it’s hard to get a sense of the work as a whole. We hear little snippets, stories that often have great drama and are full of interesting details, but we aren’t introduced to the overall narrative arc, and we tend not to understand how it relates to the Gospel of Luke, to which it is a sequel. Even though they are clearly two separate books and are each coherent, they are also thematically and structurally a single work.

I’ve said this often before but it bears repeating. There’s a geographic and temporal structure to the combined Luke-Acts story. The geographic structure is derived in large part from the Gospel of Mark as the story of Luke goes from Bethlehem to Nazareth and Galilee, where Jesus begins his public ministry, then continues with the long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus is crucified and raised from the dead. Here is where Luke diverges from Matthew and Mark, because in those two gospels the angels or men at the empty tomb tell the disciples to go to Galilee where the risen Christ will meet them. In Luke, the disciples remain in Jerusalem, where the Risen Christ appears to them, and from which he ascends to heaven after 40 days. Acts begins with the disciples stilled gathered in Jerusalem and Acts tells the story of their travels into the world taking the gospel with them. Acts ends with Paul in Rome.

A second important structural element is the Holy Spirit, which comes down on Jesus at his baptism and departs from him at his death. Jesus’ last words in Luke are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The Holy Spirit then comes down on the disciples at Pentecost, and it carries them into the world, sometimes quite literally picking them up and moving them. It’s a movement that is full of drama and some conflict as this little band of Jesus followers tries to make sense of growth and change and to welcome Gentiles, non-Jews into their fellowship.

The little story we heard as our reading from Acts is part of that great move of the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. We are introduced to Tabitha, or Dorcas. The fact that Luke names her in both the common Aramaic language of the first-century Palestinian community, and in the Greek of the wider Hellenistic roman world, suggests that Tabitha herself straddles those two communities, that she may be at home in both. So this may be a subtle hint of the gospel’s move into the world.

Luke provides another little detail that is easily overlooked and full of significance. He refers to her as a disciple. In fact, Tabitha is the only named woman in all of the New Testament who is called a disciple. Luke tells us what that meant for her: “she was devoted to good works and charity.” She fell ill and died. Her friends had heard that Peter was in a nearby town, where he had healed a paralytic man, so they sent for him.

Many of us can imagine their grief. Tabitha was clearly someone who was a pillar of her community, someone whose passing left not just an empty space, but whose gifts and commitment would leave a large gap. Perhaps they were wondering how they would get by without her energy and commitment. In a poignant scene, when he arrives, the widows show him all of the clothes Tabitha had made—some of the good works and charity to which she had devoted herself. Peter raises her back to life, and through this miracle, many in the town come to faith.

In restoring her to life, Peter bears witness to the power of Jesus Christ and the power of resurrection. It is a miracle that brings home to that little group of people that Good News of Jesus Christ, the transforming power of his love, knows no bounds. No doubt Tabitha, raised to new life, would return to her good works and charity but the miracle also led to others in that city seeing and knowing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

We often struggle to see that power for ourselves, in our lives and in our world. The problems that we face, as individuals, as a community, a nation, and the world, seem so complex and difficult. The forces of evil that are at work seem overwhelming—gun violence, greed, apathy, white supremacy, that it is easy to grow discouraged, to despair and lose hope.

But the power of resurrection lives on in the world. Our faith that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is a faith that proclaims God’s justice and love are more powerful than death; a faith that proclaims that there will be no hunger or thirst, that God will wipe away every tear.

To live in that hope is to practice resurrection. To look for signs of God’s transforming power and love, to devote ourselves to sharing that power and love. When we despair, when we grow faint, when our faith becomes cold embers and lies on a bed, Jesus calls to us and holds out his hand and says, “Get up!” May our faith be renewed and our hope rekindled by the power of Christ’s resurrection.

 

 

 

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