A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 4 ~ Acts 9:36-43
We’re in a sermon series called “That Changes Everything”. Last week we met a wonderfully faithful fellow named Ananias who was called to the unlikely ministry of praying with the worst person imaginable, and helping to change that person’s life by introducing them to The Way of Jesus, and helping to nurture and form them in Christian community. That ‘worst person ever’ had a personal awakening, but it was thanks to the faithfulness of Ananias that that awakening was able to grow and flourish. So, was it the awakening that changed everything, or the prayerful nurturing? Yes! Both!
Today we get to meet another wonderful disciple of Jesus whose faithful living and loving changed everything for many people. Her name is Tabitha, or Dorcas (I’ll explain in a minute). If you’re starting to think that maybe the thing that changes everything isn’t a mysterious spiritual miracle, but the faithfulness of followers of Jesus – well, spoiler alert – you’re right! Maybe the best miracles aren’t inexplicable supernatural occurrences but rather profound movements of the Spirit that inspire regular folks, like you and me, to live out the courage of our convictions, to ‘live out loud’ the love of God. Miracles like that really can ‘change everything’! So let’s meet another one of God’s miracles, and see how she might inspire us.
As I said, she is named Tabitha, and Dorcas. Why the two names? It’s probably because of where she lived, and it actually speaks volumes. She lived in a place called Joppa, which is known now as Tel-Aviv. It’s a port town – which means it’s a place where many people, and many cultures, intersect. Tabitha is her Hebrew name, and Dorcas is her Greek name. Referring to her by both, interchangeably, suggests she was known in and by both communities. That’s quite remarkable, especially for a woman in their time to be named as such.
What might be even more remarkable, however, is that she’s also referred to as a disciple of The Way of Jesus. In fact, she is the only female person in the entire New Testament who explicitly gets that label. Many women are associated with Jesus, or the Way, and many, many were no doubt practicing disciples in every sense of the word. Absolutely! But for some reason Tabitha is the only one called a mathetria, the feminine form of mathetai which is the male version of ‘disciple’ which is used extensively. The writer of Luke and Acts has done a pretty extraordinary thing here. In a profoundly patriarchal world they’ve championed feminism. Women were critically important to the Jesus movement. It’s shameful that the early church lost that focus. (Well, they more likely buried it, you know, because patriarchy.)
In their respective languages ‘Tabitha’ and ‘Dorcas’ both mean the same thing: gazelle, or more descriptively, an animal with large bright eyes! What a beautiful description of a disciple of Jesus – a person with large bright eyes – a person who can perceive the Kingdom of God, and love it out. She is also described as a disciple who was ‘continually’ ministering to people. She was a seamstress, which suggests she was self-sufficient (employed, perhaps somewhat wealthy) – and as someone who shares her resources she must’ve had some resources to share! She was clearly an extraordinary and beloved woman. There is no mention of a husband or family in the text, so it’s fair to assume Tabitha/Dorcas was a widow – and this helps to explain much of the passage. By the way, we’re still in the first verse of the story! We get all that context from one verse!
As I prepared for this sermon I started to refer to this passage as one of missed opportunities – not in the action of the story, but in the translation. As the story goes, Tabitha dies and was washed and laid out for honouring in a “room upstairs” – but that is the exact same as saying “an upper room”! Room upstairs doesn’t mean much – but “an upper room” has all sorts of energy for us. The translators missed an opportunity to honour her by connecting her to Jesus. Luke didn’t – Luke used the same word – the translators blew it.
Being a woman who was held in such high regard, upon her death some other disciples from the church at Joppa were sent to find the apostle Peter who was in a nearby town. They implore Peter to come to see her. Why do you think that was? What did they hope to accomplish? Maybe they were hoping for a miracle? Yup. Totally possible. Or maybe they just wanted one of the leaders of the Jesus movement to know about her and honour her.
Peter is taken to the room upstairs – again, the upper room! – and he is greeted by a large group of widows. Acts 9:39 All the widows stood beside Peter, weeping and showing tunics, and cloaks, and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.
Widows in that time had a hard go. If they didn’t have large, extended families they could easily be forgotten in their society. Caring for ‘widows and orphans’ was a key feature of People of the Way of Jesus. That Dorcas was surrounded by widows – surrounded by people on the margins – surrounded by people who she would have helped and ministered to so generously during her life – suggests a deep and caring community had formed. In death it was these widows – her chosen, extended family – that surrounded her with love.
What happened next in that upper room is called a miracle. Acts 9:40-41
Peter put all of the widows outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. [pause]
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 back in, he showed her to be alive.
Notice a couple of things here. The first thing Peter does is create a private moment, not a dazzling show on the street corner. The next thing he does is kneels and prays. The verse is short, but it doesn’t say how long his prayer was. I like to think he knelt and prayed there for a long, long time – like maybe an hour, or more. I don’t like the suggestion that he knelt down and said, “Ok God, let’s do this!” and then jumped up and got on with the miracle part.
I also want to pause here and pick on the translators again. They’ve missed another golden opportunity to bring this story to even more glorious heights. In verse 39 it says that Peter got up and went with the disciples to Joppa. And here in verse 40 he says, “Tabitha, get up.” Well, both of those words can equally be rendered as ‘arise’. Peter arose and went with them. Peter said, “Tabitha, arise!” Arise! We just had Easter – and our hearts burst open with joy as we proclaim that Jesus is risen!
How would Easter morning sound if our text said, “and Jesus got up”?
Easter morning worship begins and the preacher cries out, “Jesus got up!”
And the congregation responds, “He got up indeed!”
No, He Is Risen! He is risen indeed!
And so was Peter.
And so was Tabitha.
And in verse 41 Peter gave Tabitha his hand and helped her up. He raised her up. Risen. Raised up.
What does it mean to be raised up?
What does it mean to arise?
What does it mean to rise up?!!!!
It can mean to wake up in the morning and get out of bed. It can mean something as simple as going from a sitting or lying position to standing. It can also mean to gain momentum or energy. And it can also mean to stand up to the powers that be in protest – to rise up.
Sometimes it takes a miracle to get me out of bed in the morning! Sometimes it takes a miracle to have an idea gain momentum and change hearts and minds. And sometimes it takes a miracle to move nice, faithful folk – like Ananias last week, like Tabitha probably – like you and me for sure – to move us, to inspire us to rise up from the comfort of our peaceful, faithful, safe, uncomplicated forms of being disciples and propel us into risky ministry.
Have you looked at the Faith United mission statement recently? It’s in the bulletin every week. It says that because we claim to be people of faith, People of the Way of Jesus,
Therefore we will:
- strive to provide a spiritual home that is openly welcoming, nurturing and safe whatever a person’s ability/disability, age, ethnicity, exceptionality, gender identity, sexual orientation, or social or economic circumstance;
- seek to become disciples of Christ growing in faith through worship, study and prayer;
- risk sharing our resources with local and global neighbours in response to God’s call;
- be committed to the responsible use and care of all that God has entrusted to us;
- encourage all who gather here to participate freely in the life and work of this church.
And then we sum it up with this conviction: Let our actions reflect our faith.
Are those just words, or are they our rallying cry? Because those words are words of a people who are rising up to take a stand against the ways of the world, and to help bring into awareness, and focus, and practice, the Kingdom of God. People rising up like that, believing and living out words like that? Well, that changes everything! Tabitha didn’t wait until Peter came along to rise up. Her whole ministry was about her rising up, and living love.
Arise! Wake up! Get moving!
There’s a word that’s getting a lot of attention these days – woke.
It means to be a person who has become aware of injustice, and inequality, and discrimination, and racism, and who will not ignore it – will not go back to sleep. Because that’s what you are if you aren’t woke – you’re asleep.
Or worse, you’re fine with injustice, and inequality, and discrimination, and racism as long as it doesn’t affect you too much.
Hell no! Get woke! Arise!
Rise up and do something about the world.
Rise up and speak truth to power.
Rise up and be the widow who risks her precarious livelihood to do ministry with people who are on the margins.
Rise up and be the disciple who risks praying with an enemy and helping to set them on a renewed path.
Rise up and dare to imagine new ways of practicing your faith (that’s next week’s sermon).
And remember, please remember – the power to do these great, and faithful, and risky things flows directly from prayerfulness – from being open to God’s Presence and letting God’s love fill you to overflowing.
Tabitha was a named disciple and prayerful church leader.
Ananias was a praying disciple.
Peter came and prayed before he was able to engage in miraculous ministry.
It all comes from prayer. Prayer – that changes everything!
As we gather together in this symbolic upper room, how is God inspiring you to arise?
What is God trying to help you see or perceive?
What ministry, at church or someplace else, is God calling you to risk trying?
Where is God nudging you to use your voice to speak up?
I hope you’ll take some long, prayerful time to ponder those questions.
And when you’re ready to answer, well, that changes everything.