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? read on