by Ellen Sims
text: Acts 9: 36-43
Eastertide’s resurrection theme just won’t die. During this Easter season the Acts of the Apostles, which is essentially volume 2 of the Gospel of Luke, replaces the usual Hebrew Bible readings. At various points and in different ways, the book of Acts demonstrates an ongoing power of resurrection that continues beyond the life-again of Jesus through his followers, specifically through Paul and Peter. Today’s story from Acts bears witness to Peter’s role in the work of resurrection in an early Christian community. We may not be able to know exactly how the early Church understood these stories of dead people – ordinary people – coming back to life. Whether you read these stories more symbolically or more literally, they insist that Death will never have the final word.
Tabitha (AKA Dorcas) was a remarkable Jesus follower for several reasons. First, she’s the only woman in the New Testament who is explicitly called a disciple. The Greek word used here is mathetria, the feminine form of the masculine noun mathetesm, which is the word used to name the twelve men Jesus called as his disciples. By the way, at least one woman, Junia, was recognized as an apostle. She was addressed in that way in Romans 16:7.
Tabitha is also extraordinary because she is the only person whom Peter raised from the dead. It’s worth noting that her community summoned Peter after she died. In other words, he was not summoned to heal her, maybe because the community learned of Peter’s proximity to Joppa only after her sudden death. And maybe her friends had no expectation that Peter or anyone could resurrect their friend. After all, Tabitha was the first person whom an apostle resurrected and the only person other than a man named Eutychus, whom Paul brought back to life much later in the book of Acts. The point here is that the community had no expectation that Peter could heal her. Peter may have been summoned to conduct her funeral. Tabitha/Dorcas was extraordinary not only because she was considered a disciple but also because she was resurrected by Peter.
But what is most extraordinary about Dorcas is her community’s devotion to her. And what created that extraordinary devotion was Dorcas’s extraordinary kindness. The details of this spare story emphasize her community’s love for her because of her love for them. What kind of person she must have been if it is her good works after all—not her spectacular resurrection, not her elevated title of “disciple”—but her benevolence that preserved her story.
The fact that “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity” is how the writer of Acts sums up her life. Which might sound trite. But the community’s response signals that this woman’s good works were exceptionally generous, or uncommonly suited for the recipients’ needs, or amazingly transformative for the people she served. It wasn’t just that she donated clothes to the needy or did her version of volunteering quarterly for Family Promise, as commendatory as those things are. When Peter arrived, the widows displayed for him the clothes she had created with her own hands. That detail alone speaks volumes.
I imagine great care, even artfulness went into the tunics Dorcus fashioned. Maybe there were touches of color to lift the sunken spirits of the widows. Maybe a rose-colored belt for the youngest widow. Maybe finer fabrics were chosen to feel soft against bodies that would miss the caresses of their husbands. And maybe a whole caring community was stitched together as they shared memories of their friend’s other acts of gentleness. That grieving community also honored Dorcas/Tabitha as they cared tenderly for her body after death, and wept for her loss, and displayed the work of her hands. It’s by the work of our hands and the tenderness of our hearts that we honor others in our lives—now and after they are gone.
“The Work of our Hands” is the title of a song by Carrie Newcomer. These lyrics capture the sacredness of something as simple as a lovingly sewn garment—or, for Carrie Newcomer, lovingly canned jam.
Today while it rained, I washed the jars,
Then I lit a flame, set the water to start.
And at the end of the day lined up to cool and seal,
Twelve pints of spiced peach jam,
Twenty jars of dill beans canned,
From an old recipe, That my mother gave to me,
Because it’s good to put a little bit by, For when the late snows fly,
All that love so neatly canned, By the work of our hands.
. . . .
And I believe that we should bless,
Every shirt ironed and pressed,
Salute the crews out on road,
Those who stock shelves and carry loads,
Whisper thanks to the brooms and saws,
Dirty boots and coveralls,
And bow my head to the waitress and nurse,
Tip my hat to farmer and clerk,
All those saints with skillets and pans,
And the work of their hands. . . .
(Hear her sing the entire song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNCB_TcfI5A)
Dorcus/Tabitha used the work of her hands to make love visible. And when her hands lay lifeless, her community wept. Don’t you want to know how these devotees of Dorcas responded when Peter summoned her back to life? Wouldn’t you like to play out this sliver of a story into a longer novel in which Dorcas remained with her community for several more years until she died into God’s final and lasting embrace?
Of course, if you’re someone who reads miracle stories metaphorically, feel free to do so. It’s possible this is really a story about a vital, remarkable member of the community who lived on in the memory of her community. So vivid was her memory that they often felt her influence and love. Perhaps one widow would offer a newly bereaved member of the community a garment. “Ruth, dear. We want you to have this tunic. We think it will bring out your lovely green eyes. Notice how fine and even are the stiches. Dorcas taught us that stitch. We’ll teach you, too. You didn’t know our Dorcus, but you will.Through us. Oh, the stories we’ll share! Now try that on. I want to see it brighten up your face.”
The resurrection of Tabitha/Dorcus, you see, might have happened through her story that lived on and on. But in saying so, I may need to make explicit what I try to do as the pastor of a diverse congregation and as someone whose personal theology is progressive but whose job is not to foist my theology onto anyone else. I have to be authentic to my understandings and honest with you. Some days I’m a skeptic and can’t interpret inexplicable things like “resurrection” in any way except metaphorical. But on other days, as on Mother’s Day when I want my mother so much that I hear her voice in my head so clearly and feel her love so close . . . that I can believe she’s with me in a way that is not merely metaphorical. And what I need to say to you is that even though I tend to interpret biblical miracles symbolically, I do so, in part, to make room for people who don’t have any other way to enter into the biblical stories. For many progressive Christians, metaphor is the only way many Bible stories make sense. So I need to make explicit a means of interpretation for those who otherwise would not have access to the hope and beauty of this story and others. Our church enunciates decidedly Christian theology while swinging the church door open as widely as possible. Conservative Christians are NOT excluded from progressive theology, but progressive Christians can be excluded by conservative theology. Our commitment to inclusion means that I try to offer a progressive approach to scripture. In the case of Tabitha’s resurrection, I’m making explicit the possibility of reading resurrection metaphorically but I’m not excluding a literalist reading.
Today’s text says that after Peter arrived, he sent all those widows out of the room and then called to Tabitha to “get up.” The writer of Acts says, “Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.” Our sermon today closes by hovering over these words from Acts: Peter “showed Tabitha to be alive.” In what sense are WE to “show Jesus to be alive”? Perhaps it is up to US to show JESUS to be alive and vital in our lives and moving in this world to create opportunities for deep compassion and justice? If so, our lively faith and work for justice and actions for peace and compassion are the means by which others will be able see that Jesus IS alive today.
What a miracle that might be.
PRAYER: Thank you, God, for showing us signs of life and love in this crazy world. May we be quick help you present to this world signs of life and love. Amen