Rising Strong: Tabitha
For the last several weeks, as we’ve journeyed through this season of Easter, these days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday (which we’ll celebrate in June,) we’ve been talking together about the unfolding story of the Resurrection. Sometimes we think of the Resurrection Jesus as a one time thing – a fixed event that just happens and we’re done with it. We sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and we mean that day, Easter day, and then we move on to the next thing. But I hope we as we’ve spent these weeks with the Resurrected Jesus, seeing how the message of Resurrection sinks into the disciples and transforms them bit by bit, you’ve come to better understand why we call ourselves “Easter People,” and why Easter is a whole season, not just a day. Resurrection isn’t something that we can check of our to-do list – “done.” It is ever unfolding in our lives.
Today is the last Sunday in our “Rising Strong” sermon series, and we shift gears a bit. Our text from today takes place after Pentecost, after the Ascension where Jesus returns to the heavens, in the midst of stories about how the disciples carry out the good news and the message of Jesus as they build what we come to know as the Church. We’ve seen Jesus take his time with the disciples, helping them understand the message of resurrection and new life, and now we get to see how they live it out.
Our text today opens in a city in Israel called Joppa. We’re told that there’s a disciple there named Tabitha – in Greek, her name is Dorcas. And she is devoted to good works and acts of charity. Already, we’ve been told something significant. Tabitha is called a disciple. The word used here is the feminine form of the word used for the Twelve disciples of Jesus. And this word in this form – it’s extremely rare. It’s only used a couple of places in all of the Ancient Greek texts together, and this is the only place this word appears in the Bible. Tabitha is the only woman who is specifically given the label disciple, even though we can look back and recognize the discipleship of other women who followed Jesus. Tabitha’s discipleship is such that even Luke can’t deny it. She’s a special woman, and her discipleship is demonstrated in good works and acts of charity.
Unfortunately, the reason we hear about her is because she dies. Tabitha dies, and those who loved her prepare her body and lay her out in the upper room of the house. Tabitha is apparently a part of a community of widows, and it is these widows, her friends, who hear that Simon Peter is staying nearby, and they decide to send and ask him to come and see Tabitha.
Peter agrees to come. And when he arrives and is taken to Tabitha’s body, Luke, author of Acts, tells us, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that [she] had made while she was with them.” I just love that verse. It’s just so real. There’s something so precious about it. I can exactly picture it. The tears of grief, the pride, the love. “See what she made?! She was so talented. She took care of so many people. She was such a sweet disciple of Jesus.” And I can imagine Peter taking it all in, how much this woman meant to this little community of faith.
At our Supper & Study this week, we speculated about why the widows wanted Peter to come and see Tabitha, even though she had died. I don’t think they were expecting or hoping for the miracle that was about to take place. So why did they want Peter to come? We talked about how maybe the friends of Tabitha knew that Peter, the most notable of all the disciples of Jesus, was nearby, and their friend, a faithful servant of Jesus, had died, and they just wanted to show their “best person,” so to speak, to this renowned disciple Peter. It would be like if Billy Graham had been making a visit to Gouverneur, Don Schuessler suggested, and we wanted to show off to him our most devoted follower of Jesus, because of how proud we were of them, how inspired we were by them. We’d want the holy, faithful servant we know to meet this special church leader.
I think about the fact that even though I’ve been here just three years, there are stories now that I can tell about parishioners I’ve never met. I can tell you some stories about Tim Stowell, or Stanley Brown, or Lauren Finley (Dorothy Hurlbut) and many others, even though I never knew them. I could talk about them as if I knew them, because their discipleship has shaped you as a congregation, and it was important to you that I knew about them, about how they impacted your faith and how they shaped the life of this congregation. Who they were is important to who you are today. Their lives shaped yours. And I think that’s what’s going on here in Acts. Tabitha was a disciple. Her life was full of good works and charity. And her friends, people whom Tabitha looked after with love and care – their lives were shaped by Tabitha and they couldn’t help but want to share her influence on them.
But Peter doesn’t just pray with them, and admire the tunics Tabitha had made. Instead, he orders everyone out of the room. And after he prays, he turns to the body of Tabitha and says, “Tabitha, get up.” And she does. She opens her eyes, she sees Peter, and she sits up. He takes her hand and helps her stand. And then, finally, Peter calls everyone back in and shows that Tabitha is alive. Word spreads, and people come to believe in Jesus because of the amazing thing that Peter has done. And with that, our scene is done. This is the only time we hear of Tabitha in the scriptures. But I imagine that she returns to her life of discipleship, of good works and charity, with even more gusto than before.
As I mentioned, Luke is the author of Acts as well as, of course, the gospel of Luke. And if you check out Luke 8, you’ll probably notice a Bible story that sounds pretty similar to what we just read. In Luke 8, Jesus raises a young girl, the daughter of a man named Jairus, from the dead. But the similarities don’t stop there. In both stories, there are messengers that go between the place of the deceased and the one called in to help, in both we see weeping bystanders, in each story, Jesus, and then Peter tell others to wait outside – they don’t get to witness the raising. In both, the raising happens with a simple command. “Young girl, get up.” “Tabitha, get up.” The words for young girl even sound like the name Tabitha. And in both, Jesus, and then Peter, take the hand of the woman they’ve raised. There are too many parallels to be accidental.
Luke is trying to tell us something here. Luke makes sure to show us how the work that Peter is doing now, after the Resurrection of Jesus, after the receiving of the Holy Spirit, even after Jesus is no longer physically present to direct Peter – what Peter is doing now is an embodiment of the work of Jesus. The power that Jesus had is now in Peter and the other apostles. The work of Jesus didn’t die, but is alive, just as Jesus didn’t die, but was resurrected. The work of God is alive and on the move. That’s what Luke most wants us to know, and why Tabitha is raised, even though she eventually will die again, even though Peter does not raise every faithful follower of Jesus he encounters who dies. Luke is showing us that Peter is doing the work of Jesus.
Friends, I believe that we are called to step into that role too. If we, too, are disciples, then we, too, embody Jesus, and we, too, are given the power of the Holy Spirit to do amazing things in the world and to be people who announce and labor for and cultivate and live out new life and resurrection in the world. How can we do that? How are we agents of resurrection and life in the world on behalf of Jesus whom we follow? It’s a tough question, because I know that God has never given me the sense that I would be able to, in God’s name, raise someone from the dead. I don’t think God means for me to do that, and I’m suspecting that God doesn’t mean for most of you to do that either, outside those of us who have callings to medical professions!
So, what can we do? Eric Barreto writes, “‘Many believed in the Lord.’ However, [that] belief does not emerge from a dazzling display of power. Belief is rooted in hope and in trust. So, when the residents of Joppa see Tabitha restored to life, they do not join this community of believers so much because they are stunned by this miraculous act of healing but because of what it might mean for them and for the world. If death is no longer a barrier between us, can we dare hope that the ills that plague us, our families, and our communities might also be healed by a God who cares so deeply for us?” (1)
Part our hope as people of faith, disciples of Jesus, is knowing that even without a miraculous resurrection, death cannot, does not, conquer life. We are actively shaped today by the discipleship of people whose time on earth has long come and gone. Isn’t that incredible? But we aren’t just shaped by disciples like Peter. We’re shaped by Tabitha too. Peter was a preacher, and traveled, and was a leader in the young church, and he even raised people from the dead. And Tabitha was a widow who supported other widows and sewed clothing, who did good works and who lived a charitable life. In some ways, they were so very different from each other. And yet they both bore the title “disciple.” They both made sure they put the gifts and talents they had in use to the service of God. We remember them both. Today, in fact, there are still groups of woman who call themselves “Dorcas Societies” or “Dorcas Circles” who focus on good works through preparing clothing for people in need. One of the circles of United Methodist Women at my childhood church was known as the Dorcas circle. She left a legacy of discipleship – different than Peter’s, certainly. But so meaningful, and in fact maybe more accessible to some than Peter’s more grandiose works. We can live the lives of faith that impact the people around us, now and into the future.
We are Easter people, people of resurrection and new life. And we don’t quit being Easter people after Easter day or even the Easter season is over. No – everyday, we seek to cultivate hope in a world where so many feel hopeless. I wonder – when someday your time in this life is through – what will folks show of you? What’s the legacy of hope and life that you’re creating? We are Easter people. Let’s spend our lives cultivating resurrection. Amen.
(1) Barreto, Eric, The Working Preacher,