That’s what the stories keep showing us, over and over, throughout the season of Easter. Apostles, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, acting in the powerful name of Jesus, are saying and doing what Jesus, during his earthly ministry, said and did. The risen Christ is rising up, ascending into all of creation, through the actions of those who know and love the Lord.
So, in some ways, the book of Acts is predictable. What Jesus has already done in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ followers now do in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus called the disciples away from their nets; the Apostles call together a community in which everyone shares all that they have. Jesus cleanses a leper and heals a paralyzed man; Peter heals a crippled beggar and a paralyzed man. Jesus is challenged by the religious authorities; the apostles are thrown into prison. Jesus is brought before the Council, before Pilate and Herod and made to testify to his actions; Stephen is called before the Council to account for the acts of the apostles. Both are put to death, but the community around them continues to grow and grow and grow.
Then comes this story of the raising of Tabitha from the dead, and we are met with elements both predictable and unexpected. Once again we have a story in which the apostles are empowered to act as Jesus did. So, as Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain; as he raised Jairus’ daughter by taking her hand and calling to her, “Child, get up;” now Peter is called to raise a woman in Joppa.
Those are the familiar elements of this story. But there are some odd features to this story as well. First of all, we are told the woman’s name. She isn’t “the widow’s son,” or “Jairus’ daughter,” or “the woman with an issue of blood.” She is Tabitha in the Aramiac, and Dorcas in the Greek. She was a woman who was notable enough that she was known by name, not only among the believers, but in the among the Gentiles as well.
So, we might think, she must have really been somebody. Perhaps a wealthy woman, or the wife of someone powerful. But that isn’t what we’re told. This woman, Tabitha, isn’t defined by scripture as anyone’s daughter, or wife, or sister, or mother. She doesn’t matter because of the man she is related to. Instead, she is described as someone who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). Like all who follow Jesus, she is now known for her acts.
This is odd, and perhaps even troubling for Lutherans, who are constitutionally averse to any whiff of works righteousness. We are trained to immediately discount any notion that our actions have any relationship to God’s saving power, which comes to us by grace through faith. So, to all you dyed in the wool Lutherans out there, I simply say, “wait and see.” These acts are important, Tabitha’s good works and charity, and the fact that they are described here makes this healing miracle different from most others, where very little is said about the person being raised.
Once Tabitha had died, scripture says “they” washed her and laid her out in an upper room. Then the disciples, who are in Joppa, call for Peter, who is in Lydda where he has just healed a paralyzed man named Aeneas. But our English language obscures an important feature of the story. If you read the text in English, it says that the “disciples” called for Peter. If you read it in Greek, you see immediately that the noun for “disciples” has been rendered in the feminine form, indicating that the disciples who called for Peter were a community of women.
That may not seem terribly unusual to you, here, today. We’re finally, perhaps, a generation or two removed from debates in the church about the role of women. This congregation has had women serve as ushers, lectors, Council members (even chairs), and pastors. There is no role in this community that is not open to women and men alike.
But that has not always been the case here. If you don’t already know the stories, you should ask one of the bold women among us who were here back in the day when the ushers and Council members and pastors were all men. They remember those stories, because they were here for them. And some of you have come to this congregation from communities where women still are not allowed to preach or to lead on the same terms as men. Some of you have told me that one of the reasons you’ve chosen to raise your children here at St. Luke’s is so that your daughters as well as your sons hear from the earliest age that there are no barriers to the forms of service they can offer to God and to God’s people on account of who they are, or who they become.
Those are the kind of women who surround Tabitha’s bed, women the scriptures explicitly call “disciples.” What’s more, these women, these disciples, call for Peter with what I think we have to call an attitude of expectation. Unlike the widow at Nain, who wandered into Jesus path with her dead son; unlike Jairus, who called for Jesus while his daughter was still alive; these women see Tabitha dead, they wash her body, they lay her out in the upper room, then they call for Peter, because they already know that God is at work in this apostle acting powerfully to bring life and healing to people and places left for dead. They have an expectation of resurrection.
I actually think that expectation is the beginning of this miracle. Had these women, these disciples, been of the mind that the world was limited to what they’d always seen and known, then they would not have called for Peter. They would have cried sorrowful tears and anointed Tabitha for burial and seen her to the grave. They would have preached a nice homily about what a devoted and generous woman she was, and then buried her in the ground. But that is not what the women gathered around Tabitha do. Instead, believing that God had been set loose when the stone had been rolled back from the cave; believing that Jesus had delivered on his promises, and that there was indeed an Advocate blowing wildly through the world and acting on their behalf, they call for Peter with an expectation of resurrection.
Without this expectation, there would have been no miracle. Without the apparently crazy conviction that the world as it is is not the world as it will be, nothing new can happen, no new life can begin.
Sisters and brothers, don’t we need to hear this message today? After this week?
Aren’t you tempted to give up? Doesn’t it seem like things are only getting worse? Like the world as it is is the world as it will always be? Doesn’t it make you want to put your head down and wait for it all to be over?
The miracle of new life begins when the disciples act with an expectation of resurrection. They call on Peter, who calls on Jesus. We don’t hear it in this story, but in the one that immediately precedes it. Peter gets a paralytic man back on his feet calling out to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” It is so like the words Jesus used when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, whom he said was only sleeping, “Child, get up!” Before the name of Jesus, the powers of this world — sexism, violence, even the laws that govern life and death — are powerless.
I needed to hear that this week. I suspect you did as well.
So, expecting a resurrection, the women disciples in Joppa call for Peter. Once he arrives we are told “the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39)
Again, the English here hides something from us. The verb we translate as “showing” tunics and other clothing indicates that the widows are actually wearing the garments that they are showing Peter. They are dressed in Tabitha’s good works. They are robed in her righteousness.
There’s an interesting progression of descriptors of these women that I wonder about. First there is a woman, a female disciple, named Tabitha. Then there are the disciples, who are women, who call for Peter. Now there are widows standing next to the body. First a woman, with a name, who is the occasion for a miracle. Then women, named disciples, who expect resurrection in their lives. Then widows, draped with dignity, gathered around a woman they clearly love.
Widows, whom scripture tells us again and again were among the least powerful and most vulnerable people in the society of Jesus’ time because they had no man, no household, to care for them, gather in the upper room. Widows, the least powerful and most vulnerable, know the power of the risen Lord and call for Peter to heal their friend, Tabitha. The way the story is told, it’s almost impossible to tell: were the widows also the female disciples? Was Tabitha one of them? If so, where did she get the goods to craft the clothing that the other widows wore?
Remember, all the believers were living in community, sharing all that they owned and distributing it as each had need. In that kind of community, in a community of radical sharing, it might be harder to tell who was a woman of means and who was a widow, since all were being cared for, and loved, and highly regarded.
I suspect the miracle started that far back. Long before Tabitha died. Even before she started stitching together the clothes those widows wore as their testimony to the power of the Lord of Life. I think the miracle started when women and men, rich and poor, found a new way of living together that made sure everyone was fed, everyone was clothed, everyone was cared for.
For a woman, a widow, a paralyzed man, that kind of community would be a miracle in and of itself — and I don’t just mean then, I mean now. When I think about the community of shared goods that marks the followers of Jesus in the book of Acts, I can’t help but think of the rummage sale and the potlucks and spaghetti suppers. I can’t help but think about the women here, really, who take the remnants and cast-offs of other people’s lives and turn them into resources for those who are making do with less in these difficult economic times.
Like Tabitha, these women have names. They are Betty, Pat, Judi, Dorothea, Dea, Kay and Hope. There is always hope. And these women know what it means to stand gathered around something abandoned, something left for dead, with the expectation of resurrection. Their lives are a witness.
In the end, Tabitha’s good works and acts of charity aren’t forms of works righteousness, they are signs of the reign of God come near. She does not earn God’s healing power as a reward for all that she has done anymore than the son of the widow at Nain, or the daughter of Jairus. God heals Tabitha because God heals. And Tabitha performed works of charity because, called by the Holy Spirit into community, these works were the sign of the new life that slipped out of the grave along with Jesus as a testimony of hope that the world as it is is changing. People are being fed and clothed, with food and with dignity.
It’s been a long, hard week. It has felt like the kind of nightmare from which you seem to wake up, only to find yourself in the next layer of the dreaming. But Jesus comes to us under many names — Peter, Tabitha, Betty, Hope — and shakes us from our slumber. Get up and make your bed. The sun is rising.