April 26, 2007 Leave a comment
4 Easter Yr C, 29/04/2007
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“The Raising of Tabitha-Dorcas”
Thomas Heafey, an undertaker, doesn’t know who was more surprised—himself or the young boy he caught.
Heafey, owner of Heafey and Heafey Mortuaries, returned from a hospital call to what should have been a darkened storage building behind the funeral home.
Deciding to find out why a light was coming from the building where racks of coffins are stored, he opened the front door and two boys bolted out the back. Heafey gave chase but the nimble boys cleared a brick wall and made their escape.
Heafey returned to the building and noticed a coffin sitting in the middle of the floor. Its lid was closed.
“All of a sudden the lid popped open and a kid popped out. I think I was more surprised than he was,” Heafey said. “I’d never had one open on me like that.”
He held the startled 12-year-old youth until police arrived. “He just said one of his friends said they could come in there,” Heafey said. “They must have been playing dead, just having a lot of fun.”1
In today’s passage from Acts nine, Tabitha also called Dorcas, was not playing dead, nor were those who knew and loved her having a lot of fun. Rather, Tabitha had become ill and then died. The widows of Joppa who knew and loved Tabitha were filled with grief. How would they go on? Who would take Tabitha’s place? Obviously Tabitha was a leader in the Christian community of Joppa. This is true for several reasons. First, she is described by Luke as “a disciple.” This is quite telling in the Greek text. According to biblical scholar Gail O’Day: She is the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of “disciple” (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.2 For Luke to give Tabitha the title of “disciple” I don’t think is an accident or a mistake. Rather, Luke is underscoring her role as a respected leader in the Church at Joppa.
Second, Luke tells us that: “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” This description of Tabitha’s ministry indicates that she was a woman of means, a benefactor or philanthropist in the community, perhaps a businesswoman, making a living as an accomplished seamstress. Her “good works and acts of charity,” according to Luke involved the making of tunics and other clothing and distributing them to the widows of Joppa. The widows in society at that time were often poor, that is why elsewhere in the Bible people of faith are instructed to care for them. No wonder the widows were grief-stricken at Tabitha’s death, especially so if she had looked after some of their physical needs as well as being an inspiration to them spiritually. Tabitha’s “good works and acts of charity” have also been an inspiration to women of the Church down through the ages. Often it has been women who have found creative ways to minister to the poor widows of every age, including ours. Even right here in our congregation of Grace Lutheran, you who are widows have proven to be an inspiration to many people through your “good works and acts of charity,” and may our Lord continue to bless you for all you have done and continue to do, which I’m sure he has and does!
Third, the importance of Tabitha is emphasised by Luke as he describes how the Christian community in Joppa care for her dead body. We are told: “When they washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.” This was in preparation for her burial and an act of love and respect on the part of the Christian community. Perhaps as Tabitha’s body was laid in state in that room upstairs, many of the community members observed a wake and shared stories of how she had touched their lives. In our society, one way we show love and respect for our dead loved ones is to have their bodies prepared in a dignified way and then have them laid in state.
Fourth, Tabitha was indeed an important person in the Christian community of Joppa because two men were sent from there to the nearby town of Lydda to request the apostle Peter to come with them back to Joppa “without delay.” This request to return with Peter “without delay” may indicate that the Christians at Joppa still had not given up hope that perhaps Tabitha could be raised back to life. Some of them may have been told of the special mission Jesus had given the apostles in Matthew 10:8, when he commanded them to: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” It seems that the twelve apostles were given this special gift to raise the dead, and word of this had spread to communities like Joppa. So it was perhaps with this in mind, along with the knowledge of other stories of Jesus raising the dead Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter that the Christians of Joppa still had a glimmer of hope that their beloved Tabitha could be raised from the dead.
At any rate, we are told by Luke that Peter was receptive to the two men from Joppa. Upon hearing their request, Peter responded immediately, he: “got up and went with them.” Such a response on Peter’s part bears witness to his faithfulness as a follower of Jesus, he obeys the command to “love one another.” Peter could have told these strangers to “get lost,” dismissing them as not important enough to warrant his attention. He could have been sceptical of their request, not taking it as a legitimate one. He could have doubted that he was able to help them in this situation. However, he does not. He received the strangers, listened attentively to their request, and then responded by believing them and agreeing to go with them to Joppa. In this respect, Peter is a model disciple for us all, to love one another by serving compassionately those in need.
As the story unfolds, Peter arrives at Joppa, meets with the grief-stricken widows who show him the lovely work of Tabitha, then he asks them to leave the room. Perhaps moved by the love of these widows for Tabitha, Peter “knelt down and prayed.” By giving us this detail of the story, Luke is emphasising that Peter turns to his risen Lord for help in this situation. It is not Peter who raised Tabitha from the dead. Rather, it is the risen Lord, working in and through Peter who raised her. Tabitha is raised from the dead, and, in response, Luke tells us: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”
Today it is not likely that we can raise people to life from the dead. However, miracle stories like this encourage us in our faith and hope. Where situations seem hopeless, the risen Christ still comes to us, working in and through his people of faith by his word and sacrament, deeds of loving kindness, and prayer. Today as we participate in the healing service, Christ is present to give us new life, new hope, and healing whether it be mental, emotional, physical or spiritual, whether it be immediately and obvious or gradually and mysterious—for in him is resurrection and life. Amen.
1 Unfortunately I have lost the source of this story.
2 Gail O’Day, “Acts,” in Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, The Women’s Bible Commentary (London & Louisville, KY: SPCK & Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 309.