Monday, April 26, 2010

The 4th Sunday of Easter: Tabitha's Story

The assigned lessons during the season of Easter always gives us a chance to read from the Book of Acts; a book which contains the stories and testimony of the early Church. These stories begin with events just a few weeks after the Resurrection and move forward twenty-some years.

There is a lot going on between the lines in today’s narrative, which otherwise appears to be straight-forward. Let me list out a few of these things:

* The Book of Acts focuses on Peter and Paul. Today’s narrative is part of an arc that refocuses on the Peter’s ministry after a description of Paul’s conversion.

* Acts 9:32-11:18 describes Peter’s role in the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion who is the first Gentile convert to the faith.

* This story arc begins with Peter’s healing of a paralytic, then tells today’s story where Peter is the lead figure in bringing back to life a woman named Tabitha. Both events establish Peter’s credentials to convert a Gentile by demonstrating his works as being like those of the prophets and Jesus Himself.

* The twin cities of Lydda and Joppa lie on the Mediterranean coast and have some historical significance that bears on this arc. Jonah (of Jonah and the whale fame) was in the city of Joppa when God called him to prophesy to the Gentile city of Nineveh. That Peter is in the same city when he receives direction from God to proclaim the Gospel to a Gentile adds additional validation to this sweeping theological and ecclesiastical change in the life of the early Church.

With all of this going on, it might be easy to miss the value of the story itself. Given that, and the addition of the miraculous act of bringing a dead person back to life, it is possible to overlook the very human elements of this story.

There was a disciple in Joppa named Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas and means “gazelle.” Is there significance to referencing her two names? Well, think about Simon, who is also known as Peter, and Saul, whose name is changed to Paul. The mention of a dual name seems to imply status in the life of the early Church. Tabitha’s status is further affirmed by the way the narrative refers to her as being a ‘disciple.’ This is the only instance in the New Testament where the feminine form of the word ‘disciple’ is used. The text goes on to describe her ministry in Joppa. She was (as one translation puts it) “always doing good and helping the poor” or (as the version we heard reads) “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Amongst these good works, it seems Tabitha made clothing for women too poor to afford something to wear.

Every healthy, dynamic faith community has people in it like Tabitha. Often, but not exclusively, they are women who muster the resources and marshal the energy required to offer a significant ministry that meets one or more of the specific needs of the community. These people are the ‘pillars’ of the church. Two things consistently point out who they are. First, everyone marvels at their ministry and, second, everyone wonders how the church would get along without them.

Well, both come into play with Tabitha. Suddenly and without warning she falls ill and dies. Even as her church is overcome with grief, they find the strength to tend to the normal burial requirements of the body and preparing for the final rites. Word comes that the Apostle Peter is staying in nearby Lydda. A small delegation of men is sent to invite Peter to come immediately.

It is not clear to me from the text if they expect Peter to be able to restore Tabitha’s life, or if they want him to attend as a sign of the wider church’s respect and admiration for all that she had done in her ministry. Most commentators understand the request to be an expectation of healing. I tend to see it as more akin to what happens when a prominent member of the parish dies and someone says, “We should let the Bishop know because he may want to attend the funeral.”

When this Bishop arrives the full fruit of Tabitha’s ministry is on display. When Luke retells this story in his grand narrative of the life of the early Church, it is all about establishing Peter’s credentials to proclaim the Gospel to a Gentile, but here, in the moment, it is all about Tabitha and the incredible ministry she offered during her life. A group of widows, who appear to have been the people most blessed by her work, show Peter the clothes and wears that Tabitha made for them. It is a gathering both of grief and celebration: grief over the sudden loss of one so dear and celebration of the incredible blessing she brought to others.

According to a note in the Book of Common Prayer, both responses are appropriate for a person of faith:

The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy [this is why we say the word “alleluia” at a burial even if it takes place in the season of Lent]. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.

The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.
(p. 507)

This pastoral theology is firmly grounded in Tabitha’s story because the early Church experienced both joy and sorrow when she died.

Restoring Tabitha to life is surely the climax of the story, particularly if you focus on how it validates Peter’s Apostolic authority. But keep in mind that the miracle is not the climax of the story as Luke tells it, because for him it is a résumé builder for Peter’s work with the Gentile Cornelius. I think the story of Tabitha reaches a crescendo as everyone gathers to celebrate her life. Its final and fullest climax will come for her only as it does for each of us, at the Resurrection of the Dead. That Peter is able to restore her life augments our faith in the final Resurrection, but this one-time event is no substitute for the real thing, only a dim, brief allusion of it.

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the Gospel readings always point to this aspect of Jesus’ role in our lives. This morning we heard His promise:

My sheep hear My voice. I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of My hand.

We give thanks for people like Tabitha who heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and reached out in love and concern for others; becoming themselves shepherds to those in need. And we give thanks that for Tabitha, for all those we love but see no longer, and (one day) for ourselves, the Good Shepherd’s voice will call out and we, like them, will hear it and not be lost.