Acts 9:36-43 CEB
In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!” Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.
Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord. Peter stayed for some time in Joppa with a certain tanner named Simon.
What do you need to get up in the morning? Do you have an alarm that plays a blaring blast of discordant sound that sends you tumbling out of bed? Perhaps, you like gentler tones, like your favorite radio station, gently pulling you out of sleep. Maybe, some of you don’t need an alarm at all, after years of habit, your body now rises with the sun without prompting! Now, it could even be that some of us are “up,” but not truly awake until that first cup of coffee hits our systems. We all need a little help in waking up from time to time, and this can be true of both the morning and also waking us up to the kingdom of God that is moving and growing all around us. Tabitha, in our scripture this morning, is just the kind of person we need in order to help us wake up. We are told from the very beginning, that her “life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need.” We are not told this so that we think Tabitha is an exceptionally good person, instead, there is more here in this woman, the only woman to be called a disciple in the Greek New Testament, than we might expect. It is a wake-up call to us to “get up” and see and share in the divine power at work in the kingdom that denies brokenness, illness, disease, loss, and death from having the final word in our lives. Instead, the Tabithas in our midst remind us that it is God’s values that have the ultimate say in our world.
We are only given a good six or so verses about Tabitha, but they reveal a lot about who she was for this community of the Way in Joppa. As I mentioned earlier, her good and compassionate labors were so important, that they are mentioned in the very next breath after her name. If you notice, she has two names in the scripture, Tabitha is her Jewish name and Dorcas is her Greek name. It is a lot like Saul/Paul from last week, as he never stops being Saul, as Saul is the Jewish name and Paul the Greek and Latin one. To be told that Tabitha has a Greek name could mean she had quite the reputation for helping those in need within the wider community of Joppa. We are also told that she is a disciple, in the Greek mathētria, which is the feminine version of the male word for disciple. This is significant as she is the only woman to receive this title in the New Testament! It marks her as not only someone who has labored diligently on behalf of those in need, but that she is a leader within this community of faith! My friends, if anyone ever tries to tell you that the Bible does not support female leadership, they must not have met Tabitha because she was already leading back in the days of Peter and Paul!
What makes her a surprising leader is not just that she is woman but also a widow. Being female was hard enough in the ancient Greek and Roman world as you were not as highly valued as your male counterparts. In addition, being without a husband automatically thrusts her onto the margins of society as she has no male to care for her. Tabitha though is not content with this status quo, so she sews clothing for those in need and provides financial support for her community of faith. She is a cornerstone of her community, and it shows. When she gets sick and dies, the grief is immediate. The other widows, her friends, care for her body and mourn her passing. Immediately, runners go from Joppa to nearby Lydda where Peter has just raised someone else from the dead, asking this disciple to come quickly to see Tabitha. He lays down everything and goes with them immediately!
If nothing else, the death of Tabitha and its impact upon the community is where we can all connect with this story this morning. There is not a single one of us, good or bad, young or old, rich or poor that has not been touched by illness, disease, brokenness, and death. No matter the advances of science or the faithfulness of the community, these things intrude upon our lives and leave their mark. As with any life, rather than Tabitha’s good works, it can feel like her death has the final say. We can all sit around and say, “Oh well, that’s the way life goes, death gets us all in the end.” These things can feel like the norm, and Tabitha’s good life the exception, but that is not where our scripture this morning leaves us. Rather than letting us slip into lethargy and sleep of accepting that death simply is normal, God’s presence in our story is like the alarm, clamoring to get our attention and wake us up to something we have ignored!
Namely, while Tabitha does die, she also lives. This community in Joppa, not satisfied with the status quo of death and loss, became a community of healing, reaching out to Peter for something different. You may notice that while Tabitha is dead, they have not anointed her body. She has not been wrapped in grave linens. They have not buried her! Instead, they act prayerfully to reach out to Peter, and he rushes to their side, going into the upper room where she lies and he prays. He then says to her, “Tabitha, get up!” My friends, Tabitha does not remain stay lying down, rather she lifts herself up and goes with Peter so that all may see that she is not dead but alive!
Now, it is true that Tabitha did ultimately pass away as she is not with us now, but at the same time, is Tabitha truly dead? To answer this, I look to her friends, the widows from that day. They are there with Peter, “crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.” Here, the Greek that gets translated as “showed” (epideiknymenia) indicates that those widows are wearing the very clothes that Tabitha made. They show Peter who she was, not through titles but through her very labors, the fruits of which her friends and fellow widows wear. My friends, who do we know like this in our own community of faith? I do not think we would have to look very hard to see the fruits of their labors in our midst. There are banners made by hand. Candles and crosses that bear the names of those who gifted them. Prayer shawls adorn shoulders, and others wait to be delivered. All these things bear names familiar and unfamiliar: Kit, Helen, Joan, Peggy, Virginia, Carol Ann, Ruth, Nancy, and many others. Tabitha is raised from the dead because God is saying to us clearly that these things that would seek to tear us, break us, and kill us do not win. Tabitha is raised because the divine values of compassion, of caring for the needy, of doing good, and of healing are alive and will never die. They should be the cornerstone of our community of faith like Tabitha was the cornerstone for her community.
The ministries of our people in our communities of faith are good for more than simply accumulating dusty plaques and filling church history books with names that not everyone notices and reads. Miracles of the people of God and God's values on display in the house of God are not simply wonders for us to appreciate and behold, but instead, they are places where God’s grace and power are breaking through the status quo to enter this world and touch our lives. They are the places where the kingdom of heaven has taken root and is growing! They are the signs that draw us to Christ Jesus as our Savior, not just a savior from future death but a savior who breaks the power of all things seeking to destroy our lives here and now! They point us toward healing in finding wholeness in God’s kingdom and through the community of Jesus found in the body of Christ. The Tabithas in our midst are our wake-up call to this kingdom and to this God, these are the type of people who are “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6 NRSV)! We praise these ministries and these fruits because they plant the seeds of the kingdom and point the way to our God.
My friends, can we echo Tabitha today? We can answer the call of God whether it comes through a disciple like Peter or someone else? Will we answer when another, through the Holy Spirit, calls out to us, “Get up!” Can we rise up today? Can we deny the norm? Can we deny the power of death, brokenness, illness, loss, and disease? These are the things that would seek to put a period on the kingdom, a period on the new thing that Christ started so long ago and has continued through people like Tabitha ever since. I tell you now, today on Mother’s Day, is a good day to mention the women, those who mothered our church, because friends, I tell you truly I do not know where the church would be if not for the women who have formed the backbone of our communities of faith. Without their mother, Susanna Wesley’s influence, there would have been no Methodist movement through John or Charles. Without the women laity who preached and taught at the early camp meetings and churches in this country before it was even a nation, there would be no United Methodist church today. I am sure the same is true of the Presbyterians! We do not have to look hard to find Tabitha because God will never let the values of compassion, good works, and care for the needy die, so let us now look for them and then finding them alive, let us echo the call, defy the norm, and let our labors show that we are living into a different way today. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman