Acts 9:36-43 – The resuscitation of Tabitha in Joppa (Peter).

Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd…

Revelation 7:9-17 – The host arrayed in white at the throne: They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd…

John 10:22-30 – 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.

Acts at-a-glance

  • March 27, 2016 – RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD: Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon: They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day. We are witnesses.
  • April 3, 2016 – Easter 2C: Acts 5:27-32 – Peter to the high priest: The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand. We are witnesses.
  • April 10, 2016 – Easter 3C: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) – Saul’s conversion.
  • April 17, 2016 – Easter 4C: Acts 9:36-43 – Peter’s resuscitation of Tabitha in Joppa.
  • April 24, 2016 – Easter 5C: Acts 11:1-18 – Peter’s vision and eating with the uncircumcised.
  • May 1, 2016 – Easter 6C: Acts 16:9-15 –Paul’s vision during the night: A man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, Come to Macedonia and help us. The gospel enters Europe.
  • Thursday, May 5, 2016 or Sunday, May 8, 2016 – ASCENSION OF OUR LORD: Acts 1:1-11– Jesus is lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Note: This is also Mother’s Day in 2016.
  • May 15, 2016 – PENTECOST: Acts 2:1-21 – Day of Pentecost. Roaring wind and tongues of flame.

Acts of Charity

Tabitha Cumi

This Easter I am taking a look at the texts from Acts. Luke is the only gospel writer who includes a second volume to his gospel. Matthew, Mark, and John end their stories with the empty tomb. Luke is the only one who tells us what happened to the disciples afterwards – how the gospel spread to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire.

In Acts 1:8, the risen Christ tells the disciples in Jerusalem to stay in the city where they will be clothed with power from on high with the Holy Spirit. This Spirit will empower them for this purpose: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This theme verse provides the structure for the rest of Acts. We start in Jerusalem, then move out to Judea. In Acts 8, we are in Samaria. Soon we will hear about Paul’s missionary journeys to the ends of the earth.

Last week we heard of Paul’s conversion. He later narrowly escapes Damascus with his life, being lowered out of the city in a basket. Luke then has him going to Jerusalem (conflicting with Paul’s own account, Galatians 1:15-20, which says he spent three years in the desert prior to meeting with the disciples.). The disciples are afraid of Paul, but finally let him in when they learn that he too has had an encounter with the risen Christ.

We are told:

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

It always amazes me when some folks don’t want to look at numbers, since the Scriptures don’t seem to be reluctant to do so. Jesus fed the 5,000. Peter baptized 3,000. In Acts, several times Luke celebrates that the church increased numerically.

The narrative turns then to Peter in Lydda and Sharon, then Joppa. Joppa is on the Western coast of the Mediterranean. It is the city to which Jonah fled and caught a ship out of Dodge when he was supposed to be going to Nineveh.

Peter comes across a woman in Joppa named Tabitha (Aramaic for gazelle) or Dorcas (Greek for gazelle). It is a slave name according to M. Williams (‘Palestinian Personal Jewish Names in Acts,’ in The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting). We get a glimpse of the early church, women, and slaves.

People often had two names, because they lived in a multicultural world. Today in immigrant communities people often have two names as well. Some scholars believe that Saul didn’t change his name from Saul to Paul after his conversion. He used both names all along. It was common for people who lived in two worlds to have two names. Saul was Saul in the Jewish community. He was Paul in the Gentile community.

In the critical essay, “Tabitha: Gazelle of Acts,” scholar Rick Strelan suggests that “gazelle” is a metaphor for someone who operates in two worlds, in this case Jewish and Greek. Palestinian gazelles were not the domesticated, but neither did they live in the wild entirely. They tended to live on the borders of civilization. Both the clean and the unclean could eat gazelle according to Jewish dietary laws (Deut. 12:15 and 12:22-23). They could not be used in temple sacrifice, but they were not unclean like pigs or shrimp. He claims that this text is subtly and artistically setting us up for Peter’s future vision of clean and unclean animals being let down on the sheet. Tabatha, like the gazelle, is neither profane nor holy. She is neutral ground. In Pentecost, God erases the distinctions.

Tabitha is praised for being, “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” I wouldn’t mind being remembered for being devoted to good works and acts of charity. The preacher might ask the congregation how they would like to be remembered. If the answer is for good works and acts of charity, well, there is something we can do about this. Sometimes we who believe in justification by grace through faith, get so caught up in grace it’s almost as if we’re afraid to be known for good works. Heaven forbid our faith should lead us to good works and acts of charity! We sometimes forget that we were created for good works (Eph. 2:10). We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works.

This good, border-crossing, two-worlds disciple of Jesus became ill and died. She was washed and laid out in an upper room, reminiscent perhaps of another upper room earlier in Luke’s narrative. When Peter arrived there were many widows around. They were already quite acquainted with death and loss. Without a man they were considered to have lost in the lottery of life. They have no visible means of support. Desperate, they would have to find benefactors to survive. The text tells us that they were wearing tunics that had been made by Tabitha/Dorcas, their gazelle, who had most likely donated them to these poor widows. She was likely their benefactor. It’s always interesting to see who shows up for the funeral and visitation. It says something about the deceased.

Peter escorted everyone from the room. This is not a show. He probably doesn’t know what is going to happen. He knelt down and prayed, then finally said, “Tabitha, get up.” Perhaps “Talitha cumi” in the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter becomes “Tabitha cumi” in this story. One cannot help but make the comparison.

The raising of Tabitha/Dorcas parallels the raising of the widow’s son by Elijah, 1 Kings 17:17-24, and the raising of the Shunemmite woman’s son by Elisha, 2 Kings 4:8-37. It also gets picked up in the story of Paul’s raising of Eutychus in Troas, Acts 20. This miracle is an authentication of Peter’s ministry. It is an extension of the prophet’s’ ministry and an extension of the ministry of Jesus himself.

The text ends with a few closing remarks that would be easy to miss.

He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

He called together what Luke calls, “the saints and the widows.” Is this an apt description of the early church? Saints are not dead people, but holy people, quite alive. Widows were a community eschewed by their own society, but embraced by the church, as were slaves. Then Peter goes to stay with Simon the tanner. Many tanners were tent makers. Tents were made from animal hides. This was an unclean profession. It was virtually impossible to be ritually clean when working with dead animals. It is said the tanner smelled bad all the time. Paul, Simon, and others likely shared in a trade guild. They made their money in the market, but served as part-time or volunteer leaders in the church. They were a community of the unclean, broken, widowed, slave, and outcasts. Their non-hierarchical, egalitarian community of the lower strata, the nobodies, grew. In the Roman Empire they were nobodies, non-citizens; in the kingdom of God, they were citizens with the saints.

My systematics professor used to make a big deal about the fact that this was not a resurrection, but a resuscitation. The distinction he would make was that Jesus rose to eternal life, in a resurrected body, never to die again. He walked through walls in some accounts. That is resurrection. Tabitha, like Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, will eventually die again. She is simply brought back to life in her current body. This distinction is probably true, but it never much mattered to me. Peter carries on Jesus’ healing ministry in all of its manifold splendor.

These stories point to a reality beyond our experience. They are signs of the hope of the resurrection. Our hearts somehow are attuned to an eternity we cannot see. When the dead are raised, the kingdom is in our midst. We are called to live in the hope of the resurrection, in the hope of the life to come. This changes everything.