Rev. Danielle K. Bartz Acts 9:36-43
When Peter first arrives, it’s an average pastoral care call. The scene, despite being ancient and in a far away place, feels very familiar to me and likely to many of you as well. As a chaplain and then a congregational pastor, I have been in similar rooms. I have seen similar things. This is a typical, or at least it starts that way, pastoral care call. A friend dies and they call the head pastor, in this case Peter. He arrives in haste. I’m sure he was greeted with solemn faces and many tears. I’m sure he was greeted with offers to share a cup of coffee, and, if Joppa is anything like the Midwest, a piece of sweet bread, which always seems to end up in the home where someone is dying. There were hugs and loving touches for all who were grieving. The house appears full of mourners – widows who had received the love and compassion of a woman named Dorcas.
Dorcas, or Tabitha, is a very important person to pay attention to. She is the only woman in the Book of Acts that is referred to as a disciple. Indeed, the Greek word used in this scripture is the only time in the New Testament the feminine form of the word disciple appears. She was not simply a follower. She was not simply someone in the crowd. She was an important leader in the early faith movement of Jesus followers. Her death likely brought tremendous grief. In fact, as a leader in the faith, she probably had followers of her own. People who looked to her for guidance and support. Those gathered in her home were grieving the loss of someone significant. Someone extraordinary. Someone we need to pay attention to.
Once Peter makes his way through this crowd of her followers, those widows begin telling stories. Again, I can’t begin to tell you how familiar this sounds. They started to tell stories. Isn’t that what we do? We tell stories of our loved ones when they are gone. We remember together. And apparently remembering Dorcas meant remembering her craft. We read, “The widows stood beside Peter, weeping and showing him tunics and other clothing that she made while she was with them.” I imagine many were wearing those tunics and clothing.
It seems a wonderful tribute to Dorcas – a living fashion show. The work of her hands walking around while stories are told of her love and compassion. It was the fashion show of her life. They were showing her off by showing off her handiwork.
I am reminded of a story I read some time last year. A woman had died who was a quilter, and the sanctuary for her memorial service was covered in her quilts. In fact, she was such a prolific fabric artist, that there was a quilt for each pew. I loved that story and the accompanying picture. Because when we gather to remember, being surrounding by physical reminders is so comforting. This living fashion show the followers of Dorcas were having is a real, profound testament to their love for her, mirrored by the love she showed them.
But, this familiar scene takes a turn, as does many of the familiar scenes in the Book of Acts. In the midst of the story telling, Peter interrupts them and asks everyone to leave. Peter, now alone, enters the room where Dorcas was. The last time he had done something like this, he wasn’t alone. He was with their friend Jesus and a couple other friends. They entered the room of a young girl who had died. And Jesus told her to get up and she did.
Peter imitated Jesus. He told her to get up. And she did. And then calling the saints and widows – Peter showed them Tabitha. Not the work of her hands, her tunics and clothes, but the work of God’s hand, the work of the Spirit to resurrect, to give life, to re-create, to lift up. Peter now showed them God’s handiwork.
The title given this book by our tradition is Acts, or more precisely, The Acts of the Apostles, and it is a story of that for sure, but not just that. One could also say it is a story of the Acts of God, which would have been a fine heading as well. Actually, the best and most accurate title would have been, The Acts of the Apostles in Response to and with, the Acts of God. The early Christians likely knew this was the case – that this book was more than just the acts of the early apostles, but a dissertation-like title would have taken way too much papyrus, so… Acts it was and Acts it remains.
However short the title, the larger emphasis is important because on every page of this work there is a story where someone… an apostle, a believer, a seeker, an adversary, or the Holy Spirit is acting and acting in response to some other action or incident or hunch or conversation or crisis. Everything and everyone seem connected (because, of course, they are). Chapter upon connected chapter, there is a mystical unfolding where the Church must surely say over and over again, “well, how ‘bout that!!!!” It is surprise upon surprise and new thing upon new thing. God is at work but so too are the awakened ones, each responding to the other.
It’s fitting that, centuries later, we read these texts just after Easter, needing to be caught up again in a reality that is magic and not so mundane. Our heart’s intuition, and the witness of our faith, is that life is very mysterious and abundantly connected and we want to, we need to, step trustfully into that connection as Easter people. Easter life swings on the hinges that there is Something at work beyond our something. The door opens for us with that curious engagement with life, just as it did for the first followers. As we read Acts, we see that the apostles seem to be simply moving from one encounter to another – no grand plans. In many ways, they are continuing with the itinerant life they had started by following Jesus.
Peter was in fact wandering about in chapter nine and makes his way to Lydda where he “found” bed ridden Aeneas, who hops up “immediately” as Peter prays and the healing “turns” many to the new faith, and then there is a miraculous domino to Joppa where Tabitha is raised from the dead, the news of which, understandably, gave rise to further belief. All this happens in just a few paragraphs. But then, it happens like that on every page in Acts… resurrection, faith-turning, belief-raising kinds of things, one act and actor co-mingling with the next in holy synchronicity.
We sort of get the feeling as we read Acts that the whole world seems elevated for a time into the Kingdom of God where the limitations of this our realm are not reigning. There are different rules in that realm… and the Apostles are simply trusting what is happening and those they are encountering are saying, “Well… how ‘bout that!!!”
Actually, there are two miracles in this text from chapter 9 which have a good bit of gospel resonance and reminds us of Jesus’ influence in the lives and ministry of the early apostles. “Get up and roll up your mat,” Peter says to the man paralyzed for many years, echoing the language Jesus uses in chapter five of John. The writer of Acts says he got up, “Immediately… at once” again a mirroring of the healing at the pool and other miracles in the Gospels. The raising of Tabitha has many parallels with Mark 5, where Jesus (the well-known miracle worker) is sent for, enters a house full of mourners who were ordered out of the room, and says “get up,” a command that is obeyed by the deceased. There is clearly a consciousness about the way these stories are told in the early Church. The parallel language is a way to remind all of us, the early hearers of these stories and people gathering in sanctuaries on Sunday mornings that Jesus is still at work. Peter makes this emphasis by saying, “Jesus Christ heals you,” underlining that the Church’s ministry is an extension of the Incarnation. The church’s ministry is the acts of Easter people.
The miracle of Tabitha, who was dead but presented alive, also has obvious spiritual connections to Easter. She was beloved… “always doing good and helping the poor.” The other disciples are gathered by their love and in their pain. This is often the state of God’s people, coming together, banding together because of what the world does to us… to anybody and everybody. We face death together in so many ways and yet we gather and yet we hope for new life. This is our familiar place.
It was electric in those early days. Is it still? Can it still be that way? We do wonder. It is human to wonder. Those early days filled with miracles seem so long ago. So distant to what we have experienced in our lives. But that familiar scene, of women coming together to honor and remember someone they loved, someone who loved them, someone who loved because of her belief in God who was truly made known in the person of Jesus. That familiar story, is not so ancient. And those of us who have witnessed something like it, may have also witnessed our own miracles. Likely our loved ones were not healed, but perhaps families were healed. Perhaps love was remembered. Perhaps a life well lived was celebrated exactly as it should be. Perhaps our miracles are still just as electric as they were long ago.
Acts never really lingers with a miracle story, which also seems important. Someone was raised to new life and lots of folks believed because of it and then the story moves on. For this Eastertide Sunday, it may feel like these miracles, one after another are presented in an “off-the-cuff” way. And, as we read the Book of Acts, it can even feel odd, overwhelming, not real, as each ‘off the cuff’ miracle leads to another. Was that because it was truly an electric time, set apart, a time and space separate from our lives? One that we are likely not able to achieve again? I don’t think so. Those continuous, off the cuff miracles in the midst of very familiar scenes are not all that different from our own lives, if we simply pay attention. Most of the miracles we get are more like “off-the-cuff,” likely not noticed, but still amazing. As Easter people, just like those early disciples with Easter eyes, we can see our own miracles happening over and over again. We can see that we too are moving from one miracle to the next. Rather than simply saying to ourselves, “well, how ‘bout that,” when we encounter our own every day miracles, we instead recognize that we are seeing them as Easter people with Easter eyes. And as Easter people, our cry is alleluia. Amen.