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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=136


 

Easter 4 Year C (April 17, 2016)                                      St James', Peace River

One of the things I most enjoy about the book of Acts is the way that it moves us from Jesus' relationship with the apostles, to the next ring in the expanding circle – the people who came to believe in Jesus and to join his movement, after Easter and even after Jesus had left the scene and ascended into heaven. Some of them might be people who had heard or seen Jesus during his public career of preaching and healing, but others join the first generation of the church because they see what the apostles (people like Peter, James and John) are doing in the name of Jesus. And maybe some sought out the first Jesus community just because of the buzz – people were talking about it, and it sounded like a place you might want to belong, or where you could get the help you needed.

The thing about this next-ring-in-the-circle group of people is that they feel so much more accessible to us. Even though in our heads we know that the very first disciples were people like us, too – coming from a range of backgrounds, not especially spiritual or theologically minded, not always finding it easy to get what Jesus was saying – in the light of the whole story we still recognize them as giants and legends. But the second generation of Christians sound a whole lot more like “just folks”. They were moved to do things, sometimes beyond their comfort zone, because they chose to respond to what God had done in Jesus. And the shape of their response fits a lot more closely into the category of things we can imagine ourselves doing.

The first deacons, in Acts 6, stepped up to make sure that the poorest of those connected with the church were getting fed regularly. Barnabas, who becomes a bigger part of the story later on, first appears to us in Acts 4, when he sells a field that he owned because he wants to put the proceeds to work in supporting the ministry the apostles have begun. And today, in Acts 9, we just met Tabitha, who some people know better by her Greek name Dorcas. She is remembered for sewing! Though as we read between the lines, we can see that she provided more than just clothing for the widows of Joppa, she was their friend; and in fact sometimes when I read this passage I think of it as the first recorded ACW meeting in history, as it was the group of Tabitha's friends who nurtured the life of the church in that place.

Each of these Easter people did things that we can see ourselves doing, when we act on our conviction that Jesus is alive and making a difference in the world we live in. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are people in this room, both women and men, who remind me very much of Tabitha. The gifts of your time, energy, and compassion, given without even thinking about what you might want to hold back for yourself, bring people together, have a huge impact on the lives of their recipients, and make people think that there might be something to this resurrection business after all. I was going to say, “You know who you are,” but the irony is that the reverse is actually true. You probably don't know who you are, but the people sitting next to you do. They see the spirit of the living Jesus in you.

That's what we're here for. That is why there is a church – so that the new and lasting life of Jesus can continue to have a human expression that reaches into every corner of existence in this world. In that respect, we really are no different from Tabitha and Barnabas and all the other Easter people of the book of Acts. Twenty centuries of water under the bridge doesn't matter. That's something it's crucial to understand about Easter and Jesus' resurrection. He is as alive now as he was then – his life expresses itself in us just as much and just as strongly as it did in them. In the words of the Easter canticle, “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again, death has no more dominion over him,” but then of course neither does getting old or getting tired – his message, his love, his power, is as fresh and new right now when it comes to life in us, as it was in the 1st century when people first had the chance to encounter it. That's one reason why we can see the family resemblance with people like Tabitha, if we look at ourselves and each other closely enough.

There is, though, another side to Tabitha's story, and another way in which she is just like all of us. It's the sad part. She dies. No getting away from it – that's part of our life story too. Being part of the church, part of the Easter people, part of the new life of Jesus, doesn't take that away. Sad, difficult and wrong experiences are part of our human condition. The story of Jesus, the story of the Bible, and the story of Tabitha don't tell us any different. But those stories do add something beyond what we already know, and in the case of Tabitha there are a couple of things to notice.

One is that the sadness isn't hers alone. In the story as we have it, it's not really hers at all, though we can imagine that as she became ill she might have had some regrets and some fears. What we see, though, is the people around her missing her already, and saddened by her death. She leaves a big hole in their lives. There's a kind of irony there in the experience of the Easter people. Jesus' resurrection turns death itself into a gateway to something much more wonderful, to the point where Christians have sometimes tried to teach ourselves not to grieve. And yet, precisely to the extent that someone's life has already reflected the new life of Jesus, their impact on us is enormous, and their dying takes away a great gift. In some ways it may be a relief to look at this story about the church in Joppa and realize that they saw nothing wrong in mourning their loss.

Even in their mourning, though, Jesus is living and active. Their sorrow brings them together, and it's when Christians come together that we really know Jesus is present (as he promised he would be). And maybe some among them would know the story of Lazarus, Jesus' friend who died, and realize that Jesus was present so that he could weep with them too. And then suddenly, just as it happened in Lazarus' story, something wild happens. Tabitha, the dead woman, is alive again.

I don't know what you think of that. Maybe the easiest thing to do would be to shrug it off and say, “Well, people back then believed all sorts of things.” Or to say that there must have been some rational explanation – she was in some state that mimicked death in a way that people of the time couldn't distinguish. Of course you can go the other direction and say this is something you just have to believe, because the Bible tells me so. I don't think there's anything wrong with wondering, questioning and doubting something like this – seeing that the Bible also tells us that the apostles themselves doubted and questioned Jesus' own new life even when they could see him right in front of them. We have to do that: we have to wrestle with our own incapacity to explain or even understand what God did in raising Jesus from the dead, if we are ever going to be people ourselves in whom Jesus can be newly alive.

And I think something of that kind is what was going on in Joppa. I notice that, just before it happened, Peter put everyone out of the room and prayed. I can tell you I've never prayed that someone dead would come back to life, but it's been close. I've been in a few places where someone was as near death as they could be. And there are times when I've prayed that they would come back to a healthy and happy life, and other times when I've prayed that God would welcome them home, to the life beyond this one. It's not that I have predictive powers or any great medical insight, all I can really do is try to see what God is doing and pray along with it, knowing full well that I can get it wrong, but God won't.

I imagine Peter must have been in a place like that. And being who he was, he was open to the extraordinary possibility that God would set death aside, just this once. It wouldn't make sense for God to do that as a matter of routine – God already has a normal way of dealing with death, and that is the general resurrection to eternal life which we all look forward to together. But God has also shown us, in people like Tabitha and Lazarus and of course Jesus himself, that death does not have a hold on us in this life either. It is not the boss; God is.

So the story tells us that God answered Peter's prayer, and believe me, I don't think that prayer was, “Send Tabitha back to us because we need her to sew some more dresses!” It must have been something more like, “Bring Tabitha back to life, as you choose to do, so that I and all these people will know we have nothing to fear.” That's what God wants us to know, and that's what God means when God does inexplicable and unbelievable things. If Jesus is alive (and he is!), then even that one power which we thought controlled all our lives – death – is not as powerful as we thought. And if we don't need to be afraid of that, then nothing else can really get a hold on us either.

I can only wonder what Tabitha's time was like after the story we heard today. Although the story they told about her is pretty amazing, in a way for her I suppose nothing changed. She was living the new life of Jesus just as much before the story as she was after. She had already faced all her fears. If anything had changed, it was for the people around her, for her church. Because of her, they also knew that they could be bold in giving themselves away, that they did not have to fear the worst, that they could live the new life of Jesus without needing to hold anything back. And because of her, we know that too, but maybe even better – we know that there are people just like her right here, showing us and our community the same things. And maybe, though you probably don't know it, God is making you a person like that. I pray that that's true, and I hope you will too.