May 12, 2019, 4th Sunday of Easter Year C, Acts 9:36-43
This week our first reading from the book of Acts tells the story of Tabitha. A female disciple of Jesus who we read was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Well, at least she was devoted to those things until she became ill and died. When she died her friends and coworkers in the gospel did what we too do when we lose a beloved friend and colleague – they grieved. They washed her body to prepare her for burial and they laid her in a room upstairs in her house so people could come by to pay their respects.
Our focus in this story of the early church tends to zero in on what happens next though. The other disciples hear that Peter is nearby Joppa in Lydda and so they send two men to him with a request to come to Joppa without delay. They didn’t say why, but in their grief they reach out to Peter who gets their message and returns with the two messengers. When he arrives they take him up to the room where Tabitha’s body is located. There her friends, the widows whom she served, weep and show Peter how well she cared for them by making clothing for them. Then comes the part of the story we remember most. Peter sends them all outside, kneels down to pray, and says, “Tabitha, get up.” And she does.
We likely believe this to be the most important part of the story because although we know Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, this is the first we read of a disciple of his doing the same. Jesus is the Son of God so that is behavior we would expect from him, but Peter? He’s a mere disciple of Jesus and not always a very impressive one, at that. Remember his three time denial of his identity as a follower of Jesus as Jesus is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death? Remember how he and the others hid away to preserve their own safety after the crucifixion and even still after the resurrected Jesus appears to them and sends them into the world to share the good news of the resurrection? Peter isn’t exactly a glowing example of a disciple one might think could achieve such a feat of faith. And yet we read that he raises Tabitha from the dead after he prays. It is an impressive act and one that is worthy of our attention. However, I think in focusing so much on Peter in this reading we overlook the importance of the one whom he raises from the dead – Tabitha.
There isn’t much said about Tabitha here other than she was a disciple who was devoted to good works and acts of charity, just as I’m sure many of the disciples of Jesus in the early church were from what we read in the book of Acts about those early Christians. Yet, look at the devotion the other disciples had for her. How they care for her body in death, how they grieve and invite others into the space to join in grieving for her, and how they show off the many fruits of her labor in caring for them as widows – those whom most of society forgot about in their day, but not Tabitha. It seems Tabitha took great care in making clothing for them and they valued it and her. With her gone they felt a hole in the community. Her absence was felt deeply as she lived the gospel faithfully and through her witness showed others how to do that as well. It is clear by their actions. that the empty space left by her death wasn’t something that would easily be filled by another.
In the past week I’ve been thinking about the importance of the witness of disciples like Tabitha in our lives as a week ago this past Saturday one of my favorite Christian authors died and the grief I’ve seen from her friends and fans in the wake of that has been immense. Her name was Rachel Held Evans or RHE for short among her fans. She was a former evangelical Christian who was open about her own search for God and faith, especially through the church, an institution she wouldn’t give up on no matter how much she struggled with it. And struggle she did. Especially with the evangelical tradition she grew up in as she pushed up against it with her doubts and questions over how to read and interpret the Bible, the role of women in the church, and who is welcome in the church and how they are welcomed. She eventually left the evangelical church and found her way to the Episcopal church where she continued in her work of making space at the table for those who wonder and wander as one commentator said about her this week.
There were in fact many, many articles about her this week. From posts by friends and fans on Twitter to blog posts by barely read bloggers to the pages of the Washington Post and Newsweek, many words were written about her in the wake of her death. Probably some due to the fact that a seemingly healthy thirty-seven year old woman died after a bout with what just a few weeks ago was thought to be the flu and a UTI. The sudden death of a young wife and mother of two little ones, ages 3 and 1, is shocking and causes us to ponder the meaning of life and how we live it.
However, with Rachel it has been more that caused that grief as evidenced in one reflection written about her entitled, “The Tabitha of Our Time”, written by someone named Pastor Julia on her blog, Faith, Grace and Hope. Pastor Julia pointed out how like Tabitha in Acts, the friends and fans of Rachel Held Evans greatly mourned her loss. Not by showing others the clothing she made for them, although in her book The Year of Biblical Womanhood she did try to live her life exactly as a woman in the Bible would. Instead, by sharing the writings she created that influenced them. Or still others shared stories of how she encouraged them as writers by reaching out to them, often unsolicited, to offer advice and support. Or how she’d work quietly behind the scenes make connections to help new novice writers become published authors. Or how she would speak up on media – social or otherwise – to advocate for those without a voice or pulpit to speak for themselves.
In both Rachel and Tabitha I see examples of disciples who lived the promise and hope of the resurrection and shared it fully through the witness of their lives so that others might know it too. We see it in Tabitha even before Peter raises her from the dead as we see her influence on the friends she was leaving behind in death. How her witness impacted their lives so much they had a need to share it with Peter as soon as he arrives in Joppa. They can’t keep the good news of Tabitha’s good works and acts of charity a secret, they have to physically show him what she created. They have to show him evidence of how she lived out the gospel in her life in such a way that she transformed the lives of those she encountered for the better. And we see it in Rachel Held Evans too as the multitude of those whose lives she touched with her words and actions have been witnessing to how she transformed their lives, tagging their stories with the social media hashtag, #becauseofRHE, showing how because of her influence they and their lives are different.
While the act of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead is important, I think when we limit our focus to that we miss seeing how our first reading today speaks loudly to us about how we as individual disciples like Tabitha can reflect the hope and power of the resurrection through our lives. Unlike Peter, we likely won’t ever raise a dead person to life through our prayers and a simple order to “get up.” However, like Tabitha and Rachel, how we live out the gospel through our words and deeds in our interactions with others can transform them and their lives and bring them new life. Tabitha did that for the widows as she clothed them and transformed their lives by welcoming them back into a society that had shunned, ostracized, and impoverished them. Rachel did that as she made space for all in the church as she preached God’s grace and love for all. She made it her work to extend a wide welcome to all who had been or could be excluded saying, “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
Tabitha and Rachel revealed the promise and hope of the resurrection as they lived their lives in love and service to others and we can too. We too can live as disciples of Jesus devoted to good works and acts of charity and by doing so bring resurrection and new life to those in need. As Rachel’s friend Zack Hunt wrote this week, “Maybe if, like her, we can find the courage to not just proclaim, but also embody the kind of enemy loving, stranger welcoming, powerless empowering, marginalized embracing, spot at the table for everyone place Rachel believed in, the kind of place Jesus taught about, the sort of kingdom that actually began to dawn when he walked out of the tomb and threw open the gates of heaven to everyone, then maybe the power of the resurrection to conquer death and bring life to the lost, the least, and the dying will continue. Maybe the good news (of the) resurrection will actually have an effect on the world.”
The good news of the resurrection can and does have an effect on the world. Jesus’ love has transformed us and through it we are empowered to transform others. Tabitha is proof. Rachel is proof. We are proof. Let’s go out into the world and through our words and actions be that living proof of the resurrection to one another, bringing that new life of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world in need. Amen.