Peter raises Tabitha: for Christ lives on in his disciples. (Listen.)
How long, O Lord, must we wait? How long until a saviour comes and sweeps through this nation, and puts everything right? How long until the corrupt are thrown out of power, the violent are contained, the poor are cared for, and the earth is restored? How long until political leaders show compassion? How long until religious leaders repent for the damage they have done? How long until asylum seekers are freed from detention? How long until children in foster care find stable healthy homes? How long until Australia’s First Peoples receive recognition and justice? How long, O Lord, must we wait?
In the gospel according to John, the Judeans ask this of Jesus, adding, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” They long for a saviour who will fix everything; and to some extent, so do most of us. They hoped for a Lion of Judah; we hope for a leader who is wise enough and strong enough and farsighted enough and kind enough to govern with justice and mercy and love. And if that doesn’t happen in the next election, or even in our lifetime, then how long, O Lord, must we wait?
Not everyone asks this question. The stories about the disciples in Acts don’t show much of this wondering. Instead, they just get on with things: hosting, preaching, sewing, teaching, cooking, sharing, healing, encouraging, baptising, forgiving, praying and singing. They don’t ask when the Saviour will come, because they are living the answer.
We see it in tonight’s story. Christ has recently been raised from the dead. Now a disciple, Peter, is raising someone else from the dead. Peter is hardly a holy superman. He’s a fisherman, who again and again didn’t get what Jesus was on about; and who, only a little while ago, denied even knowing Jesus. But here he is raising someone out of death, and restoring her to life.
You might remember the time when Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus. People send for Jesus: he goes to the house: there are mourners everywhere: he enters the room where the body lies: he sends everyone away: he holds the girl’s hand: he says: “Talitha cum!” Little girl, get up. Tonight’s story follows the same pattern, only Peter says, “Tabitha cum!” Tabitha, get up. And, like the little girl, Talitha, up Tabitha got.
These stories show that ordinary stumbling Peter has been filled with Christ’s Spirit. His actions follow the pattern set down by Christ Jesus, and now he is raising the dead. And the person he raises is not just anyone. He is raising a disciple, a woman named Tabitha, or Dorcas. Both words mean ‘gazelle’: Tabitha is Aramaic; Dorcas, Greek. Naming her twice tells us that the community at Joppa was bilingual and multicultural. But more than that, naming her so precisely tells us that Tabitha was important: and we see this also in the urgency with which the other disciples send for Peter when she dies.
What makes this woman so important? When Peter arrives, he finds widows weeping, and they show him the clothes that Tabitha has made for them. Now, for the most part, you and I don’t know who makes our clothes, and beyond a slight twinge when a factory collapses in Bangladesh, we don’t really care whether the makers live or die. But we are not first century Mediterranean widows. They had no economic rights. Without clothes made by hand, and without other gifts and acts of lovingkindness, they had, quite literally, nothing.
Tabitha has been caring for these women; “she was devoted to good works and acts of lovingkindness.” In other words, her life overflowed with a Christ-like compassion and care for the most vulnerable. And so, just like Peter, she was filled with the Spirit of Christ: although it took a different form.
When the Judeans in the temple asked, “How long, O Lord?”, Jesus didn’t give a straight answer. Instead, he replied, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish…”
Now, when we think of ‘eternal life’, we often think of an afterlife, something that happens quite separately from this life and this age. This idea comes from Greco-Roman philosophy. It’s become so cemented in our era that many of us think it’s what Jesus was on about, but it’s not.
Instead, Jesus lived and taught with a Jewish worldview, in which there are two ages. One is the present age, that world that we see around us, with all its violence, corruption and ravaging of the earth. The other is the age-to-come: God’s age, the age of shalom, which brings peace, restoration, healing and wholeness. In this worldview, we will not be rescued out of the present age; we will not be removed from the earth. There is no other place or time where we will end up. Instead, the present age is transformed from within; this earth will be healed; and in the healing of this earth, we too will be healed.
This new age, this renewal of all creation, arrived with the resurrection, and it continues to break into this age and unfold among us even now. This is the abundant life that Jesus’ sheep recognise and participate in. Foolish, betraying, enthusiastic Peter participates in this life—God’s new age—and raises Tabitha from the dead. The new community at Joppa, which takes women seriously in a patriarchal society, cares for its most vulnerable members, loves beyond biological families, and welcomes people from multiple language groups, participates in this life—God’s new age—as it witnesses to a new way of being community together.
And Tabitha, whose life overflows with goodness and mercy, participates in this life—God’s new age—a life so abundant that even death cannot stop her. I don’t think a two-thousand-year old Tabitha is still hobbling around the Middle East today. But in every healthy church, there is still a Tabitha: for she lives on in every person who turns up with soup, or a warm coat, or fifty bucks, or a listening ear when you really, really need it. That is why she was so important to the disciples at Joppa: no faith community can survive without her.
“O Lord, how long must we wait?” The early church knew the answer: The wait is over. Jesus is alive, and he lives in everyone who hears his voice and follows him and participates in God’s new age right here and now.
Jesus is alive when, like the community at Joppa, we join with people from many different backgrounds to form a faith community. When our love transcends age, race, class, culture, faith, physical and intellectual capability, gender identity, sexual preference, personality type and attachment style: when we learn to love across these and other human boundaries—Jesus is alive!
Jesus is alive when, like the early disciples, we honour those who care for the poor as greatly as we honour those who engage in public ministries. When we raise up those who make soup and sew clothes and care for foster kids and tend the sick and sit with the dying and give sacrificially—Jesus is alive!
Jesus is alive when, like Tabitha, we use our gifts to serve the most vulnerable; and when our service provides a witness to a life so abundant that death cannot stop us and others come to faith—Jesus is alive!
There is no more waiting; there is no more longing: for Jesus is alive within us and among us now. This is what Easter is all about. Our Rescuer lives: and God’s new age is unfolding. Our politicians won’t save us, but that won’t stop us living into God’s kingdom-culture right here and now, a space where generosity, self-sacrifice, gentleness, justice, freedom, healing and peace abound.
So let us “celebrate the life that death could not hold, the life that Jesus has shared among his community through the centuries and shares with us now.”* Like Peter, like Tabitha, like all the disciples in Acts, and like all the saints before us and beside us, let us radiate resurrection in everything that we say and do. And let us proclaim with our words and our lives that fear and death have no more authority: and that the reign of Christ has come. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 10:22-30 and Acts 9:36-43 given to Sanctuary, 12 May 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Quote from the Iona Community Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1991): 67. Image credit: Cody F Miller, Tabitha’s Gift, found here.