Not our time to die                                                              

                                                             ©Suzanne Grimmett

It was apparently not Dorcas’ day to die…or at least not her day to remain dead.

In the Easter season we are treated to not only consecutive weekly readings from the Gospel of John, but we also follow both Peter and Paul and all their marvellous works through the narrative of Acts. This is the season of resurrection, so we hear of lives transformed by the risen Jesus and miraculous works of healing amongst the followers of the way. But we will also be hearing, all the way to Pentecost, of the revolutionary nature of the kind of love encountered in the divine life of Christ that breaks open all of our carefully constructed categories and expectations of how life will be.

Perhaps there are hints of the radical nature of this new community of the Spirit that can be found in today’s reading from Acts. Apart from the retelling of an event as extraordinary as someone being raised from the dead, there are other suggestions. Not many words are wasted in sacred texts, and so when a word is used for the first and only time in the New Testament to describe someone, we can assume it is significant. Dorcas is given her Aramaic name “Tabitha” and the title of “disciple”- here used for the only time in the Greek feminine form. In the vision of Luke-Acts, both women and men are given identities as disciples of Jesus and joined into the new family of God that grafts the Gentiles into the story of God’s people. “Joining” is a key movement in the story of Acts, and it is a joining that does not eradicate difference but celebrates it. Tabitha, the disciple of Jesus, is a woman whose death causes such grief and concern for the community which she has gathered about her, that Peter was summoned with urgency. Tabitha was beloved, known for her good works and compassionate life, including caring for the widows in their poverty and social vulnerability. Tabitha was restored not only to life, but to her ministry as one of Jesus’ disciples.

Tabitha lives and serves in Joppa. The other time Joppa is mentioned is in the story in the Hebrew Scriptures of Jonah. This is an interesting connection as Peter, referred to by Jesus as the “Son of Jonah” in Matthew’s Gospel (16:17) goes out from this town on a mission amongst the Gentiles. In the story of Jonah, the prophet here is sent also on a mission to the Gentiles which results, like Peter’s mission, in their surprising salvation.[1] Probably both Jonah and Peter could be said to be equally reluctant about such a mission. This is the story of the expanding kingdom of God, and Peter is being carried along by the Spirit to places he would not wish to go. That seems to be a pattern for Peter, even including this brief reference to where he puts up for the night in Joppa after raising Tabitha from the dead. The text tells us Peter resides with “Simon, a tanner.” The tanner’s house in ancient days was in the least salubrious corner of town as the blood and the stench from the dead animals was ritually unclean, as well as offensive. Clearly, for Peter, he is doing what he has never done before and going where he has never been, experiencing daily the ever-expanding grace of a God who is declaring no place or person unholy.

This is the story of Acts, but it is the theme song of the Church. To follow Jesus is to be relentlessly…relentlessly…challenged to not identify oneself with your clan, gender, nation or religion but to open yourself to the life of the other…the alien…in a way that dismantles all hierarchies and builds a new belonging from the ground up. The Jews, scattered as they were and occupied by empire, were a minority who naturally sought to preserve their identity and resist assimilation by oppressive powers. With Gentiles outnumbering them, for the Jewish followers of Jesus to think of opening their sacred space to include them would have been terrifying. And yet, here is the move of the Spirit. Willie Jennings formulates the question beautifully; “What will you do if I join you at the body of Jesus and fall in love with your God and you?” [2]

The Gentiles of Acts are on their way to communion with Jews while remaining Gentiles which is a terrifying interruption to known lives and identity. This is an act of joining that sits in stark contrast to the assimilation of empire where once you are colonised, you are forced to discard your culture, your ancient stories, your deepest longings. What if there could be a joining where we are given back ourselves, in all our diversity, even as we find ourselves on common ground with no hierarchies and where no one is more worthy than others. What if instead, I join you at the body of Jesus, the one whose compassionate touch reached the excluded and unclean and the one who went to his death, pronouncing forgiveness on those whose scapegoating violence nailed him to a cross. What if the oppressed and downtrodden, the ashamed and unworthy… alongside the successful and upwardly mobile, the fundamentalists and the liberals, the politically red, blue, green or teal …what if they all meet you there and fall in love with your God and with you?

The problem, of course, is what that joining asks of us. As Jennings says, “The prevailing fantasy of people is to have power over others, to claim the power of self-determination and to make a world bow to its will.” [3] We surely are seeing this on the world stage in many countries where peoples live under occupied rule and nations are invaded with violence and the desire of one people to conquer and control another.  But we are also seeing a resistance to the kind of joining that allows diversity to flourish even in the Church which exists and acts in the name of the one who transgresses borders of purity and identity over and again for the sake of love. The fantasy of God as revealed in Jesus is not power over but empowerment of others to be themselves. As they accept the sacredness of their own being, the Spirit invites them into the story of creativity and hope. This is communion- a communion that delights in the life of each creature and draws each one into the rich and many faceted story of God and to a belonging that joins us to all that is eternal.

As our Church gathers for General Synod in the week ahead, I know I need to be reminded we are invited into God’s longing for each other. No Church that follows the crucified and risen one can draw a line that would divide us and exclude those with whom we disagree. Neither do we get to decide who God would include and with whose lives we are invited to join in communion. We are called to desire one another as God desires us, in all our wondrous difference, drawing into the family all that is outside the world of our own identity, joining with others of every culture, tribe, nation, faith, politics, gender, sexuality and class.

Dorcas will die again. This story is not about the restoration of earthly life as the end goal, but about a healing of the community in her return to life and wholeness. Her story shows us that women matter to God and the work this woman does, matters to God.[4] The truth is, we need one another, and the healing, diverse community of Christ, led by the one who is the gentle shepherd, guiding us to travel together on the way that leads to life.

The story of Dorcas is a story of the healing power of God. When we pray for a cure we risk dictating to God what must happen. If we pray for healing, whether for ourselves or the body of the Church, we invite the Spirit to act, shepherding us to a life-giving path and bringing healing in unexpected ways that we may never have foreseen.

It can seem sometimes in our own lives as well as in the life of the church, that we are surrounded by dead ends and death-dealing powers that would rob us of hope. But our God is a God of resurrection, and that is not something which we find individually, but communally. The tears are wiped from our eyes only as we gather, with Christ, who is both lamb and shepherd at the centre. May we find the courage as a church to surrender with humility to the presence of the Spirit whose desire for us can revive our longing for one another, renew life, bring healing and restore our communities to wholeness.

+Amen.


[1] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (p. 1148). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jennings, Willie James, Acts, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017, p8

[3] Jennings, Willie James, Acts, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017, p11

[4] Jennings, Willie James, Acts, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017, p 100

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