"In Both Life and Death ... Our Lives Speak"

Date Sunday May 12, 2019
Service Fourth Sunday of Easter
Text Acts 9:36-43
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen  
Previous Sermon "God's Goes to Great Lengths"
Next Sermon "Who are We that We Could Hinder God?"

     We are Easter People walking on the Easter Road, along with the first believers whose stories are told in the Acts of the Apostles, which is the second volume of the Gospel of Luke. Last Sunday, Saul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus, an encounter with grace, led to transformation so that this persecutor of Christians became on who spoke publicly in the name of Jesus.

     Once the Christians’ number one enemy is one of them, there’s a pause in the action. Listen to Acts 9:31: “Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”

     Now the focus turns to Peter who is following through on his post-Easter promise to feed Jesus’ sheep, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so. We often skip the next account in Acts 9; it’s brief but important.

     Peter goes to Lydda, where he met a man named Aeneas who had been bedridden for eight years because he was paralyzed. Scripture records one sentence, spoke by Peter to this man: “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed.” (Some might view this as justification for required daily bed-making!) In any case, this healing causes residents of that area to turn to the Lord.

     Meanwhile, in Joppa, there is a woman named Tabitha (Aramaic) or Dorcas (Greek). It’s significant that she is the only woman in the entire New Testament who is referred to by the word disciple, that is, the feminine form of the Greek word that we translate disciple. Commentator John Holbert suggests that this indicates that Dorcas is fully the equivalent of the male disciples who named with the masculine form of that noun; it’s yet another example of the Holy Spirit pushing the boundaries, which we’ll hear even more about next Sunday.

     Dorcas is known for good works and acts of charity. As we consider Dorcas, it’s important to remember that what’s being described in today’s text is a community that is distraught over a significant loss. Dorcas was beloved. Her ministry was, it seems, caring for widows, which was one of the responsibilities of the body of believers in a time when a woman was destitute if she had no sons or other family who were obligated to take her in after her husband’s death. And, even if she did have a place to live, a widow might have been abused or given only enough to survive.

     The text implies that Dorcas made them tunics and other articles of clothing and supported them with love and devotion. So, the widows who are described as weeping have lost a friend and a caregiver. She was special; she was important in that faith community; her absence impacted many lives.

     When she dies, Peter is sent for by her friends. We might ask why; what did they expect? Commentator Eric Barreto asks, “Did they want Peter to know about this extraordinary believer? Did they wish for the memory of their dear friend to be shared with this pillar of the burgeoning church? Did they perhaps hope for the miracle of miracles? Did they perhaps hope against hope for a reprieve from death?” (1)

     I think that probably was their hope. Afterall, hadn’t Jesus brought life back to the dead, along with Elijah and Elisha of Old Testament fame? It didn’t seem so impossible to them, as it does to us. But, before we get caught up in a debate about why this isn’t the current reality, at least not in the experience of most 21st century people, let’s note what happened next, which is the POINT.

     After Peter’s prayer, and that astounding moment when Dorcas opened her eyes, saw Peter and sat up, we read, “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” One day Dorcas will die again, she has been resuscitated, not resurrected at this point, but in both her life and her first death she contributed to the spread of the Christian faith at a key time in its history.

     It’s true that Peter had compassion for those impacted by Dorcas’ compassionate works; she was dead, but the evidence of her work lived on in the material goods shown by the widows and the tears they shed. But, there was more to this story than either Peter’s or Dorcas’ compassion; there’s a bigger picture.

     Commentator Barreto surmises that the residents of Joppa joined the community of believers not just because of this miraculous act of healing, but because of what it might mean for them and for the world. I’ll quote him: “If death is no longer a barrier between us, can we dare hope that the ills that plague us, our families and our communities might be touched by a God who cares deeply for us?” Their belief does not emerge from a dazzling display of power, he writes, but it’s rooted in the trust and hope it engenders. (2)

     Pastor Holbert offers a similar sentiment when he quotes Christian writer Frederick Buechner as saying, “All the death there is set next to life would scarcely fill a cup.” Then, he goes on the say, “A life lived in God is a life where death can have no final sway, though death is all too real for all of us. That is the living power of the resurrection, that reality that binds together all who believe in hope.” (3)

     This Gospel reminds us that in a world characterized by death, life is the new order of the day. God’s power and compassion are alive in the world, in our world, and death does not have the last word.

     I could stop there, and I would have said a lot. But I find myself compelled to say one more thing, with the disciple Dorcas in mind. She was God’s vehicle of hope, and so are we. That happened for Dorcas in two ways. First, he chose to minister in her community and was empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so, in ways that impacted many lives, so much so that her death was a significant loss. And then, second, God used her death and return to life, to convey a message of hope and further the expansion of the early church.

     We too can choose to make a difference and depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance and empowerment. Our goal isn’t to be missed when we’re gone, but that’s what will happen when we live out our faith intentionally and sacrificially. (Which, I will add, happens in various ways, for various people, depending on the gifts we’ve been given, and the setting into which we’ve been placed.) And, who knows, perhaps God has a plan that involves us over which we have no, or little, choice, but which fulfills a great purpose, as was true for Dorcas.

     In both life and death, our lives speak not just for us, but also … hopefully, more so … for God. AMEN

 

  1. “Commentary on Acts 9:36-43” by Eric Bareto, www.workingpreacher.org
  2. Same as #1
  3. “The Living Power of the Resurrection: Reflections on Acts 9:36-43” by John Holbert, April 21, 2013, www.patheos.com