Acts 9:36-43 – The Fourth Sunday of Easter – for Sunday, April 21, 2013
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple name whose name is Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas . . .” (Acts 9:36
With apologies to James Bond, did Dorcas only live twice?
The ambitious ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles began with Paul’s conversion near Damascus and ended with Peter bringing a woman named Dorcas back to life in Joppa.
Who was Dorcas? Based on the Biblical account, she was more likely called Tabitha, her Aramaic name. Tabitha apparently means gazelle. And, gazelle-like, Tabitha was one of those many Biblical characters that quickly appeared and then just as quickly vanished from the sacred pages. She was a member of the New Testament’s club of obscure women like Peter’s never named wife, silent Salome at Jesus’ tomb and the once greedy and quickly dead Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).
If Paul’s conversion and Tabitha’s resurrection form thrilling bookends of a chapter in Acts, Sapphira of Jerusalem was a different kind of bookend to her Joppa “club sister.”
Acts chronicled Peter’s rise from a wayward disciple of Jesus to powerfully serving the risen Christ by showing the old fisherman’s actions. In the fateful chapter five of Acts, Sapphira and her husband Ananias cheat other believers. After Peter rebuked them individually, first the husband and then the wife dropped dead. Their nefarious deeds were quickly and efficiently punished.
A handful of chapters later, Peter trudged up some stairs in Joppa and was shown Tabitha’s body. A gaggle of grieving widows encircled her corpse. And though it’s never directly stated, Peter either learned then, or already knew, about Tabitha’s reputation. Those widows—and likely others—wore clothing she’d made. According to scripture, Tabitha was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.”
After closing the door on the weeping widows, Peter prayed and told Tabitha to “get up.”
Peter resurrected Tabitha. In a moment, she was alive for round two of her charitable, generous life.
Peter had earlier rebuked Sapphira. In a moment, she was dead and gone. Her greedy nature doomed her to an early grave.
And so, boys and girls, what are the lessons of faith revealed in chapters five and nine?
Do bad. Die.
Do good. Live.
Even if we don’t wish death upon the greedy, deceitful or hypocritical, we sure wish they’d be punished. Reap what you sow! When a person intentionally engages in bad activities, don’t they deserve to have bad things happen to them?
When a person engages in uplifting activities (like being “devoted to good works and acts of charity”), good things should happen to them.
If only it were so.
How about if you suggest someone that deserved to die for his or her horrible actions, and yet lived on? Whether from history, or in yesterday’s headlines, I’ll bet it’s easy for you to name a name (or ten names) to fit that category.
How about if you suggest someone that died too young, too tragically or too unfairly, and yet had so much more to give? I’ll bet you can name someone. Most won’t be found in the headlines, but in your family, or one of your friends. Why couldn’t he or she have lived longer? Or, Tabitha-like, been raised from the dead?
Why can’t Peter trudge up the stairs of my life? Or your life? Or our dying loved one’s lives?
Some pray for miracles. But when a last breath is taken, and your beloved hasn’t risen from his or her bed, the faith of the living is often shaken. Prayers unanswered. Broken dreams. Hope made you feel like a dope.
I’m enough of a cynic (or too much of a cynic) and agree with Biblical scholars that ponder if Peter’s resurrection of Tabitha was a literary creation, scribed to mimic Jesus’ actions when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Luke 8:40-56). In Luke, Jesus implored, “Child, get up!” In Acts, Peter echoed, “Tabitha, get up.”
So do I think Peter’s power to return Tabitha to the living was merely a swell story, a way of “proving” the old fisherman’s prominence among the new followers of Jesus? Sometimes I do. Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes, especially among the living who are grieving a loved one’s death, I wish Sapphira hadn’t so easily dropped dead and Tabitha hadn’t so easily bounded down the stairs to turn the widows’ keening into rejoicing.
Faithful fact or grandiose fiction, I’m confident the woman named after a gazelle did die. Maybe once. Maybe twice. Like Jairus’ daughter or Jesus’ friend Lazarus, if death was once denied, it was not yet defied.
I believe in resurrection, however I’ve witnessed much death. As poet Mary Oliver penned, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”*
I am cynical, but even more, though only a weak-willed follower of Jesus, I prefer to witness to life. I may not have Peter’s real or imagined power, but I keep praying, keep trying to pay attention, hardly knowing what I’m doing other than believing this life now is God’s gift.
*The Summer Day – by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
The image of “Tabitha’s Gift” is from here.