Easter 4: Tabitha Bears New Life
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013
The Acts of the Apostles describes the early church bearing witness to life in the midst of death. The resurrection was, for them, a present reality, making possible a community of equals, the sharing of goods, the creation of healing communities. Acts notes the presence of the poor in these communities of mutuality, and the creation of deacons to give special attention to the widows. Acts sees mutual sharing within an economic community that was principally comprised of poor people but which also included some slightly better off individuals who had cast their lot with the poor, were signs that the new spirit-filled-life-of-Christ among them was Covenant Life – in which love of God cannot be understood in terms other than mutual care; care for one another. Christ has died. And Christ is risen. And now nothing can stop God’s love.”
The Spirit came first to those in Jerusalem. And after the first Pentecost came the first persecution. But nothing could stop God’s love.
Stephen, one of the deacons charged with caring for the widows, became the first martyr, dying, as Christ did, begging God’s forgiveness for those who were killing him. See, nothing can stop God’s love.
Stephen’s prayer is answered with divine mercy in the call and transformation of Saul. Saul, persecutor of the followers of Jesus, and the one who approved the killing of Stephen, becomes Paul the apostle to Jew and Gentile alike. Really, nothing can stop God’s love.
The early community of Jesus followers knew true life because they also knew death, and regularly lived under the threat of death. And they knew that the resurrection meant they need not fear.
“The terror of death,” Martin Luther once wrote, “is death itself.” It is death’s power over us. Jesus was raised from death to life to declare an end to the power of death – both death dealing powers of this world and our mortal death. God’s raising of Jesus as the first fruits of a new creation did not declare that we would never die, just that death would not carry among us the power that it used to. Death (with a little ‘d’) may separate us from one another, at least for a time. But nothing in life or death can separate us from God.
When I was in seminary I owned a powerful book of poems and prayers that, unfortunately, I subsequently lost. It was by Julia Esquivel, a poet and a lay preacher who was exiled from Guatemala in the 1980s. The title poem was called “Threatened with Resurrection.”
Esquivel crafted that phrase for many reasons, but the primary reason was to describe her Christian hope. For decades, along with thousands of her countrymen and women she endured the massacres, the repression, of those in power in her country – a memory made more painful this week as the High Court in Guatemala called off the genocide trial of General Efrian Rios Montt, the architect of the campaign of terror and torture. Her response to that suffering was to cultivate, somehow, even more faith in the God of life and love. She confronted the daily threats she received with the power of her faith in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The threats were designed to silence her, to intimidate her, to inject fear into an entire people. She sustained hope by believing the powers of the world face a greater threat than they could ever wield. The powers are “threatened with resurrection.”
This is just how the early church behaved. They dangerously dared to declare that Jesus is alive. To tell the story of the empty tomb was to say even the greatest earthly power, the Roman Empire, shall not prevail. It meant an end to the legitimization of oppression in the name of God. To proclaim the resurrection is celebrate the defeat of everything that denies life and everyone who deals death in this world.
Esquivel says resurrection is “something that doesn’t let us sleep, that doesn’t let us rest, that won’t stop pounding deep inside … it is the earthquake soon to come that will shake the world and put everything into place.” And she invites us to join in “this vigil and … know what it is to dream! Then you will know how marvelous it is to be threatened with resurrection.”
In the early days of the church there was a community of disciples in the port city of Joppa on the coast west of Jerusalem, men and women sharing a community of goods and bearing witness to Christ’s new life as it took shape among them. (This is really what the whole of Acts is about, new life taking shape in the most surprising communities).
But we read in our scripture today that the Joppa community has lost one its pillars, a saintly woman known as Tabitha. Luke describes her as a disciple, known for good works and acts of charity. She had a ministry among the widows in Joppa for whom she made tunics and other articles of clothing, even as she supported them with her love and devotion.
The fact that we are told both her Aramaic name, Tabitha (as she would have been known within the community of disciples) and her Greek name, Dorcas (as she would have been known in the wider community) suggests that her good works and charity were widely and publicly practiced.
We are told simply that “at that time she became ill and died.” Illness, disease, loss. Our story from Acts is the story of the community in Joppa, and of their grief. Now this is something very different than the threat of resurrection which delegitimizes death’s power in the world.
When Peter arrives, the widows show him the garments that Tabitha had made for them. Widows were the poorest of the poor in the ancient world. It is not clear in our English translation, but the Greek suggests that the women show Peter the garments they are wearing, garments Tabitha made for them – Tabitha literally clothed them. And in clothing them they became part of this growing community of Christ-followers. But now with Tabitha’s death, what will happen?
We can imagine the questions swarming in the minds of the gathered widows and the rest of the faith community as they watched Peter approach Tabitha: is our community of faith so precarious that the death of one of our leaders can destroy it? With Tabitha dead, will our community collapse? What will become of the widows; will we still have a central role? And what will become of our assembly that welcomes everyone – both Jew and Greek?
And all these questions point to the central, underlying question: What is it that sustains this community? Tabitha is the only person according to our scriptures that was literally raised from the dead after Christ’s resurrection. And certainly her resurrection restores a disciple to her community so that together they might keep God’s covenant of love by caring for one another in difficult and dangerous times.
But that is not the whole story. Tabitha’s resurrection is a reconfirmation that it is God, not human beings, who ultimately guarantees the viability of the faith community. It is God’s power to forgive, to remain loyal and to make new that sustains the church.
You see if the early church had thought and if we think that the quality of our life together is only of our own making, rather than the work of God among us, then there are no possibilities beyond what our eyes can see; no horizon for our purpose farther than where our sun rises and sets; no imagining beyond what we can imagine from within our particular place in this world. But remember, what Jesus once said to his disciples, “with humans it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Now Tabitha will not live forever. She will die just as Lazarus did, and that little twelve year old girl who Jesus also raised. Peter will not return again and again to revive her. Peter himself will die. But the community learned, as they grieved, and they prayed, as they sent for Peter, that neither would they die this day – though they (experienced a great loss) lost a leader. And because Tabitha was resurrected, the community had the opportunity to remember and reaffirm who it was that sustained them – God.
The emphasis of this text is not upon a return from death, as surprising and wonderful as that would be. The emphasis of Acts is upon a community trusting God with its life. This story is not just what about happens in this passage, it is about what happens next. This story is a pivotal story that propels the followers of Jesus forward in all sorts of new and surprising ways in the face of enormous difficulties. This story is the launching pad for all that God began to do among the early church through the Acts of the Apostles and all that God continues to do today through the church.
There is an old Quaker prayer many of you have heard me read at memorial services because it captures our confidence in the face of death.
We give them back to you, dear Lord,
Who gavest them to us.
Yet as thou didst not lose them in giving,
So we have not lost them by their return.
For what is thine is ours always, if we are thine.
And life is eternal and love is immortal,
And death is only a horizon,
And a horizon is nothing more
Than the limit of our sight.
And this is true not only of eternal life, the life that our loved ones who have departed now experience, it is also true in this life, right now for you and me and this community. God is doing more with our faith community than we can know or imagine. God’s dream for us, moves us beyond the horizon that we can see, in love and in hope.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Nothing can stop God’s love. Amen.
 NYT’s reported that the judge just threw out the case that Guatemalan human rights leaders have been working on for 20 years. Rios Mont was trained in the United States at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Here are two links: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/world/americas/judge-in-guatemala-annuls-genocide-trial.html?ref=world&_r=0 and http://www.allannairn.org/2013/04/breaking-news-genocide-trial-of-general.html
 Stephen Jones, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol. 2. WJK, 2010.