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Raising of Tabitha

Date: 08/05/2022/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Easter Encounters: Raising of Tabitha
Acts 9:36-43
8 May 2022

Before we begin this morning, I want to wish all our mothers a very happy and blessed Mothers’ Day! And I mean all mothers – biological, adoptive, familial, spiritual – regardless of gender, all of you who help care for, nourish and bring life to others, Happy Mothers’ Day!

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It is very human to desire certainty. We all want to have certainty regarding our faith (what we believe), our relationships (who we can trust), our jobs (how we pay our bills), etc. As a pastor, I often get asked questions like: how can you be so sure your interpretation of the Bible is correct, especially your understanding of the six clobber passages relating to homosexuality?

My answer is I am not 100% sure I am correct. All I am sure of is that I have kept my heart and mind open as I did all the research that I could, and allowed the Holy Spirit to guide me into the wisdom and understanding that only God could give. And I continue to keep my heart, mind and soul open to the leading of the Spirit.

Thomas wanted to be certain that Jesus really rose from the dead.
Until he saw with his own eyes and touched Jesus with his own hands, he couldn’t believe.
And Thomas wasn’t alone.

Like Miak said in his sermon two weeks ago, the other male disciples were no better. They scoffed when the women disciples told them the stone to the tomb had been rolled away and Jesus’ body was nowhere to be found.

And last week, Gary shared with us about Paul – how his physical sight was taken away for a while but in the meantime, he gained spiritual sight.

Before Saul became Paul, Saul reveled in the certainty of religion. He was so certain he was right, so certain about his own beliefs, that he persecuted and killed the followers of Jesus.

For both Thomas and Saul, it took a personal encounter with Jesus to gain new insight and expand the box of their minds and hearts. From that moment on, their lives were changed forever.

Today, our lectionary passage leads us to the story of Tabitha (or Dorcas). Her life was changed too but in a different way. The reason we hear about Tabitha is because she unfortunately dies, and she was very well loved by her community, especially the group of widows that she was helping to take care of.

Nothing can be more certain than death, right? When someone is dead, that is the end.
But Jesus’ resurrection broke all the barriers and limits to what we consider possible. Even death does not always mean the end.

As if we needed to be reminded again, here is another story of resurrection that happened not long after Jesus’ own resurrection.

This story of Tabitha happened right after Paul’s awakening and transformation. And it tells us what was happening on Peter’s end.

Acts 9:36-42 (NRSVUE)
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.[h] She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

We are told that Tabitha is a disciple of Jesus. In fact, she is the only woman specifically named “female disciple” (μαθήτρια mathētria in Greek) in the New Testament.

We hear that Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She was known as one who is devoted to helping people, especially widows. Widows are that vulnerable group of people in ancient and current times, and they have always been a special concern for God and in this case, for Tabitha. She saw the needs of these widows. And out of love and compassion, Tabitha used her privilege and her gifts to help those who were most vulnerable.

So when she gets sick and dies, the widows mourn. There is strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is committed to making a difference in the world, is a bitter loss.

Given what we know about Joppa and her double name, Tabitha / Dorcas is probably a Gentile convert to Christianity.

Question 1 (Multiple Choice)
What does the word ‘Gentile’ mean?

  1. Someone who is non-Jew
  2. Someone who is non-Christian
  3. Someone who is non-Roman
  4. Someone who is an outsider / outside of one’s tribe

I used to think the word ‘Gentile’ means anyone who is non-Jew. Due to tradition and Bible translations, this is the most common understanding of the word ‘Gentile’. But do you know the Jews were not the only ones who used this word?

At various points of history, the Romans, Greeks, Jews and even Christians all used the same term ‘Gentiles’ to mean anyone other than themselves. Humans have a general propensity to exclude those who do not belong to their own tribe or people group.

And that’s what Jesus came to do – to challenge our tribal tendencies and to proclaim that including all peoples to the ends of the earth was an essential part of God’s Plan for the Ages. We know that because that’s what Jesus commissioned his disciples to do after his resurrection.

And Luke expresses the extent of the plan in Acts 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The plan begins in Jerusalem and the end is the whole earth, including the wider Gentile world. This gospel would encompass everyone on earth and welcome them into the kin-dom of God.

So it’s significant that Tabitha represents the gentile convert to Christianity who at the time was regarded as living on the fringes of the early Christian communities. Peter is called upon to raise this gentile convert from the dead at the very time when Christian communities were debating if and how Gentiles should be included.

That is why Luke makes very sure to mention her name in both Aramaic and in Greek when he introduces her. She is named Tabitha – Dorcas in Greek—which literally means “gazelle.”

Gazelle is a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for “LOVE” and that is the name given to that splendid creature we sometimes call an antelope. We don’t often encounter gazelles in Singapore but gazelles are very common in the Middle East.

Pastor Dawn Hutchings says the writer of the book of Acts would have known, just as well as his listeners, that the mere mention of a dorcas gazelle would have conjured up images of something very crucial to the Jewish listener.

The word gazelle literally means LOVE. So who else was called LOVE? God is LOVE right? In Jewish art, the gazelle is used as a symbol for YHWH. But even more interesting than that, the gazelle was used to illustrate the life-giving aspect of YHWH.

So Tabitha—that is Dorcas in Greek, is named after YHWH who is Love, the One who gives life. And it’s even more symbolic that God breathes life again into this person who gave life to many while she was living.

The disciples asked Peter to come to Joppa and when he arrives, he is taken to Tabitha’s body. We are told all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. There is something very real and precious about this verse.

Can you picture the scene? The tears of grief, pride, and love. “See what she made, Peter? She was so talented and took care of so many people. She’s truly a disciple of Jesus.” These women that Tabitha looked after with such love – their lives were shaped by her and they couldn’t help sharing the influence she has had on them.

Question 2 (Word Cloud)
Let me ask you: what would people say of you if you were to die tomorrow? What kind of legacy would you have left?

Peter orders everyone out of the room and after he prays, he turns to the body of Tabitha and says, “Tabitha, get up.” And she does. She opens her eyes and sees Peter, and she sits up. He takes her hand and helps her stand. Then Peter calls everyone back in and shows them that Tabitha is alive. Word spreads, and people come to believe in Jesus because of this amazing thing that happened.

There is a similar story in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 8, Jesus raises a young girl, the daughter of a man named Jairus, from the dead. There are many similarities between that story and this one about Tabitha. I think Luke is trying to tell us something here.

Luke is trying to show us how the work that Peter is doing now, even after Jesus is no longer physical present to guide Peter, is an embodiment of the work of Jesus.

The power that Jesus had is now in Peter and the other disciples. The work of Jesus didn’t die, but is alive, just as Jesus didn’t die, but was resurrected. The work of God is alive and God continues to move! That’s what Luke wants us to know, and why Tabitha was raised. Luke is showing us that Peter is doing the work of Jesus.

My dear friends, I believe we are called to step into that role too. If we, too, are disciples, then we embody Jesus too, and we are given the power of the Holy Spirit to do amazing things — to breathe life into dead spaces, and to live out new life and resurrection in the world.

How can we do that? How can we be agents of resurrection and life in the world as we embody Jesus whom we follow? That’s a tough question because I suspect many of us have never raised someone from physical death in God’s name. Not that it’s impossible. I have read testimonies from various parts of the world where Christians have witnessed such things.

But in a much broader context, I believe we are all called to breathe life into the places of death in the world around us — of the people around us who are in need, of our broken systems, of our broken relationships, of our broken society, of our broken Earth.

Question 3 (Word Cloud)
What has someone done for you that was life-giving?

When Peter raises Tabitha to life, she opens her eyes. Attention is drawn to the eyes because once they are open, you know life has been restored. The open eyes are a symbol of life, especially of divine life. This reminds me of what Gary shared about last week regarding the opening of spiritual eyes – gaining hindsight, foresight and insight.

A few weeks ago, I listened to this podcast by Brene Brown and Richard Rohr, on Spirituality, Certitude and Infinite Love, and I found it mind-blowing, heart-expanding and soul-stirring. It’s on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast series. And if you haven’t listened to it yet, I’d really encourage you to give it a listen.

Some of the concepts that Fr Richard shared in the podcast is found in his book, Falling Upward.

I’ve always found Richard Rohr’s books thought-provoking and I enjoy reading his daily reflections from the Centre for Action and Contemplation. But I have to say Falling Upward is one of his books that really impacted me, and continues to challenge me.

I first read this book quite a number of years ago and I was going through several transitions and upheavals in my life at that time. And perhaps it was exactly the right time for me to be reading this book – definitely, what I would call divine coincidence.

If I were to quickly summarize the book for you, the phrase “two halves of life” was first popularized by the psychologist, Carl Jung. He says that there are two major tasks in life. In the first half of life, you’ve got to find your identity, your significance; you create your ego boundaries, your ego structure, what Rohr calls “the creating of the container.” But that’s just to get you started.

In the second half of life, once you’ve created your ego structure, you finally have the courage to ask: What is this all for? What am I supposed to do with this? Is it just to protect it, to promote it, to defend it, or is there some deeper purpose?

The search for meaning is the task of the second half of life. And Rohr said this is not always a chronological matter – he’s met 11 year-old children in cancer wards who are in the second half of life, and he’s met 68 year-old men who are still in the first half of life.

This journey into the second half of life is especially important for people of faith who are seeking a deeper relationship with God. This is because we’ve made the teaching of Jesus largely into an evacuation plan for the next world, so we don’t have to take this world seriously, this life, this earth, what’s happening right here and now.

But this further journey has to happen in this world. We are living in God’s kin-dom now. Eternal life has already begun and like Peter, we have a role to play in breathing new life into the places of death in the world.

But often, we are not ready to step into the second half of life until we go through some kind of falling — a crisis, a life transition, some kind of suffering. Most of our concern in the first half of life is about rising, achieving, accomplishing, performing. But at some point, something will happen and you will feel like you’re falling.

If you can find grace or freedom in and through that falling, you find that it moves you forward, upward, broader, deeper, better—towards growth. That’s just the opposite of what you first think when you fall, fail, or lose.

The question of why is suffering necessary is probably the greatest and most problematic question in Christian theology. Why is there suffering? How is God good if there’s so much suffering on this Earth? There’s no answer that satisfies the rational mind.

But one thought is that, as Carl Jung and many others have said, suffering is the only thing strong enough to defeat the imperial ego. In other words, when you’re in control, in charge, looking good, building your tower of success — you get so addicted to it that you think that’s all there is to life.

When that falls apart, you realize it’s largely a self-constructed game and you’ve been building your own little kingdom, and not what Jesus calls the kin-dom of God. Most spiritual teachers will agree that the preoccupations of the first half of life won’t get you into the big picture, which Jesus calls the kin-dom of God.

You can recognize a second half of life person by a kind of inner outpouring, a kind of inner generativity. They’re not guarded. They’re not overly self-protected. They’re looking for ways to give themselves away, because they’re now living out of their abundance, and they find that it’s an overflowing wealth.

Rohr gives the example of Maya Angelou. When she talks, you yourself feel grounded because she is. You want to be compassionate because you can feel the compassion in her very voice. You want to have soft eyes, because you see her soft eyes. It almost comes through non-verbally, and you especially see her concern about others. So, second half of life people are generative people. They’re people who’ve learned to pay back.

They know they’ve been given to abundantly so now they say, “Okay, I’ve got enough. In fact, I’ve been given more than enough, and the only thing that makes sense is to give away this generous grace that has been handed to me when so many people in this world have never experienced it.” So in the second half of life, there’s an increased empathy and universal caring.

Doesn’t this sound like Tabitha and the many who have gone before us, who poured out love and grace into our lives and the lives of others? I believe we all aspire to live meaningful and purposeful lives. That’s why you’re here today.

But often, most of us are sleepwalking through life, and just responding to all the demands that life throws at us – work, family, ministry, relationships, etc. Sometimes we need a jolt to remind us that there is a bigger picture.

Question 4 (Open)
Imagine you almost died tomorrow and were given a second chance at life. How would you live differently? What would you do differently?

 Through Thomas, we learn that doubt can be an important step towards faith and growth. But it doesn’t just stop there.

 Through Paul, we learn that we need to stop depending on our superficial sight and gain true sight – hindsight, foresight and insight – through setting aside time to reflect.

 This week as we look at Tabitha’s story, we learn what it means to not limit God. God is about including everyone, not just those within your tribe. God is about breaking the barriers and limits to what we consider possible. Even death does not have the last say.

For each of us, the challenge is to let God break down the barriers and limits of what you think is possible and invite you into new life – the second half of life.

Some of you may know Rachel Held Evans who passed away in 2019 at the age of 37. She was an influential writer and a significant figure in contemporary Christianity. Raised in an evangelical household, she spent much of her adult life challenging the evangelical church and the harmful role that conservative American culture plays in Christianity.

In her books and talks, she called for an intersectional approach to Christianity that embraced people of color, LGBTQ people, and women in all roles in the church. She fiercely insisted that God’s love included everyone, and she attempted to offer those who’d been shunned by the church a way to return.

Like other progressive millennial Christian leaders, Rachel Held Evans believed that Jesus’ life and teachings embodied a radically inclusive love.

In many ways, I consider her the modern-day Tabitha or Dorcas. Although she wasn’t raised back to physical life, like Tabitha, her writing and all she did during her short life continues to live on, and breathe new life into people and communities.

She wrote a reflection on resurrection that is especially poignant during this time.

“I am reminded of the one thing all we Christians have in common, whether we’re Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Anabaptist, Quaker, or something in between: We are Resurrection people.

Our God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if we want in on God’s business, we better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world—including those in our own hearts— because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens.

There’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.

Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain functions of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed. Both seem pretty unlikely to me.

This never-ending winter has felt like one long Easter Saturday.
But Sunday’s coming….I can feel it.”
Rachel Held Evans

Her words remain and continue to move many hearts. We are Resurrection people, brought into wholeness in Christ. Let us embrace ourselves — our gifts, our challenges, our fallings fully. With God’s grace and love, let us embrace our call and purpose.

There is so much death in our world around us. Pandemic, illness, war. The deadly effects of climate change. Poverty, racism, all kinds of hate.

There is so much death, that we often feel helpless.

But in such times, we can find hope as we remember Tabitha, who breathed new life into the dead spaces of her community of widows. And her love carried on because God through Peter, breathed new life into her.

God is also breathing new life into you and me. God is inviting you to rise up and enter the second half of life filled with purpose, hope and the willingness to give life to others.

So, let us choose to rise up, move forward, and join those who have gone before us in breathing new life into the places of death around us.

This is what it means for us to live as resurrection people. This is how we proclaim that Christ is risen, indeed.

Easter reveals to us that death is not the end of the story. Death does not have the final say.

In his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and breathes forth new life.
So may we rise up and join him, Tabitha and many others in this life-giving work.