May 8, 2022
Our second reading today comes from Acts and is the story of the raising of Tabitha from the dead. I think for us today… the question I want you to have in your mind while we read this story… is how does this story give witness to resurrection? Listen as God continues to speak to you today.
As I read this little story again this week I kept wondering “why”… why does Peter raise Tabitha from dead. No one asks him to do this. There’s nothing in the story that directly says this is the reason… the expectation that the disciples in Joppa have in bringing Peter over from the neighboring town of Lydda… no one expresses a hope that Peter will perform such an amazing miracle. And there’s no clue in the story if Peter had this in mind either… if he himself even believes he is capable of doing this one thing that he had been a witness to Jesus doing.
Since Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, let’s look back at Luke’s gospel and see who Jesus raises from the dead… and what we might find there to help us understand this story better.
First… in chapter seven, Jesus raises the widow’s son at Nain. Jesus and his disciples come into this town called Nain and there is a funeral procession happening. The dead man… no one is given a name in the story… the dead man is the only son of a widow. And a son-less, husband-less woman at that time and place… that woman… as we know by now… is also as good as dead. Social convention and rules concerning what women could and could not do stripped her of any autonomy she might have over herself. We know this… and we know how damaging this was to women at the time… to have these special social rules and taboos based solely on their gender… taking away autonomy and independence from women did not… does not… make societies better for either the men or the women of that society. But we can’t seem to learn that lesson. The high virtue to care for widows in their need… is a necessity because of the problem created… a virtue had to be created to counteract a social convention that harmed the women of the time. And even then, while the virtue may have soothed the conscience of some… it didn’t fix the problems that were created. It’s not that these rules and laws left women with no choices… just bad choices. That’s the heavy tension that naturally follows this funeral procession of a widow’s only son… and everyone knows it.
In that story… compassion is the key. Jesus is moved by compassion… not for the dead man… but for his widowed mother. He brings the man back to life so that he can care for his mother.
The second story of bringing someone back from the dead is again centered around a child who has died… Jairus’ daughter. Jairus is a leader in the local synagogue, and he comes to Jesus in the hopes that Jesus will heal his dying twelve-year-old daughter. It is a desperate act of parental love. As you may remember, the girl dies before Jesus can get to the house. But instead of stopping and expressing his condolences and moving on then to the next town, Jesus still goes into Jairus’ home… and with her mother and father… and few disciples in the room brings the girl back to life and gives her back to them. While the word “compassion” isn’t used explicitly, it’s not too far from perhaps explaining Jesus actions and gives us a why we can hold onto. How can anyone not be moved by compassion for the parents at the death of a child?
In both situations… the widow’s son and Jairus’ daughter… love infuses the story… a deep love that is known and experienced by parents and children. Maybe we do a bit of a disservice to a mother’s love by having to talk about what the death of the son of the widow at Nain will mean to her socially… because it obscures the heartache of a mother losing a child... but that deep love is there in both of these stories… and it is very easy to understand Jesus’ actions… actions we would likely find ourselves taking as well should we somehow have that same power to bring a dead body back to life.
Let’s pause here for a minute and pick up the question of resurrection on our way back to Tabitha’s story. Technically… by definition… neither the widow’s son nor Jairus’ daughter were resurrected. Resurrection is not the bringing of biological life to a dead body. Peter’s raising of Tabitha from the dead is also… technically… not resurrection. But there is a quality of resurrection that runs through all these stories. And yes… that quality is found in the love that is in all these stories… and how that love moves us away from death. Not physical bodily death, per se, but the death that comes with sin.
Again… the widow may be the easiest way for us to see this because she was being given over to death. Had Jesus not come along… her life would have become one of suffering. People would be filled with pity, but the rules would harden their hearts… would fill their ears with reasons why it wasn’t their problem… justify her situation as “that’s just how it is”… and I don’t think we’d be surprised if some in Nain would heap the blame upon her… that it wasn’t somehow her fault she found herself this way.
Love, though… in the form of compassion was enough of a spark of resurrection life and the way of the kingdom… love showed that all she was about to suffer… needn’t be. Sin makes it so. Our sin makes it so. Resurrection takes away the sin that leads to death. Resurrection has a quality of the love that brings the life God gives.
Once Jairus’ daughter dies everyone gives up. They tell Jairus not to trouble Jesus any longer. They weep and wail and then laugh when Jesus tells them the girl is sleeping… not the people outside… but the people in the room with Jesus… Jairus and his wife… maybe even Peter, John and James as well. The story just says “they laughed” and isn’t specific about who “they” are. Death has the final word and they laugh derisively at being told otherwise. Death cannot be conquered. It’s pointless to look beyond… it’s pointless to believe that there can be a world that isn’t centered on death.
Resurrection recenters the world on the life that God gives.
After the sermon today we will read the first Mothers’ Day Proclamation… and I wanted to include that in today’s service because far from being a proclamation grounded in sentimentality or some commercialized version of love… here is a proclamation grounded in the deep love of motherhood… a proclamation that looks seriously beyond death and finds the courage to say that we’re done… we’re done giving birth and raising our children to become canon fodder for whatever new violent conflict the sins of the world can next create. We’re done with war and we demand peace everywhere! Five years after the Civil War… a mother finally stood up and said, “No more”… no more will our sons… our sons whom we do all we can to fill with the life that God gives… no more will we allow you to use them for your useless carnage. Peace now! Do we dare to laugh at a mother calling for peace… and say that it is pointless to believe that there can be a world that isn’t centered on death?
So… Tabitha… I’ve always imagined Tabitha as a small, simple woman. I don’t imagine her to be great in the ways that the world would celebrate and hold up. But… Tabitha is filled with resurrection love. She lives for the life God gives, doesn’t she? She is described as devoted to good works and acts of charity. The life from God flows from her and into her community. I suspect that when she dies, and the community hears that Peter is nearby… it’s not that they expect Peter to do anything… because even to expect that he would come and give a much-deserved miraculous reward to Tabitha… that seems to undercut everything Tabitha is. I suspect that they go get Peter as a way to honor Tabitha… to celebrate her discipleship… to give glory to God for the faith given.
Now… I can’t help but notice how Peter encounters no husband… no son… no male relative of Tabitha’s. Filled with resurrection love, Tabitha seems to be free in her life from the social constraints that put the widow at Nain in such jeopardy. Imagine that… how being defined by the love God gives somehow makes pointless the so-called social protections that would have surrounded Tabitha. I know others often cast her as one of the widows that surround Peter… showing him the tunics and other clothing Tabitha had made… maybe for them… maybe telling Peter how she had worked so tirelessly for them… the widows… and how by living her faith to its fullest resurrection potential… she had brought life out of what would have certainly been a living death for them all. But like so much in scripture… there is nothing here that directly says Tabitha was a widow herself. That’s one of those assumptions about her that has stuck. On our window here in our sanctuary, we don’t show her as a widow… we do not define her through a man in any way. She appears as a strong woman of faith… period. She led by living her faith. Her family is made up of her fellow disciples. What did Jesus say when he was told his family had come to see him? Whoever does the will of God is my family. That seems to be the situation in Joppa.
Tabitha is the only person Peter brings back to life. No one asks him to. But there in prayer in the room with her dead body… having been shown all the ways resurrection life was already at work in her and through her… the life God had given to her in faith… spreading out from her and lifting up this family of disciples to a greater dedication… to a more servant centered devotion… well… I can easily imagine the effect this has on Peter… his heart opening more… the possibilities of resurrection life filling his own spirit… maybe even a guilty flashback to when he laughed at Jesus saying how the girl wasn’t dead, she was just sleeping… maybe another piece of his resistance to the life God brings falling away… and what is left… what is left but to give physical life to this body… so that this body of Tabitha’s can rejoin the resurrection life that infused this faithful community… to continue to love as Christ loves… through good works and acts of charity. Technically… no, Tabitha… in having biological life fill her dead body… was not resurrected in that moment… but in being raised from the dead she rejoined in the resurrection life that was already happening in her and around her.
One last observation before we hit the “amen”. A quick observation about Peter and the last verse of this story. So much is made about Peter and his staying with Simon, the tanner. By the rules and doctrines of his religion, Simon the tanner would have been considered unclean and Peter should have stayed away from him. Judged him as sinful and created separation. But… and perhaps it was his encounter with resurrection love through Tabitha… Peter begins to let go of the rules and doctrines of his religion that violate the Law of love as it had been revealed to him in Jesus and his resurrection. Peter stays with Simon for some time. And in the very next set of stories, Peter goes among the Gentiles for the first time… baptizing and welcoming them into this family of disciples. The death of sin divided. Resurrection brought new life out of death… abandoned division and endless conflict for a unity of peace. Amen.